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Celebs, Priests Flock to Pope John Paul II Musical in Rome

Image: An actor playing Karol Wojtyla, or Pope John Paul II, in a musical in Rome

An actor playing the young Pope John Paul II in a musical telling the story of his life that opened at a theater in Rome Tuesday. Teatro Brancaccio

ROME – Priests rubbed shoulders with celebs in designer clothes Tuesday night at the premiere of a musical based on the life of soon-to-be saint Pope John Paul II.

Italian VIPs barely managed to cut through the excited crowd as paparazzi flashbulbs fired. Inside the theater, people thronged the souvenir shop for coffee mugs bearing the iconic image of the late pontiff.

With Pope John Paul II set to be canonized as a saint on April 27, Pope-mania is in full swing in Rome – “Karol Wojtyla, the Opera Musical,” is just one of three musicals dedicated to the Catholic leader.

“We gave him the opportunity to get back on a theater stage,” Patrizia Barsotti, one of the show’s writers, told NBC News.

The Polish-born Karol Wojtyla became Pope John Paul II in 1978 and led the Roman Catholic Church until his death in 2005 – the second-longest papacy in history. But in his youth he was an accomplished actor, playwright, poet and even contemplated a career in the theater.

Image: Pope John Paul II acting in a high school play.
Pope John Paul II (young Karol Wojtyla, in the middle) playing a Polish lancer in his high school play 'Lancers of Prince Joseph of L. Mazur', circa 1936. On the left Halina Krolikiewiczowna (later Kwiatkowska), actress, writer and traveler. On the right Danuta Puklo. Laski Diffusion / Getty Images, file

“He used to say that when he was an actor in his youth, he used words to fight without weapons. He understood the power of words. He took that lesson with him during his pontificate, and became a great communicator,” Barsotti said.

Despite the glamorous fanfare surrounding the premiere, all the glitter disappeared into the darkness when the curtain rose Tuesday.

Wojtyla’s humble beginnings played out on stage – his early life in the Polish town of Wadowice, the death of his mother when he was 9 years old, his older brother Edmund’s death from scarlet fever, as well as the hardships of living in Nazi-occupied Poland.

Through song and dance, the production brought to life Wojtyla’s pivotal decision to join the priesthood and his journey to leading 1 billion Roman Catholics around the world and becoming the most popular pope of the 20th century.

The canonization of John Paul II and Pope John XXIII is set to be one of the biggest celebrations in the history of the Catholic Church. At least 5 million pilgrims are expected to descend on Rome to watch the Mass that will be held by Pope Francis in St. Peter’s Square, and millions more around the world will watch on television.

“It is an honor to play this role,” said Virgilio Brancaccio, the actor who now plays John Paul II’s character. Speaking to NBC News before the show, he added that it was difficult to step into his shoes.

“His life was a masterpiece. He was a living legend, and he will be an even bigger legend now that he will become a saint.”