More than forty years after its conception as a Carnegie Mellon thesis project, a Broadway revival of Godspell opened last week to mixed reviews at the Circle in the Square Theatre.
This energetic new production, which is staged in the round, features a hip, multi-racial cast of twenty-somethings, and is said to offer new musical arrangements, kinetic choreography, and up-to-the-minute cultural references, including shout-outs to the Occupy Wall Street movement and the recently deceased Steve Jobs, now playing with his iPad in paradise.
Though we at By Way of Beauty have not yet had the chance to see this production ourselves (money’s a bit tight on the beauty front, folks), we’ve always admired the history of the show and have long been fans of its music and message. However, a number of gripes that were expressed in some of the critical reviews we’ve read on its revival have caused us concern.
Charles Isherwood, for instance, in his review for the New York Times writes that the show is "not your alma mater’s 'Godspell.' On the contrary, it insists, with an eagerness that soon begins to grate, that the story of Jesus and his apostles is so timely you’d better start tweeting about it right this minute. ('OMG Jesus so hot!!!')" Isherwood goes on to say that most of the cultural references in the show “felt like forced attempts to connect with a contemporary audience whose memory banks are like their ever-changing Facebook walls. You eventually start to wonder: If the story of Jesus and his apostles cannot be treated as timeless, what on earth can?”
Though this kind of snarky cynicism in regards to religious expression is to be expected from The Times, it seems that Isherwood’s harshest criticisms are not directed at the show itself but rather the state of the culture in which it has re-arisen. His is a question which many people have asked over the years: is the message of a Jewish man who preached in Palestine nearly two thousand years ago still relevant in a culture as self-involved and technology-obsessed as ours?
Many artists, clergy and the like have concerned themselves with revitalizing and renewing the message which once changed the world, and have taken to altering that message so that it may be more readily received, and relatable to modern concerns and trends.
What they often forget, though, is that Christianity started off as a revolutionary movement that vehemently denied and defied the whims and tenets of the culture in which it was conceived. Its mission was never to adapt to and blend with the world, but to courageously engage it. The message itself, being built upon a rock, should never have to change in order to engage any particular culture; the means in which it’s spread, however, ought to, as long as it remains pure and true to its source.
The following is an excerpt from an interview with him for Dramatics Magazine in January, 1975.
"…Finally, I turned toward the Gospels and sat one afternoon and read the whole thing through. Afterwards, I became terribly excited because I found what I wanted to portray onstage…Joy! I found a great joy, a simplicity – some rather comforting words in the Gospel itself – in these four books. I began immediately to adapt it.
"I decided to go to an Easter sunrise service to experience, again, the story that I had gotten from the Gospel. As I went, it began to snow which is rather strange for Easter. When I went into the cathedral, everyone there was sitting, grumbling about the snow… as the service began, I thought it might be a little different. Instead, an old priest came out and mumbled into a microphone, and people mumbled things back, and then everyone got up and left. Instead of ‘healing’ the burden, or resurrecting the Christ, it seems those people had pushed Him back into the tomb. They had refused to let Him come out that day."
To further add to his unsavory church experience, a policeman, suspecting that he was only there to escape the storm, frisked him for drugs after the mass had ended.
After the college production, Tebelak and his fellow schoolmates brought the play to New York for a two week run off-off Broadway at the La MaMa Experimental Theatre club, where it caught the attention of producers Edgar Lansbury and Joseph Beruh. With the intention to shepherd the production toward an off-Broadway venue, Lansbury and Beruh hired Stephen Schwartz, also a Carnegie Mellon alumn, to write a new score for the show. On May 17, 1971, Godspell opened at the Cherry Lane theatre, where it began an Off-Broadway run that would last until 1976 - for a total of 2,124 performances.
When the show first came on the scene, it was initially met with some suspicion and a little disapproval - after all, it does feature a cast of clownish flower-children in colorful clothes and make-up following a Jesus representative in a Superman shirt and striped pants and suspenders. But, unlike other popular counter-cultural shows such as Hair and Oh, Calcutta! which flaunted an in-your-face anarchy, Godspell, like the Jesus of the gospels, possessed in it a spirit that was obedient, innocent and pure.
Many people tried to find fault in the show - but one couldn’t come up with much without seeming embarrassingly nit-picky. The majority of the play’s content is lifted directly from the Gospel of Saint Matthew, and while the first act is chock-full of parables and Psalms brought to life by theatre games and catchy music (including the pop hit "Day by Day,"), the second act, which concludes with the crucifixion of Jesus, is much more solemn, sincere, and moving.
Over the years, most Christian communities have open-heartedly embraced the show and its unique presentation. Countless amounts of church groups have since staged their own renditions, and the Vatican has twice invited professional productions of the play to perform for two different Popes.
However, one common complaint from some Christian groups is that it doesn’t contain an explicit mention of the resurrection. What they fail to realize, though, is that this show, as well as almost every play that has ever been performed in the Western Civilization, contains a built-in moment which implicitly reminds the audience of the resurrection: it’s called the "curtain call." With each curtain call, we see every character, some of whom we have just watched shuffle off their mortal coil, come on stage one last time together to grasp each other’s hands and bow before us in gratitude.
In Godspell, the effect is very much the same, if not greater. The cast almost always is extremely emotional, having just carried away the body of their murdered savior singing triumphantly a reprise of "Prepare Ye (the Way of The Lord)." And when the character representing Jesus bounds back on stage to take his bow, the unspeakable joy and pride of everyone else in the cast is palpable as together, for the finale, they perform an ecstatic rendition of "Day by Day." It truly puzzles me to think how anyone can say they missed the resurrection in Godspell, when they had just spent the last five minutes on their feet clapping along to it while dancing in the aisles.
The musical, when performed honestly, has the potential to be a powerful and profound night at the theatre for both the performers involved and the audience. Daniel Goldstein, the director of the revival production, recalled in a recent interview in the New York Times of a theatre camp production he took part in when he was young:
But - like is often done with Shakespeare plays - Godspell tends to be vandalized by deranged directors who are hell-bent on making it something that it is not.
In an effort to undermine the fact that the play is actually promoting the Christian gospel, some productions try to water-down the message at its core to make it more about a community coming together to sing fun songs, rather than the figure of Jesus and the inexhaustible joy he inspires in those who follow him. Some shows go as far as to mock and malign that central message, seemingly for no other reason than to punish the Gospels for unresolved personal beef.
Other productions take advantage of the improvisational nature of the play by over-loading it with pop-culture references and irrelevant noise. This usually indicates a lack of trust in its material, and a disrespect for the attention span of the audience. Though some of the critics, including Mr. Isherwood of the Times, have accused the new Broadway production of such a transgression, in my mind it is only a misdemeanor as long as that central light is still allowed to shine through.
Again, I must reiterate that we have not yet seen the current Broadway revival of the show; so we can neither confirm nor deny whether it is guilty of all some of the critic’s quibbles we mentioned at the start of this article.
We invite any of you who may have already seen it to comment below on your thoughts - and we would also love to hear any of your own remembrances of versions of the play you may have seen or been a part of.