As the cast of A Chorus Line high-kicks through Broadway’s longest-running show, the man in the Shubert Theater orchestra pit seems to be dancing. Conductor Alphonse Stephenson’s job is to make sure the horns blare when the legs flare, and he throws himself into his work with religious fervor—literally. “This is where I call on St. Teresa to get this cue right,” he says, bounding into the air as Chorus Line dancers hit the beat. “Got it!”
The next morning is Sunday, and at St. Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Point Pleasant, 90 minutes down the Jersey shore from Manhattan, Father Alphonse Stephenson is celebrating mass. For this Roman Catholic priest, faith and the arts belong together. “We’re supposed to be agents of the Creator,” he says. “When you create something, I think you’re given a little bit of insight into what God feels as He’s creating. I’m not saying that every priest has to go into the arts. I just think they’re silly if they don’t.”
Stephenson, 36, has been shuttling between St. Peter’s and the Great White Way regularly for two years. He first joined a road company of A Chorus Line in 1980, and since then has conducted more than 2,000 performances. Both his diverse flocks feel he shepherds them well. “He infuses excitement and makes us want to play,” says bass trombonist Brad McDougall, 33. “He has real spirit, unlike some other conductors who just start a song and that’s it.” Parishioners at St. Peter’s also find his Sunday afternoon masses refreshing. “Religion doesn’t have to be so depressing,” says housewife Jan Reiley, 34, who credits him with inspiring her to attend church on a regular basis again.
Stephenson views his dual role in practical as well as priestly terms. “Most clergymen see the role of priest as a profession,” he says. “I see it as a vocation. Our Lord called on fishermen who spread the Gospel but who continued to fish. How were they going to eat? This time the Lord called a musician, and I continue to make music.”
Stephenson was confused about his future in 1978 when he was teaching music at a Catholic high school in his hometown of Paterson, N.J., after having been a priest at nearby Blessed Sacrament Church. “I wasn’t being a good parish priest,” he says. “I wanted to be a musician.” He prayed to his favorite saint, St. Teresa of Lisieux, who, as the legend goes, will send you an unsolicited rose if she can help you. Shortly after that, he picked up a copy of the National Catholic Reporter and saw an ad for St. Malachy’s in Manhattan: “Priest/musician needed for Times Square church.” He immediately sent in his resume. That afternoon a friend, by chance, brought him a rose.
While carrying out his duties as assistant pastor and musical director at St. Malachy’s, Stephenson contmued his lessons at the Manhattan School of Music, studying conducting with George Schick, a former maestro at the Metropolitan Opera. Stephenson paid for the private lessons by playing professional gigs and taking on piano students. Two years later he found himself praying to St. Teresa again, which he says produced another rose and an audition with Chorus Line creator Michael Bennett, who needed a conductor for the touring company. Leaving St. Malachy’s, Stephenson spent two and a half years on the road until the touring show closed. Then in 1984, Bennett tapped him to conduct at the Shubert.
Stephenson doubted the church could accommodate someone like him when, as a boy growing up, he dreamed of being both priest and musician. The son of a retired fireman and a mother who still works at Paterson City Hall, he started playing the piano at age 7. Today he lives in his grandparents’ house, which he is remodeling. Between Sunday services and eight Broadway shows a week, he lifts weights and cooks up an occasional dinner party. He hopes to compose music of his own and, perhaps, one day conduct an opera.
Stephenson finds that few people have trouble accepting him as both priest and conductor. “I think the problem was in my own mind, people sowing doubt by saying, ‘People will never accept a priest who’s a conductor.’ Why not?” he now asks. “They accepted a Messiah who was a carpenter.”