A clown is torn between saving his own life and the lives of countless others in Ancient Rome.
Show Essentials
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Full Synopsis

Act One

As the show opens, a chorus of three men and three women setup the world they are creating for the audience ("Within This Empty Space"). Cockian, the clown, enters. He performs a variety of clown acts for the audience as a chorus of storytellers explain that he has been dead for 1700 years, and his bones are buried in the land that is now Turkey.

His act is interrupted by Servillus, adjunct to the Commander of the Roman Empire. He drags Cockian over to be questioned by the Commander and Cockian charms the Commander with his acting abilities. The Commander is looking for a Christian leader, but Cockian has not seen him. The Commander sends Servillus off to continue the search. Bad luck has brought Cockian to Antioch, and The Commander is there to hunt down Christians. Neither wishes to be there - they want to go home, to Athens and Rome, respectively. They imagine those places are wonderful by comparison to Antioch ("The Streets Of Antioch Stink"). Servillus returns and informs The Commander that they have found someone who may be a Christian leader. He goes off to survey the situation, but before he goes warns Cockian that if he finds him roaming the streets again, he'll arrest him.

Cockian finds Kiki, the other half of his clown act, who admonishes him for being late. They put on a performance in the marketplace ("Gimme A Good Digestion"). When the act concludes, Cockian confesses to Kiki that he has been selling protection to Jews and Christians to keep them out of detention camps; his plan is backfiring, however, because the pressure is really getting on from the Jews and Christians. When they get picked on, they use his name and nobody knows who he is. He's only doing it because he needs money - for him and for Kiki. He says he loves her, but she doubts his sincerity ("Don't Kiki Me"). Finally, he reveals his true aim: he wants Kiki earn money by selling herself for just one night. He has arranged for her to meet Kalipedes, a hunchback with money. At first, she resists but when he presses the point by insisting he'll marry her, she finally agrees to meet Kalipedes.

She returns shortly thereafter with the Commander and Servillus in tow. Kiki and other citizens begin accusing Cockian of a litany of crimes, including seduction, selling contraband food, and owing money. Kiki seems happy to have her revenge as she watches Servillus prepare to take Cockian to prison. However, The Commander wants to make a deal. He shows Cockian the grotesque corpse of Philemon, the wanted Christian leader. He explains now that they've tortured Philemon to death, they realize he would be more useful alive. If Cockian will play the role of Philemon and get the Commander information on the Christian underground railroad, the Commander will send Cockian back to Athens with money in his pockets. The Commander sees an opportunity for himself as well. Cockian immediately agrees ("I'd Do Anything To Get Out Of Here And Go Home").

Cockian assumes the identity of Philemon. The Christian prisoners have never seen him before, but they can sense his presence ("He's Coming"). When Cockian arrives, a young Christian, Andos, asks for his blessing. Cockian bluffs his way through the blessing, and wants to be rid of Andos, but the young man endears himself to Cockian. Andos managed to accidentally escape execution, but is officially dead and has the freedom to move around the prison. Cockian asks for his help to identify leaders but Andos refuses, apologizing for being a coward. Andos leaves and the Commander and Servillus return with food and wine for Cockian. They explain he gets special treatment for being their spy. The Commander gives Cockian scrolls with he teachings of Philemon so he can play his part better.

Looking at his criminal record now, Cockian thinks about his horrible life and how little he has accomplished. Becoming Philemon might be his last chance to ever make anything of himself ("Name: Cockian"). After Cockian decides that he will continue, Andos returns. Andos has decided to be brave and help him by connecting him to the underground network. Cockian kisses his hand, while the Commander and Servillus watch from the shadows.

Act Two

The Commander is set to conquer the Christians and the leader of the rebellion will meet with Cockian. After finding the leader, the Commander can kill him and destroy the Christian movement. Everything will be in place just the way he likes it ("I Love Order").

In the prison, Cockian is being questioned by Andos about Christian faith and its rituals - something Cockian knows nothing about. He fakes his way through, but becomes more enticed and eventually tells the prisoners that they must not lose hope. He inspires the prisoners to tell him their dreams ("My Secret Dream"). Cockian softens to Andos and decides to share his special food supply with him. Andos misunderstands and sees this as a sort of miracle; he takes all of the food back to the other prisoners before Cockian can explain the mistake. As he leaves, he thrusts a shiny ornament in Cockian's hand.


The Commander enters suddenly. Cockian realizes that the ornament is exactly what the Commander is looking for, but for some reason can't bring himself to give it to him. The Commander questions Cockian about his relationship with Andos. He reveals that they know Andos is not actually dead, and they are using him to watch for messages that might be delivered from the Christian leaders. Cockian admits that Andos reminds him of his own son, but promises to observe him for any secret messages as long as The Commander promises not to hurt Andos. A deal is struck between the two men. Once the Commander leaves, Cockian examines the ornament given to him by Andos.

Suddenly, Marsayas appears from Cockian's past - she is his former wife, the love of his life. A scene is played where the two talk about having a child. Cockian feels they are too poor; Marsayas wants one even if they are poor. He is convinced by his love for her ("I Love Her Face"). In Cockians mind, Andos is further confused for his son.

Cockian comes back to reality, and once again looks at the ornament. The Commander rushes in and grabs it. He says that this is obviously a sign of the Christian movement. Servillus questions Andos, but Andos denies knowing about the ornament. The Commander tells Andos that his wife has just given birth to a son. If he tells him the truth and ultimately reveals the leader of this Christian rebellion, he could be back with them soon. Andos doesn't give in, and he is taken to the yard to be tortured. Cockian asks why it must be done in front of the others and the Commander explains he wants to make an example of Andos. He tells Cockian that Andos' screams are gusts of wind on which Cockian will sail home ("Sometimes").

When Servillus begins to beat Andos, Cockian can no longer pretend he doesn't care. He leads the other prisoners in protest ("Protest"). Ultimately, he faces the Commander and he asks to be let out. He'll go back to being Cockian, the clown, and go to the labor camps. The Commander informs him that Cockian is dead - murdered for his gambling debts - and his record is destroyed, so there is no proof of his existence. The Commander then orders that Cockian be locked away in a cell and severely punished. It is then that Cockian realizes that he was tricked all along.

Bound in prison, Cockian has a nightmare where images from his past come to haunt him. Marsayas, Kiki, and Andos all appear and seem to be reaching out to him ("Nightmare"). Suddenly, his nightmare ends and he finds a real woman in his cell with him. The woman unties him and informs Cockian that her husband - executed three days ago - was the leader of the Christians. She tells Cockian that he must now lead the people. Cockian initially hesitates, but after she makes him listen he agrees to help ("The Greatest Of These").

The Commander hears that a message has been given to Cockian and asks him to reveal his source. When he does, the Commander promises he'll set Cockian free but the rebel has at last found love and refuses ("How Free I Feel"). The Commander is reaching a boiling point and cannot take any more of Cockian's newfound attitude ("How Easy to Be Scornful").

Acting on an impulse, the Commander condemns Cockian to die ("Come With Me"). Cockian is martyred, but as he is tortured he sees a vision - he realizes that love is greater than all other powers and he finally is able to believe in it again ("I See A Light").



Cast Size: Small (Up to 10 performers)
Cast Type: Mainly Men
Dance Requirements: None

Character Breakdown

A clown, off-beat comic, with a good heart. He is selling protection to Jews & Christians to keep them out of detention camps. He later plays the role of the dead Philemon and it may be his last chance to make anything of himself.
Gender: male
Age: 35 to 45
Vocal range top: A5
Vocal range bottom: A3
Commander of the Roman. Garrison, sharp, worldly, bemused and yet fanatical. He is on the search for a Christian Leader. His prime focus is to continue to catch and execute more Christians.
Gender: male
Age: 35 to 50
Vocal range top: E5
Vocal range bottom: F3
A sergeant. He is rough, terse, obedient and an adjutant to the Commander. He will do anything for his leader and will not stop until he succeeds.
Gender: male
Age: 25 to 35
Vocal range top: E5
Vocal range bottom: F3
A prisoner, likable, promising and a young convert to Christianity. He has managed to accidentally escape execution and endears himself to Cockian leading him to the underground Christian network.
Gender: male
Age: 18 to 20
Vocal range top: Gb5
Vocal range bottom: D4
A clown; buxom, sexy, insecure. This is Cockian's 'other half ' in his clown act and also his lover who later turns on him.
Gender: female
Age: 25 to 35
Vocal range top: A5
Vocal range bottom: Bb3
The beautiful deceased wife of Cockian. She longs for a child with him even though he feels they are too poor to have one.
Gender: female
Age: 25 to 35
Vocal range top: F#5
Vocal range bottom: B3
Dignified, deep faith, strong-souled and wife of the underground leader. She meets Cockian in his prison cell, unties him and tells him he must now lead the people.
Gender: female
Age: 20 to 30
Vocal range top: Eb5
Vocal range bottom: G#3
Chorus, Prisoners
Full Song List
Philemon: Within This Empty Space
Philemon: The Streets Of Antioch Stink
Philemon: Don't Kiki Me
Philemon: He's Coming
Philemon: I Love Order
Philemon: My Secret Dream
Philemon: I Love His Face
Philemon: Sometimes
Philemon: The Nightmare
Philemon: The Greatest Of These
Philemon: The Confrontation
Philemon: The Vision

Show History


Philemon is very loosely based on biblical events from the 3rd Century. In the New Testament of the Bible, Philemon was a wealthy Christian who received a private letter from the apostle, Paul. Eventually he was martyred. The events of Philemon center around the time when Philemon has already been executed, and the clown Cockian impersonates him.


The original version of Philemon opened on Friday, January 3, 1975 as one of the last productions at the Portfolio Theatre, which was established by authors Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt to create and promote modern musicals. The original run was supposed to be a limited engagement of 12 performances, but after it closed the authors decided to re-open it to meet ticket demand, and Philemon began performances again on Tuesday, April 8, 1975 and played an additional 48 times. The original cast included Dick Latessa as Cockian, Howard Ross as the Commander, and Leila Martin (The Phantom of the Opera) as The Wife.

The York Theater Company produced Philemon in a brief Off-Broadway revival in 1991.

Cultural Influence

  • In the October 1976, PBS broadcast a Hollywood Television Theatre production of Philemon, again starring Dick Latessa as Cockian.
  • An original off-Broadway cast recording was made and released on LP in 1975.


  • Schmidt and Jones the Portfolio Studio produced 4 experimental musicals, of which Philemon was one. The other 3 were Celebration, The Bone Room, and Portfolio Revue.

Best Performance

1975 - Obie Award -, Nominee (Best Performance)




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