Today's stage abounds with religious themes
New York — Theater began in the church and has never quite left it. Even in a secular age, playmakers keep coming back to deal with sacred subjects. Several current or recent Broadway and Off Broadway attractions illustrate some of the ways in which the stage arts are applied to religious themes and matters of faith.
These offerings have ranged from ''Mass Appeal'' and ''Agnes of God'' to ''Candida,'' and from ''Cotton Patch Gospel'' to ''Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.'' On the other hand, ''Ghosts'' and ''Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You'' deal scornfully with religionists. Though writing a century apart, Henrik Ibsen and Christopher Durang share a common contempt for clerical cant and convention.
At times, theater converts a familiar form of worship to its own entertainment needs. So it is with ''Your Arms Too Short to Box With God,'' Vinnette Carroll's beatitude for the Broadway Bible belt.
Starring the charismatic duo of Patti LaBelle and Al Green, this jubilant gospel musical makes its third Broadway appearance in a somewhat new version. But the original format remains. It adapts the book of Matthew as the first half of a show that is part passion play, part vernacular oratorio, and above all a celebration of Christian themes.
Miss Carroll's jubilee is a shining example of scripturally inspired song, dance, and action. With music and lyrics mostly by Alex Bradford and Micki Grant , ''Your Arms Too Short'' mingles old-time religion and uninhibited showmanship. The Tally Beatty choreography, restaged by Ralf Paul Haze (the Judas of this production), is performed with dazzling and sometimes breathtaking effect. The grave solemnity and emergent serenity of Elijah Gill's silent Jesus provide an eloquent stillness in contrast with the surrounding agitation.
''Your Arms Too Short'' has an interesting history. Originally commissioned by the Italian government for the 1975 Spoleto Festival, it proved a smash hit with Italian audiences. After returning to its Urban Arts Corps base in New York , the show then ran for five months at Ford's Theater in Washington, became a Broadway success in 1976, and was briefly revived in 1980. Miss LaBelle toured for nine months as the star of the latest production. Mr. Green joined the cast in time for last week's opening at the Alvin Theater.
Revamping the material to accommodate its two stars has meant gains and losses. The gains derive from the contributions of Miss LaBelle, a glittery former prima donna of the pop and disco worlds, and Mr. Green, a phenomenal soul singer turned gospel minister. While they are featured throughout, Mr. Green's trio of revivalist blockbusters and Miss LaBelle's ''I Love You So Much Jesus'' - both performed in the second-act gospel concert - electrify the atmosphere with their highly charged vocalism.
On the other hand, the very presence of these two superstars has altered, somewhat to its disadvantage, the show's original quality. Simplicity and an affecting naivete have to a degree been sacrificed in the interests of bravura display. And so has the more balanced ensemble of earlier castings.
If the ebullient Mr. Green tends to convert the Alvin into an impromptu revival meeting, the explanation is simple. Six years ago, the legendary soul singer of the 1970s gave up his commercial career to found the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Memphis, of which he is pastor. When the exultant ''Yeahs!'' of response from a mostly black first-night audience didn't quite meet Pastor Green's standards, he chided jokingly: ''Just because you're on Broadway don't mean you can get stuck up.''
Without doubt, ''Your Arms Too Short'' represents the most exuberant expression of religious fervor on the Broadway scene at the moment. But it is not the only reflection of faith at work in the theater. In the course of last season's televised Antoinette Perry (Tony) Awards ceremonies, four winners created some surprise by including expressions of gratitude to God in their acceptance speeches. They were Ben Harney, Cleavant Derricks, and Jennifer Holliday, from the cast of ''Dreamgirls,'' and Michel Stuart, a coproducer of ''Nine.''
A student of the Scriptures, and a member of Faith Tabernacle in Brooklyn, Mr. Harney leads a group of theater people in religious devotions on Wednesdays between the matinee and evening performances in a lounge at the Imperial Theater. His acknowledgement of God was not confined to the Tony telecast. His biographical note in the ''Dreamgirls'' Playbill concludes: ''Mr. Harney is a Christian with a beautiful and devoted family. He says that all he is and has is due to the grace of God.'' In similar vein, the Playbill note on Shelly Burch, the Claudia of ''Nine,'' records: ''Shelly believes strongly in God and herself in that order.''
According to a recent article in the New York Times, the gratitude to God expressed on the occasion of the 1982 Tony Awards signifies ''a far more pervasive interest in spirituality among actors, producers, and directors on Broadway and throughout the theater. Though the interest is, for the most part, highly personal and unorganized, those in the business say it is there and becoming more complex all the time.'' Mr. Derricks told Times reporter Kenneth A. Briggs that thanking God on television ''stimulated the greatest flow of comment he ever received, half of it from professional colleagues, and most of it very positive.''
The passing success of a gospel musical, a handful of stage works dealing in one way or another with the Almighty, and occasional tributes to Him in Playbill or on TV don't constitute a religious movement. But they may reflect a genuine - and long prevalent - spiritual awareness among many theater people. As Mr. Green and company proclaim it: ''Everybody Has His Own Way.''