Jounrey to (the Other) Bethlehem

Cortney Virrilli ’06 played Jaradah in Aliya, an original musical by Emily Ralph ’04.

Photo: Christmas City Studios

The idea for Aliya, a musical about the wives of the Three Wise Men, came to Emily Ralph ’04, an Honors student in music, when she was a teen-ager in charge of a church youth group.

Wait a minute. The wives of the Three Wise Men? Emily believes they are as real as their husbands but have been ignored, unaccountably, by biblical scholars.

When Emily was in her teens, her father, James Ralph, was pastor of a Mennonite church in Berwyn, near Philadelphia. “It was a small church with about 40 people and a dozen children,” Emily says. “There were only a couple of guys, who were not all that much into plays and acting. My sister and I were brainstorming about Christmas plays, and we decided we didn’t want to dress up as men that year.”

That was when she thought about the Three Wise Ladies. She never finished the script; it went into a drawer with other writings. “But the idea never left me,” she says.

Thinking about Honors projects, she was inspired to go back to that script and expand it into a full-length stage work. And she decided to write it as a musical.

But an Honors project must be more than creative writing; it requires scholarship.

So Emily learned about the Magi and the cultures they represented. She discovered that magus, the word for magician, might also be an astronomer who could read the stars, a priest, a royal advisor, or, in one usage, a spice trader, who would understand medicines and remedies.

Her Wise Men, therefore, are more than kings. By tradition, the Magi have come to represent the peoples whose cultures cross in the Middle East. Though Balthasar is often portrayed as African, Emily took some liberties and made him an astronomer and counselor to the Zoroastrian priesthood of Persia, Melchior a Babylonian ambassador and advisor to the king, and Gaspar an Arabian spice trader.

The title, like the characters, is multilingual and multicultural. To Jews, the aliyah is a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, much like the Muslim hajj to Mecca. Alea is a Persian name meaning “God’s being.” Emily combined them to signify the spiritual journey of the women as they search for God.

She also investigated Middle Eastern melodies, colors, and instruments. Working with her advisor, composer-in-residence Larry Lipkis, she finished the score by November. In her orchestra, an oboe and an English horn play the sinuous Arabic melodies; a lute and a Celtic harp fill in the harmonies with a shimmer. There’s also an array of exotic percussion such as an African marimba, crotales, wind chimes, and a native drum that Emily bought at Ten Thousand Villages.

She gave each character a musical mask: for example, Jaradah, an Arabian qaynah (courtesan) sings in Arabic modes and scales still used today.

The production drew on the skill of Bill Bauman ’74, administrative assistant to the Moravian College Music Institute, who transformed remnants into Arabian Nights fantasy costumes.

Now that it has been performed and Emily has passed her Honors defense, “I’d like to write a novel based on the play,” she says.

“This is something that’s been in my heart, in my mind, for so long,” she continues. Her greatest joy has been “to be able to share it with other people who feel the emotions that you want them to feel . . . to see them catch the vision and pour themselves into it so the story is their creation.”