Thursday, February 07, 2008

All About Godspell

Watching two dress rehearsals for Godspell piqued my curiosity about its history. It's hard to believe a musical this full of Scripture has been so long-running and perpetually popular! And hasn't it been rather controversial too?

Here's what I found out. The script was written by John-Michael Tebelak, a Carnegie-Mellon University student who had considered becoming an Episcopal priest before continuing his education in a theater, as a master's thesis project. In a 1975 interview, he explains:

...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 on stage.

BARKER: Which was…

TEBELAK: 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 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, and the fact that they had already changed their tires. They weren't going to be able to take pictures that afternoon. Snow was upsetting their plans. 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. As I was leaving the church, a policeman who had been sitting two pews ahead of me during the service, stopped me and wanted to know if he could search me. Apparently he had thought I was ducking into the church to escape the snowstorm. At that moment—I think because of the absurd situation—it angered me so much that I went home and realized what I wanted to do with the Gospels: I wanted to make it the simple, joyful message that I felt the first time I read them and recreate the sense of community, which I did not share when I went to that service.

Isn't that cool? And he definitely succeeded in portraying that joy; it just oozes from this show!

Especially from the songs.... I learned that the lyrics to almost all of the songs are from traditional Episcopal hymn settings, which explains their solid basis in Scripture. Stephen Schwartz (who also wrote the music for Pippin, Prince of Egypt and Wicked) just modified the words to fit his memorable melodies. He comments:

It may amuse you to know that when the film version of GODSPELL opened, I was roundly criticized for the lyrics for "Save the People" by Richard Schickel, the movie critic of Time Magazine, who quoted them disparagingly. Apparently he's not Episcopalian.

The controversies and negative impressions seem to arise most from the 1973 film version, in which the disciples, to contemporize the story for those times, smoke pot; the film also omits any hint of a resurrection which is alluded to in the original musical by the words of the final two songs, sung in counterpoint: "Long Live God" and "Prepare Ye [the way of the Lord]." (Our production includes a quick but effective resurrection.) Also, I read that in several reviewers' opinions, this film has not aged well and appears much more dated than the film Jesus Christ Superstar (which my kids and I liked). (Interestingly, the stage version of Godspell was produced one year after the success of Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway, probably piggy-backing on its popularity.)

And there is one number in Godspell that could be considered controversial, "Turn Back, Oh Man." Though the words are from a cautionary Episcopal hymn, they are usually sung seductively by a female performer. (Our Christian children's theater group deals neatly with this non-essential scene by cutting it.)

Another misperception, I learned, is that Godspell is always about hippies and/or clowns! I had a vague idea of that myself. Stephen Schwartz says:

The characters in GODSPELL were never supposed to be hippies. They were supposed to be putting on "clown" garb to follow the example of the Jesus character as was conceived by GODSPELL's originator, John-Michael Tebelak, according to the "Christ as clown" theory propounded by Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School (among others). Mr. Cox wrote a book called FEAST OF FOOLS that goes into detail about this. The chapter that is most relevant to GODSPELL is called "Christ the Harlequin." Because the show was originally produced in the hippie era, and because the director of the GODSPELL movie somewhat misinterpreted the characters as hippie-esque, that misunderstanding has come to haunt the show a bit.

Wikipedia explains that Godspell is well-loved for its versatility and low-budget potential, and comments, "Since the setting is never explicitly stated in the text, directors love using this show as a chance to show off their creative abilities." Our version, for example, takes place on the streets of Chicago, in front of the Art Institute; our set is complete with the famous lions by the stairs! Though most of the script is Scripture, it also includes a lot of improv and ad-libbing which is changed from production to production to keep it fresh and contemporary. And in our version, all the costumes came right out of the kids' closets, to anchor the tale firmly in the present.

So I hope I've accomplished my goal, which is to encourage all my readers to give Godspell a chance, if you ever get the opportunity--especially to see it done by a Christian college or theater group.

It's not the dated, scaly dinosaur that maybe some of us thought it was.

(And it's not too late to get presale-priced tickets to our production, local readers!! Email me for more info.)


Amy said...

Thanks for the background info on the show. What an interesting story.

"'Apparently he's not Episcopalian.'"
"Our production includes a quick but effective resurrection."
and your last little tossed in "it's not too late to get presale-priced tickets ... " all made me laugh.

I wish we could come see it!

Kerry - A Ten O'Clock Scholar said...

Not sure if I mentioned this or not, but my eldest son takes Drama at a local christian school (electives are open to homeschoolers). They are doing Godspell this spring, too!

The director of the Drama program (a friend of mind - and also an anglican) has heard from some parents (kids not in the class) concerning Godspell not being appropriate. Maybe it seems irreverent or something. I'm not sure. Some of their concern comes from just not being familiar with the show.

I sent her to your blog before to be encouraged and will again! Thanks for the good background.

Brea said...

Wish I was a little closer (like, NOT Texas), because I'd love to come see this!!


Amy said...

I love Godspell. It is such a moving, fun, lively piece. I agree that it isn't dated. It is so inspiring- "Prepare the Way of the Lord!"
I wish I was closer too (not the UK) so I could see it!