Growing up in a small, rural Alabama town, Bruce Long ’01 (Communication & the Arts) knew early on that he was called to ministry. But what that meant to him at the time was a narrow list of career paths: church pastor, minister of music or youth pastor.
“We didn’t even have a theater program in our high school,” Long says. “The closest I ever came to the stage growing up was at church.”
It wasn’t until he dodged an eraser during a theological debate in college that he realized there had to be more ways to reach people.
“I’ve always been into stand-up comedy,” Long says. “When Sinbad or Seinfeld were talking, I was learning something, but I wouldn’t have said I was being preached to; I was being entertained.”
Long decided then to channel the power of entertainment and his passion for ministry into theater.
“If we can tell really good stories, we can teach things,” he explains. “It doesn’t have to be overt. I think the human mind is more than capable of applying a good story to modern life without it becoming propaganda or preachy.”
Long’s list of Broadway shows he’s been involved in reflects this outlook on a career path that many wouldn’t associate with ministry.
In 2013, his first Broadway project, Hands on a Hardbody, hit the stage. A redemptive story about five hard-luck Texans gunning to win a truck and their ticket to freedom, the show ran 28 performances before closing.
Though it was a disappointing outcome for Long, he recognizes that sometimes the lessons of failure are more valuable than the thrill of success.
“I learned a lot watching that process unfold,” Long says. “I wish I’d been more vocal at the time, but I’ve since observed how to read lead producers and offer input.”
Today, he’s applying that knowledge to Memphis, the hit musical about the emergence of soul music in the 1950s, as it makes its West End debut in London.
“Memphis is this beautiful story that the Church can really embrace, so I’ve been very vocal about making sure we’re talking to the Christian community in London,” Long says.
He recently helped get a stage adaptation of the classic novel Of Mice and Men to Broadway with James Franco and Chris O’Dowd. Now, he’s helping another piece of classic literature find its Broadway home. Doctor Zhivago, an epic romance set in the final days of Czarist Russia, will make its New York debut at the Broadway Theatre in April.
He also signed on as co-producer of Tuck Everlasting, a novel adaptation about living forever, which opened in January in Atlanta. The goal is that the show will transfer to Broadway this fall. Long says it’s the perfect show for Christian audiences to support. In development, Long is working on a project called I Dream, a new rhythm-and-blues opera about the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. The list may seem extensive, but Long and his wife Michelle ’99 (Communication & the Arts) have rooted themselves in the Broadway community for a purpose and with the long game in mind.
“I’ve worked in many kinds of theater both in and out of church, but where I really want to move and breathe is in the commercial theatre industry,” Long says. “It gives a greater opportunity to affect what products are on the stage.
“These projects, I believe, communicate some aspect of the gospel — often in a parable form — or that somehow engage the Scripture, that demonstrate positive, redemptive story lines. I have a chance to get behind those and support them. By extension then, we affect what happens throughout the rest of the world.”
As a member of the Broadway League, the national trade association for the industry, Long is already brushing elbows with some of the “Great White Way’s” most notable producers, theatre owners and managers in New York. He’s worked with Tony®, Academy Award® and Golden Globe® winners, but just three years into his Broadway career, Long says he’s got room to grow and is ready to start taking on more leadership roles in the projects he endorses.
The most distinctive project on Long’s list is By Grace, an original musical by his wife, Michelle Hoppe-Long, which depicts the life of Grace Kelly and her transition from Hollywood royalty to Monacan royalty.
“Every producer has their passion project that they’re leading the charge on, and they team up on other projects so that all their eggs aren’t in the same basket,” Long explains. “By Grace is that passion project that I’m driving and trying to get others on board.”
Long has been shepherding the move to production for By Grace since 2010.
“For commercial theater, the gestation period for a new musical coming to life, even ones with high name-brand recognition, is years,” Long explains. “It takes so long to get a musical up on the stage. Five years, seven years, even 10 years is not uncommon.”
By Grace, among many of the other projects Long has his hands in, highlights the flexibility of theater in the 21st century. It’s currently being developed in three states on the East Coast: its writer in North Carolina, its composer in Virginia, and its music supervisor in New York. It’s this same flexibility granted by technology that has allowed Long to produce projects on Broadway and the West End in London at the same time.
“There are so many ways to communicate now. What’s the difference in working across town, working in New York or L.A. or working in London? Technology has made it really easy to communicate across multiple time zones, and theater is theater, regardless of where you are,” Long says. “We’re all working toward the common goal of getting a story and a project right so that when it’s ready to go on stage, it’s able to succeed.”
That success, Long clarifies, means ticket sales. “It’s not as romantic as we sometimes want to make it out to be,” he admits. “Yes, you want to tell a great story. You want to add to the lexicon of the American musical, but none of that can really happen if you don’t sell tickets.”
This is where choosing the right projects—and marketing to the right audience—means everything. “You’ve got to put something up that people really want to see and tell their friends about and will get people in the door, because if we don’t sell tickets, the show goes away,” Long explains. “That, in turn, impacts your future. It’s got to be self-perpetuating.”
If choosing the right project that will make thousands of people laugh and cry every week for months or years seems like an almost impossible challenge, that’s because it is. But for Long and all successful Broadway producers, it’s just the kind of challenge they love. Tenacity, he says, is the single-most important attribute for any theater producer.
“There are plenty of times where it would be easier to walk away,” Long confesses. “The money isn’t coming together, the marketing doesn’t seem to be working, the creative team can’t get anybody’s attention. There are all these variables that can and will go wrong, and you’ve got to be able to fight through those challenges and not give up on the project or on yourself.”
What keeps Long going is more than the hope of box office success, the thrill of live performance, or even the joy of the creative process. For him, it’s the knowledge that he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be.
“The only thing I’m completely confident about is that God has called me and Michelle, together and as individuals, to work and minister in the theater industry,” he says.
“Entertainment — whether we’re talking about film, television or theater — is an industry that Christians have neglected, or have felt more comfortable moving into alternative programming,” Long expresses. “We prefer to watch only Christian film or read Christian books, and by doing so, we’ve withdrawn ourselves from the cultural conversation and have removed ourselves from the table.”
Long’s laser-like focus builds a bridge between the Broadway community and the Church. He tells the story of sitting in a production meeting the day after Hands on a Hardbody took its opening night bow. It was already clear that the show wasn’t performing in the box office as the team hoped it would.
“Everybody’s throwing out ideas, and I raised my hand and asked, what are we doing to reach out to the Christian, conservative demographic that’s so blatantly represented in our story?” Long recalls. No one responded. “It was then I realized that there wasn’t an antagonistic relationship between mainstream entertainment and Christianity—there is no relationship at all.”
Long believes that, as much as his work in mainstream theater is a ministry to those he works with, it is also his job to create a dialogue between an industry that doesn’t have a strong Christian presence and a Church that doesn’t have a thriving interest in the arts.
“There was a time where the Church was the source for great art,” Long says. “We need to have another Renaissance where Christians get involved to create and to support. We need Christians who will sit down at a computer and write a brilliant story. We need Christians who will write checks to the Christians writing the brilliant stories.”
Part of this passion for the Church’s contribution to mainstream art was ignited while he pursued his master’s degree in acting and directing at Regent.
“What differentiates Regent from other Christian universities is that missional mindset toward commercial mainstream media,” he says. “None of the professors I worked with at Regent ever insinuated that we should be moving into Christian art.
“Their mentality was, if you’re going to be in this industry, we want to train you to be the best at what you do so that you can rise to leadership and affect change where you are.”
That’s Christian Leadership to Change the World, and it’s also Long’s point in noting the gap in mainstream media he believes Christians are uniquely equipped to fill.
“We are a capable Body who serves the Creator and can produce people who tell beautiful stories that have mass appeal,” Long says.
As he serves the industry he’s dedicated his life and ministry to, Long walks out this belief daily. “My goal is to be responsive and obedient to God so that I can be in a position to have a seat at that table,” he says. “I want to be there to influence what’s going up on the stage not only in New York, but around the world.”