A Nun, a Pope, two World Wars, and a re-imagined platonic love story plays out in Barre

Richard Duckett
Telegram & Gazette

In "Lapopessa the Musical" written by Paul N. Dion and Allen M. Dion of Barre, history is given a "semi-biographical re-imagining."

Audiences will be given a compelling story.
Sister Pascalina was a German nun who became housekeeper and secretary to the Italian Archbishop Eugenio Pacelli after he was appointed Apostolic Nuncio to Bavaria in 1917. She stayed with him in those roles for more than 40 years, including when he became Pope Pius II from 1939 until his death in 1958. Some people in the Vatican and elsewhere gave her the nickname, not meant as flattering, of "Lapopessa," which means female pope in Italian.
Allen Dion hopes audiences will see his "Lapopessa" as "a platonic love story. I think they'll find it extremely touching because it's a very intense love story that progresses over 40 years," he said of the relationship between Sister Pascalina and Pope Pius XII.
A concert performance of "Lapopessa" will debut at Barre Town Hall for six shows Sept. 16 to 25. A concert performance means the cast members will be singing their roles, but the musical won't be fully staged.

However, Paul and Allen Dion have high hopes for "Lapopessa," which is the married couple's first theatrical production together. A full-production workshop version of the musical is being planned. And Paul and Allen have set their sights even further, ultimately on bringing "Lapopessa" to Broadway.

"We're trying to get to Broadway one day. We're extremely serious about it," Allen Dion said.

The formal credits for "Lapopessa" are conceived by Allen M. Dion; musical director and arrangements by Paul N. Dion; book, music and lyrics by Paul N. Dion and Allen M. Dion.
The concert performance at Barre Town Hall will be directed by John Leslie, a veteran of musicals ranging from local to national.
Allen Dion said that after he first came across the story of Sister Pascalina, he was intrigued enough to do some research including doing interviews.
"She's been called the strongest woman in the history of the Vatican," Allen noted. And yet not a lot has been written about her, notwithstanding her own autobiography, which while non-controversial was suppressed from publication by church authorities for over 20 years.
From his time as an archbishop in Bavaria during World War I, where he had hoped the war could come to an earlier end, Pope Pius XII was a figure at the center of world-changing events. Back in Italy he saw the rise of fascism both at home and nearby. He has been called "the Silent Pope" in relation to his stance with Hitler and Mussolini during World War II. However, it has been argued that Pius' silence was calculated to prevent German retaliation and ensure the continued success of the Catholic Church's behind-the-scenes efforts to aid victims of Nazi persecution. His actions, in no small measure strongly influenced by Sister Pascalina, are seen as responsible for saving the lives of thousands of Jews through various means, including by providing refuge within the Vatican, Allen said.
Among other duties, Sister Pascalina ran the pope's charity office. She often functioned much like a pope and made significant decisions affecting church policy and world politics, Allen said.

Amid these tumultuous events, in "Lapopessa" they were lovers in the platonic sense.

The song "Innocence of Our Love" has Pope Pius XII singing, "My soul knows that it loves you./Although my head says no, that can't be./Your eyes, they show me something./Is it plain for all to see?/I've had your loyal friendship throughout these many years./You've been my friend until the end./I contend that your plan was to guide/And remind me of my calling and my mission./My friend."

"We're taking a great deal of creative license to tell the story that we wanted to tell about their relationship," Allen said.  
"You almost feel, had times been different, circumstances different, they would almost have certainly consummated their relationship," he said. But they had both already given their lives to the church, he noted, and took their vows seriously.
Along with her feelings, Sister Pascalina saw a way of saving people through her relationship with Pope Pius XII.
"At first I wrote it for entertainment value," Allen said. "But I also I think she (Sister Pascalina) was one of the greatest women of her time."
People saw a potential greatness in Eugenio Pacelli when he was younger, but "he was kind of like the classic mother's boy," he said.
Sister Pascalina was intrigued by Pacelli and saw in him a path to realize shared goals. She dedicated her life to ensuring their position on the world political stage by tirelessly supporting and promoting him to become the pope. "She stands up for him each time, and she fights his battles," Allen said.

During Sister Pascalina's 20 years in the Vatican, she had to endure much criticism and the mockery of the title "Lapopessa." Allen said the title was "given to her by the powerful, disapproving and misogynist male hierarchy of the Vatican." 
However, Sister Pascalina and Pope Pius XII "worked together as a team. She was a woman practically leading an entire male hierarchy."

Allen Dion started working on the show over 30 years ago.
"Twenty years ago my husband helped and spearheaded the rewriting of the story. We made the decision that this would be a sing-through musical with 40 songs, many of which were written by my husband. He's a brilliant composer. We share the credits, but Paul spearheaded the re-writing of the show."

He said there is also a good deal of humor in the musical. While a character such as Mussolini has a very grim side, he is portrayed "as funny in some sense." The American Cardinal Spellman is shown as having an untoward fondness for power and sings the song "Million Dollar Deal."

The Dions' daughter, Sarah McMaster, helped as the musical went through different workshops. For the concert version, some songs were cut and there will be a narrator between songs. The fully staged production will have all the songs and remain sung-through.
"That was one of the different suggestions that came out of there," Allen said of the workshops. McMaster also wanted Sister Pascalina to seem more modern.

"In the end, 'Lapopessa' celebrates the courage of following one's call and living a vibrant, meaningful life," Allen said.
When Pope Pius XII died, Sister Pascalina was "kicked out of the Vatican."
But all along, "she had a very deep love" of Pope Pius XII and no regrets about what she had done, Dion said.
The musical has her singing at the end "Proud to Stand Behind the Man." 
Sister Pascalina died in 1983 at the age of 89.

Paul and Allen Dion own and operate Innovative Incentives Inc., which designs corporate incentive travel awards.
Allen Dion has previously written a musical, titled "Housekeepers," which was produced Off-Broadway.  The true story concerns the attempted opening of the first group home in New York for abused and abandoned children as a way to move them from institutional care into a community home setting. The musical was based on interviews and centered around the community resistance. While he was in New York City, Dion was also mentored by the late Broadway legend Hal Prince, he said.

So, when it comes to Broadway, the "Lapopessa" team isn't operating totally on a wing and a prayer.
John Leslie saw an audition notice for "Lapopessa" and originally wanted to be in the cast.
"I was going to direct it but I asked John, 'would you ever consider directing the concert?' and he said, 'I'd love to direct your show,'" Allen said.
"I think that this musical presents an intriguing story from our global recent history," Leslie said.
"I appreciate being exposed to a part of our world history that was never taught in schools, and not widely known. Mostly, I like that the story is a 'love story' … not as we usually associate with the term, which would be a story of romance. More, it is the story of what some would call 'platonic' love, or in many churches, it would be considered 'agape' love, that is, a selfless, helpful, supportive love."
The cast includes Megan Paluzzi as Sister Pascalina and Paul Conway as Pope Pius XII, as well as Pedro Figueroa, Shaun McCoy and Elisha Musgraves.

"Music rehearsals have been going very well," Leslie said. "It is so exciting to hear local singers learn the music and bring it to life. We have some amazing singers - great voices - and half of them are new singer-actors to me … which is also very exciting!"

Asked if he thinks the musical has any chance of making it to a theater or even Broadway, Leslie said, "I think there are great possibilities for stage productions of this musical. It is very difficult to get ANY new musical on Broadway … money is the deciding factor, so if contact can be made with Broadway producers and possible 'star power' in the cast, an appearance on Broadway is certainly possible. The story and music are certainly worthy."
Leslie would like to stay involved.
"I'm excited to be a part of this current process and would be interested in staying connected to the show, either helping with direction or just singing in the ensemble," he said.
Allen Dion said he's been encouraged by the response so far from people who have heard the songs and story.
"It's a fascinating story. Every time we play them for people, people have just been fascinated. We've had incredible feedback," he said.
"It's an extraordinary love story against the backdrop of two world wars."

Concert Performance of 'Lapopessa the Musical'
When: 7 p.m. Sept. 16, 17, 23 and 24; 5 p.m. Sept. 18 and 25
Where: Barre Town Hall, 2 Exchange St., Barre
How much: $15.
The Music of Lapopessa is
Copyright © 2023 Paul N. Dion and Mango Dog Music (ASCAP)
Copyright © 2023 Allen M. Dion and Never Heard of Her Music (ASCAP)