Through the mist appears Balthazar, a wise old rabbi, who greets us (“Prologue: Shalom”) from beneath a magical starry night sky and begins his narration (“Prologue: Tale of Judah Ben-Hur”) that leads us back two thousand years “on a journey to a land of mystery: Jerusalem…under Roman tyranny.” The stars evaporate, and we see a Jerusalem street at the break of dawn, coming alive with shoppers, vendors and buskers (“Dawn is Finally Breaking”). The Hur household is especially full of activity as they prepare for the return of Judah Ben-Hur’s childhood friend, Messala, now a Roman Tribune.
Upon his arrival, Messala challenges Judah to a friendly swordfight, in the midst of which he insists that Judah betray his Jewish heritage if he is to be a friend of Rome. Judah is outraged, and the swordfight becomes intensely real, ending with Judah’s sword at Messala’s neck. Judah pulls back and Messala exits in a fury. After Messala leaves, Judah tries to deal with the aftershock of losing his best friend (“How Did It Come To This?- Preprise”).
The salute of a trumpet breaks through Judah’s contemplation, and Sheik Ilderim enters with his entourage. “I come today as a simple businessman,” he tells Judah, “here to serve you by fortifying your stables with the finest Arabian horses in the world. Perhaps one for each or the beauties in your harem?” Shocked that Judah has no wives at all, the Sheik says it is just as well, since the love of women cannot compare to the love of horses (“Love of a Horse”). At this point, Judah’s chief steward, Simonides, arrives from the Hur family’s estate in Antioch, accompanied by his lovely daughter, Esther. Simonides tells Judah that he has found a husband for Esther, pending Judah’s approval, since Esther and her father are wards of the Hur family. Judah tries to conceal his disappointment as he consents to the marriage.
Early the next morning before dawn, Esther wanders the courtyard, reminiscing of her lifelong love for Judah (“I Remember You”). Judah steps out onto the balcony and watches Esther, as he reflects on his love for her. He then descends the stairs and playfully recollects the childhood game in which they vowed to marry each other. She teasingly jabs him for giving his approval to her arranged marriage. He responds by, at first playfully, and then seriously, proposing to her. Just as they are about to kiss, they hear a fanfare of Roman trumpets, and servants begin to fill the Hur courtyard.
Esther exits to begin her errands, as Judah’s little sister, Tirzah, runs out onto the balcony to watch the passing parade of soldiers. As Judah lifts Tirzah to get a better look, she accidentally knocks an urn, which falls to the street below, landing on the governor’s horse. The soldiers drag Judah and Tirzah and their mother, Miriam, out into the street, where Messala, as Tribune, charges Judah with attempted murder, denying him even a trial. Messala sentences Judah to die chained to his oars in the galleys of a Roman battleship, and he sends Miriam and Tirzah to the dungeons as accomplices. (“Is This How You Want to Play the Game?”)
Three days later, we see Judah Ben-Hur, beaten and starving, being dragged by Roman soldiers through the desert on his way to the galleys. They stop at a well, where a mysterious carpenter defies the Centurion by giving Judah water and the courage to continue hoping (“Drink, My Friend”). Judah is reminded of his proud heritage (“Who Is He?”) and determines to hold to the faith of his fathers (“Finally Free”). We then see Miriam and Tirzah in a dungeon, encouraging their fellow prisoners to keep hope alive. From the Hur balcony, Esther sings of her undying hope and faith, and her song is joined again by Judah and Miriam and by the chorus of galley slaves and imprisoned women and children.
Balthazar, our narrator, now brings us forward three years (“Tale of Judah Ben-Hur, 1st Reprise”), to the time he first met Judah at the tent of Sheik Ilderim. We learn that, when Judah’ss galley ship had sunk, he had saved the life of the Admiral, Quintus Arius. Arius had then adopted Judah and fostered him to become the greatest charioteer of the Circus Maximus. Sheik Ilderim now entreats Judah to drive the Sheik’s horses in the upcoming games at Caesarea (“When In Rome”). When Judah says he must first find his family, the Sheik informs him of the commonly believed rumor that Miriam and Tirzah died in prison. Judah is on the brink of despair, as Balthazar encourages him (“Glory in the Highest”).
Next, Judah meets with Messala, demanding to know what happened to his mother and sister. Messala says that they are indeed dead, and Judah vows his revenge. We then discover that Messala was lying, for he immediately releases Miriam and Tirzah, who have become lepers. Judah returns to his home, which is now but a shadow of its former splendor. There he finds Esther, and they renew their vows of love to each other (“Now That I Have Found You”). Miriam and Tirzah have been watching the tearful reunion, and they resign themselves to their new home in the Valley of the Lepers, for fear of contaminating Judah with their leprosy. They leave in the mist as the curtains close for Act I (“I Remember You - Reprise”).
The curtains rise on a joyful Jerusalem, heralding the entrance of the man they believe may be the Chosen One sent by God to free them from Roman captivity (“Hosanna”). Judah has begun preparing Sheik Ilderim’s team of horses for the games at Caesarea (“Let the Games Begin”). Esther enters, excitedly telling Judah about the Rabbi Jesus and his teaching of love and forgiveness (“Man from Nazareth”). She pleads with Judah to stay away from Messala, to abandon his plan of killing Messala in the charioteer’s arena at Caesarea. Judah responds in anger (“That’s a Beautiful Dream”), and nearly strikes Esther in his rage. Both are taken aback by his response, but Judah will not be swayed. He leaves, telling Esther that he will return by the Sabbath. Esther contemplates what has happened and resolves that she will not lose heart or give up on Judah (“I Believe in Love”).
In the next scene, Sheik Ilderim cleverly traps Messala into a bet that will surely ruin him if he fails to win the upcoming chariot race (“Answer to Your Prayers”). The Sheik then revels in his craftiness (“Answer to My Prayers”). Meanwhile, Esther has discovered that Miriam and Tirzah are still alive, living in the Valley of the Lepers, though Tirzah is close to death (“Wings of an Angel”).
At the Caesarea Coliseum, Judah triumphs by both winning the chariot race and killing Messala in the process, but his victory rings fearfully hollow (“How Did It Come to This?”). Upon his return to Jerusalem, he encounters a crucifixion. Told that the victim of this Roman brutality is the Rabbi Jesus, Judah suddenly realizes that this was the same carpenter who had strengthened him with water and hope on his road to the Roman galley ship three years earlier. Stunned and convicted by this rabbi’s continued forgiveness of his murderers, Judah pours his soul out in repentance to Adonai, the God of his fathers (“Could I Be?”).
Two days later, we see Esther kneeling outside the Hur Estate, mourning that Tirzah will surely not live out the day. Judah enters, broken and remorseful of his words and actions. Esther reassures him that she still loves him (“I Believe in Love - Reprise”). As Balthazar emerges from the house with the now-deceased Tirzah in his arms, a strangely familiar man enters and tells Balthazar that this is not a day for tears. The man lays his hand on Tirzah's forehead and suddenly vanishes. As Tirzah miraculously awakes, Miriam emerges from the house. Both are completely healed of their leprosy. The family rejoices in a tearful reunion.
Once again taking the role of Narrator, Balthazar encourages us all to keep hope alive (“Tale of Judah Ben Hur- 2nd Reprise”). We then witness Judah’s and Esther’s wedding (“The Wedding Blessing”). At the wedding, the whole community explodes into festive song and dance, ending the story in joyful celebration (“Finale”).
Copyright 2001. Ellen Sanborn and David M. Sanborn.