Now with Easter finally approaching, I feel compelled to write about another Broadway revival, Godspell, now running. First opening in NYC’s famed Off-Broadway at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club on May 17th, 1971, Godspell was originally a master’s thesis. The aspiring master was John-Michael Tebelak. He had procrastinated on the project till Easter break, during which time he found himself at a church on Easter Sunday with a positive anticipation for some sort of spiritual experience. What he found instead was a dull minister with a bored congregation. Yet from such an unsatisfying experience, he drew this piece of wisdom; the gospel had lost its joy and should have the opportunity to get it back. Though not a particularly religious person himself, Tebelak still saw the lack of joy that should be felt by such a story as that of Jesus Christ and so he put pen to paper and began his journey.
It was clear to those who saw it that Godspell had much to offer and had a great deal of potential for success professionally. Stephen Schwartz, famed composure of Butterflies Are Free, and later Pippin, Children of Eden, and Wicked, was brought in to compose for the show. Tebelak based his story on the gospel according to Mark primarily and also took from the gospels of John and Luke. He chose the title, “godspell” because it is the original form of the word “gospel.”
The show opens with the “TowerofBabble” number in which the stage is filled with different philosophers from history such as Socrates, St. Thomas Aquinas, Leonardo de Vinci, Martin Luther, and Nietzsche. Over time, others have been added, including L. Ron Hubbard. They sing of their various schools of thought. John the Baptist then calls order by blowing a horn three times before singing “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” John then sets to baptizing those present and soon Jesus arrives, seeking to be baptized. When John says that Jesus should be baptizing him, Jesus replies that he did not come to baptize, but to save, and they sing “Save the People.”
Now they get into the parables; Jesus says he did not come to abolish the law, but rather to complete it. He tells the parable of a widow seeking justice and a judge who neither cares for his people nor fears God. He gives justice to the nagging widow, if only to make her shut up. How much more then, Jesus said, will God give justice to his people whom he loves and protects? Simply put, fear not, God does it better.
Next they tell the parable of the Pharisees and the tax collector praying in the temple. The Pharisees pray loudly for all to hear but the tax collector goes to his room and shuts the door, turning his eyes toward Heaven for he feels unworthy of God’s ear. He also tells them that if they come to the alter to make a sacrifice to God and suddenly remember they have had a disagreement with someone, they should set the sacrifice aside and go reconcile with that person, then come back to make the sacrifice. Then he tells the parable of the servant who owed his master a debt, but the master gives him some slack. The servant then turns around to three other servants who owe him money and he demands they pay at once. Upon hearing this, the master puts his servant in prison. The company then sings “Day By Day.”
Next, they play a game of charades, sometimes bringing up members of the audience. They then tell the story of the Good Samaritan. Jesus says God rewards good deeds done in secret (“Shhh, it’s a secret.”). The next parable Jesus tells is the one about the rich man living it up and the poor man starving. When they die, the poor man feasts in Heaven and the rich man suffers in Hell. This is not to say that the rich are going to Hell, but rather that it is more important to focus on the state of the soul rather than the things of this world. To illustrate this, they sing “Learn Your Lessons Well.” Expounding on the subject of wealth, Jesus tells a parable of a man who worked so hard all his life to acquire much wealth, but ended up dying before he could enjoy any of it. Stop and smell the roses for goodness sake! Then they sing “Bless the Lord My Soul.”
And now for the Beatitudes! Jesus basically says blessed are those whose lives suck because it can only go up from there, for in thekingdomofHeaventhey will be blessed. Just look at the lyrics to the next song, a vaudeville/soft shoe, “All for the Best”…
“When you feel sad
or under a curse,
your life is bad,
your prospects are worse,
your wife is crying,
and your olive tree is dying,
temples are graying, and teeth are decaying, and creditors weighing your purse,
your mood and your robe,
are both a deep blue,
you bet that Job,
had nothing on you,
oh don’t forget that when you go to Heaven you’ll be blessed.
Yes, it’s all for the best.”
This first verse is sung be Jesus and the next verse is sung by Judas, talking about those who have it easy, who are living the good life, and it seems the world was made for them. The point of the story is that when times are at their absolute worst, rather than giving up and getting bogged down in the dumps, focus on the promises of God and His power to get you through.
The song that follows is “All Good Gifts”, which accompanies the parable of the sower. This parable tells the story of a man who sows seeds of mustard grass in different places. On rocks they dry up, in weeds and thorns they get chocked and die, but on good soil they take root and grow. Then they tell the parable of the Prodigal Son and sing “Light of the World” (“… but even the tallest candle stick ain’t much good without a wick. You’ve gotta stay bright to be the light of the world. Let your light so shine before men, let your light so shine…”). With this happy celebration song that just makes you want to clap along, they closeActI.(Fun Fact: When the show first opened, they referred to the intermission as the “party” in between acts. The cast would join the audience in the lobby for wine and bread.)
Act II is called to order with a reprise of “Learn Your Lessons Well.” Then one of the girls sings “Turn Back Oh Man”, imploring mankind to relent with temporal pursuits and turn instead to God. This song is one of my favorites. It’s a sassy bluesy number with tons of opportunity for direct audience interaction and improv comedy. Next, the Pharisees challenge Jesus, asking him what the most important commandment is. He says to love God with all your heart and soul and to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus sings “Alas For You” to the Pharisees, calling them hypocrites and blind fools.
They bring in a woman you has been condemned as an adulterer and sentenced to be stoned to death. Jesus says that the one among them who is without fault may throw the first stone. Of course, no one there is without fault, so they all leave. As Jesus walks away from her, she sings “By My Side”, asking Jesus where he is going and if she can go too. This song is my favorite in the show. It’s so beautiful, a lullaby, a love song, a pure and vulnerable sound, like a little child reaching up to take their daddy’s hand. It is during this song that Judas is given the 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus to the authorities.
Thankfully, the next song is much more upbeat, though not particularly happy. Jesus says that as a shepherd separates his sheep from his goats, one day He will separate his sheep/followers from the goats/those who did not follow. He separates the cast into the sheep and goats. The goats are sent to eternal punishment. They sing “We Beseech Thee”, calling for mercy. For such a dismal situation, the song is very fun and lively, further illustrating Godspell’s purpose of making the gospel a joyful journey. The point of Jesus’ story is not the damnation, but rather the chance to be saved from damnation.
It is now time for The Last Supper and theGardenofGethsemane. The cast sings “On the Willows.” Jesus takes this time to say goodbye to the other people in the cast before His crucifixion. During the Crucifixion, Jesus sings “Oh God, I’m dying,” and the cast responds, “Oh God, You’re dying.” When He dies he sings, “Oh God, I’m dead.” Then the cast takes Him down and carries Him out through the audience in a funeral procession. As they carry Him out they sing the finale number, “Long Live God/Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord reprise.” Though there is no resurrection scene, most people just allow the finale to lead into the curtain call, becoming a resurrection moment when Jesus comes back out for His bow. Some productions even add the song “BeautifulCity” from the movie in at certain points in the show and reprise it at the end.
My mom introduced this show to me. We used to listen to the original cast recording in the car when I was growing up and mom always sang “Turn Back Oh Man” with a fun gravely style that I thought was so cool! I’ve done lots of musicals but I haven’t gotten the chance to do this one yet… Thankfully there is a revival on Braodway… again. (lol)
In loving memory of Patricia Faherty whose smile was a light of the world.
“Then I’ll take your hand, finally glad, that You are here by my side.”
Logo photo by Justine Impressions http://www.justineimpressions.com/