I’m not going to comment about the current revival of Godspell on Broadway at Circle-in-the-Square, but I’ve some general comments about the show itself, the virtues of which eluded a lot of the critics this time around.
It’s important to remember its origin. A student at Carnegie-Mellon, for his doctoral thesis, devised an unusual way of presenting parables from the Book of Matthew on stage. Prior to Godspell, adaptations of the New Testament tended to be rather serious – reverent is probably the best word – so this loopy revue was a radical departure with tradition. In what must have seemed clever and fresh at the time, a bunch of hippie clowns summarize various philosophers in delicious counterpoint. Then Jesus, a guy in a Superman t-shirt, wanders in. He points out the morals of the little scenes the clowns act out in the form of improvisational comedy sketches. Eventually, they act out The Last Supper and Crucifixtion, but the emotion of this sequence has less to do with religion than it does with a circle of friends, one of whom must say goodbye. Over the course of the musical, the clowns have demonstrated teamwork and loving camaraderie. So, it’s particularly moving to see them all individually bid farewell to the guy with an S on his chest.
As a little show, geared for the college market, Godspell is about as successful as can be. Minimal set, costumes are tattered street clothes, and a young cast is optimal. More obviously, it’s the perfect church basement show. Say a church has a youth group that wants to put on a musical. What could be better? The New York theatre, however, has a way of commercializing everything, and, early in its life, Godspell became an off-Broadway phenomenon, performed at a converted church. And in came a record producer, gunning for big “pop” album sales, and suddenly Day By Day is on the charts, and people are seeing the show because they love the song. Then the thing moves to Broadway.
Trouble is, it’s not a Broadway entertainment. It’s a modest mini-musical that can best be appreciated at a short distance, in a tiny theatre. It doesn’t offer the sort of large-scale theatrical coups one expects on Broadway. The musical, over the years, has unsurprisingly and deservedly become a mainstay of secular schools and Sunday schools, seminaries and small theatres. As such, it’s very familiar, and the clowning disciples that once seemed novel have now withered into tired clichés.
Godspell, in certain larger houses, becomes a victim of its own success, and one can hardly fault the authors, who fashioned the perfect entertainment for a particular venue. When a producer says “I want to take your show to Broadway” who’s going to say no?
Hard to believe I’ve gotten this far without talking about Godspell‘s greatest asset, Stephen Schwartz’s score. While some of the texts are taken directly from religious sources, like The Book of Common Prayer, the original lyrics and ever-so-catchy music do a number of very entertaining things. First, as you might have guessed, I’m delighted by the quodlibets. The opening number, which you won’t find on the original cast album, is the ultimate display of collegiate cleverness, merrily setting eight philosophical tomes in musical opposition. The ostensible leads, Jesus and Judas, get a soft shoe duet that utilizes some dazzling and well-wrought patter. Schwartz never settles for one style of music, but wisely chooses to prick our ears with an eclectic mix that includes a peppy hoe-down, an old-fashioned dirty blues, and, more than anything, gentle folk rock. It’s astonishing that a composer his age (23 when it opened off-Broadway) embraces so many good musical ideas. Day By Day, for example, starts as a waltz before breaking into a celebratory 4/4 rock. And, inspired by Laura Nyro, he puts unexpected bass notes under the hip triads of Bless My Soul.
Extraordinarily, the script of Godspell is a mere template on which individual productions are supposed to expand upon. Each mounting will come up with new, and hopefully relevant, ways of presenting the parables. For instance, I worked on a production during the height of the Lord of the Rings craze, and our rendering of the Servant of Two Masters involved impressions of Frodo and Gollum. Much like improv, the audience attends hoping to appreciate the creativity of the cast. If you’ll forgive the pun, the text of Godspell is not to be taken as Gospel.
If you’ve seen many Godspells, the bar of innovative presentation is probably set quite high,making it harder and harder for each new Godspell to outdo the old. And, I’ve found as the years go by, people have less and less tolerance for hippies and clowns. Especially clowns. <shudder>