‘Schmigadoon!’ creator and ‘This Is Us’ writer team for ‘A.D. 16’ at Olney Theatre Center

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'A.D. 16' at Olney Theatre (Part 1)

Cinco Paul created “Schmigadoon!” and Bekah Brunstetter wrote for “This Is Us.”

Together, they’ve written “A.D. 16” for Olney Theatre Center, which runs through March 6.

“This all started in Cinco’s beautiful mind,” Brunstetter told WTOP. “I had just seen his movie ‘Secret Life of Pets’ [and] worked on some plays about Jesus as a teenager for this acting school for young people in L.A., so my brain was already there. It was one of those emails that felt like divine intervention like, ‘Bekah, you need to work on this.'”

The plot follows teenage Mary Magdalene (Phoenix Best), who crushes on the carpenter’s son next door named Jesus (Ben Fankhauser). In her quest to impress him, she fends off a trio of 1st-Century Mean Girls and Beastie Boys-inspired wise guys from the Sanhedrin.

“It’s teenaged Mary Magdalene crushing on teenaged Jesus,” Paul told WTOP. “It is a fun topic to explore. It’s these missing years from Jesus’ life in the Bible. We’re simply saying what would happen if a girl had a crush on him? … It is for people who believe or people who don’t believe. We’re not out to push the envelope or take potshots at religion.”

Magdalene finds it easy to love Jesus but hard to get him to love her in that way.

“He’s not like any other kid,” Brunstetter said. “He’s not on this earth to find a girlfriend. He hasn’t found his path yet or realized his ultimate calling, but he does have a sense that there is something up with his life. … He’s like the ultimate unattainable dude — very wonderful, charming and easy to crush on because he’s kind and wise beyond his years.”

The story also corrects a longtime misconception that Magdalene was a prostitute, which they call a male-driven myth invented by a Catholic pope in the 16th century.

“She was just a disciple,” Brunstetter said. “There’s a lot of friends in the Bible who were very important people in Jesus’ life that either get misremembered, mislabeled or not talked about. … Putting a young woman at the center of a biblical story is just thrilling.”

While Brunstetter writes the book, Paul writes the musical numbers.

“I decided very early on that I wanted to pay homage to one of my favorite times in music, which is ’80s and ’90s R&B,” Paul said. “It just felt right for this show because Mary is young and also the tie to gospel music that is in R&B, so there’s lot of TLC, En Vogue, Prince, Tony! Toni! Toné!, Janet Jackson — all those sounds you’ll find in the show.”

Audiences will recognize some of the playful song references.

“There’s these three Nazarene girls who warn Mary away from Jesus with a song called ‘That Boy,’ which is very much En Vogue, very much ‘Never Gonna Get It (My Lovin’),'” Paul said. “Then there’s a fantasy sequence in which Mary imagines Jesus crooning to her and it’s very much as if he were Prince, sort of a classic R&B ballad.”

Similarly, the set design brings modern flavor to period visuals.

“You have to feel like you’re really there, but it’s very colorful and has a contemporary vibe to it,” Paul said. “The set is amazing. There’s a giant turntable that spins around. There’s all these old buildings and homes made of rock. It looks as good as it sounds.”

Audiences are lucky to have elite Hollywood talent descend upon Olney, Maryland.

“I worked on the first three seasons [of ‘This Is Us’],” Brunstetter said. “I watch every week while texting all of the other writers who are still really dear friends of mine, so I’m a fan at this point. I also just worked on ‘Maid’ on Netflix. … I also have a musical adaptation of ‘The Notebook’ with Ingrid Michaelson that’s going to be running at Chicago Shakes in the fall.”

As for Paul, he’s affected an entire generation of children with “Despicable Me.”

“The grain of the idea came from this Spanish animator named Sergio Pablos: a villain adopts three little girls, so we took that and ran with it,” Paul said. “I don’t want to take credit or blame entirely for the Minions, because the director really designed those characters, but that’s been a once-in-a-lifetime career experience to have ‘Despicable Me’ take off the way it did.”

He has since moved on from animation to live-action musicals like “Schmigadoon!” which streams on Apple TV+

“Even Apple was surprised by the response,” Paul said. “People underestimate how appealing musicals are to people, how many people love musicals and are starved for that content. … I’m hoping we get a Season 2, because I would love to make more of that show. We had such a phenomenal cast. … Everything I do from now on, I want there to be songs in it.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'A.D. 16' at Olney Theatre (Part 2)

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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