Pioneering songwriter focus of latest Stained Glass Theatre play

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Kevin McClintock, The Joplin Globe, Mo.
·3 min read
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Apr. 16—It would be easy to label "Songs in the Night" as a musical. and in some ways the latest production from Joplin's Stained Glass Theatre certainly offers up some much-loved church hymns that will be hummed and foot-tapped by members of the viewing audience.

Yet this drama is actually both a love letter and celebration to the woman who penned those hymns — Fanny Crosby. Though diagnosed legally blind at 6 weeks of age, she grew up to become known worldwide as both the "Queen of Gospel Songwriters" and "Mother of modern congregational singing in America."

"I'm a music person; I love the hymns that are part of this show," said Jill Spencer, the play's director. However, the show deservedly focuses on Crosby's remarkable life. "She lived such an inspirational life. To think about everything that she had to overcome ... it's just incredible how she wrote so many hymns, and she didn't let her (disability) slow her down."

Crosby, who was a household name when she died at the age of 94 in 1915, was a prolific hymnist, writing more than 8,000 hymns and gospel songs. In fact, more than 100 million copies of her songs were still in print in 2021. Some of Crosby's best-known songs include "Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior," "Praise Him, Praise Him," "Blessed Assurance," "Jesus is Tenderly Calling You Home," "Rescue the Perishing" and "To God Be the Glory."

In fact, Crosby later said her disability wasn't one at all: "If perfect earthly sight were offered me tomorrow," she once wrote, "I would not accept it. I might not have sung hymns to the praise of God if I had been distracted by the beautiful and interesting things about me."

Spencer can certainly sympathize with that. She was diagnosed 25 years ago with multiple sclerosis, an autoimmune disease that consistently puts her immune system at risk.

Each day, she has to take special precautions to ensure she's not exposed to various viruses — even as the common cold or seasonal flu, both of which can trigger her disease in horrific ways. Symptoms can include "me losing the use of my legs, which halts life in a drastic way."

Like Crosby's achievements despite her blindness, Spencer teaches musical theory classes for Ozark Christian College and piano lessons for Palen Music Center students.

"That's how I look at my life with MS, I want to keep going and keep being an influence" like Crosby had been more than a century ago.

Spencer also acted in "Songs in the Night" when a Jefferson City-based theater — also called Stained Glass Theater — put it on years ago.

"I've always loved it," she said of "Songs in the Night." "It's such a powerful story. and I've always wanted to do it again, either directing or being in it. The opportunity came up because we needed to get some shows going again after being off for so long, so I thought this was a great opportunity to throw the idea out to do the show."

Written by Springfield-based playwright Joseph Ransom, the play offers a huge cast, including a dozen children actors.

"Two of my passions in life are music and kids, so this is a combination of the two," she said with a chuckle. "The biggest thing I want them to experience is the joy that music can bring to their lives."

The cast includes McKenna Drumm and Mary McWethy as both young and old Fanny, Paul Williams, Grace Dalrymple, Daniel Wilcox, Bobby Jo Wade, Nathanael Bond, Chip Spencer, Jared Jonston, Diann Mazurek, Ric Stiegman, Caleb Hilsenbeck, Sid Davis, Jo Ellen Davis, Deb Roy, David Cheek, Jordan LePage, Nick Wade, Mike Pennington, Audrey Hoggatt, Darlene Drury, Maddie Dayton, Halia Stites and a children's chorus composed of Isaiah, Macarrie and Makinley Bean, Alyson Gonzalez, Kendra Klein, Jazzlynn O'Hanlon, Abigail White, Chloe and Karissa Huggins and Tabitha and Tobias Zimmerman.