Godspell has been a source of both controversy and inspiration since its first production in 1971. It was written in reaction to a lethargic Anglican church. John-Michael Tebelak, then a drama student at Carnegie Tech's School of Drama, created the musical as an attempt "to weave God's spell over the audience." Tebelak took the chance of offending almost everyone who had a preconceived notion of God, particularly the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Godspell has been both produced and condemned by churches. It has been staged by schools that, in other areas, work hard to keep God out of the curriculum. What is it about this rock opera based on the Gospel accounts of Jesus that makes it succeed with a mass audience where other religious works have not?
With Godspell as the season opener for Arizona State University's Lyric Opera Theatre, we have a chance to find out.
Godspell is not a story. It is, rather, a collection of skits and songs dramatizing Christ's teachings. These modern interpretations, including the story of the good Samaritan, the rich man and Lazarus, the sermon on the mount, the woman caught in adultery, and many others, form the core of this lightning-fast show. With Stephen Schwartz's marvelous score, this energetic, hand-clapping, sing-along musical feels more like a rock concert than musical theatre.
Tebelak focuses on the teachings, rather than the person, of Christ. When Christ says, "The one who is faultless shall throw the first stone," or "Love your neighbor as yourself," Tebelak strikes a universal chord that mainstream society can accept. By avoiding the supernatural side of Christ, Tebelak has created a theatrical experience that speaks to a wide audience.
Composer Schwartz, who also wrote Pippin and Working, gives another insight into the transcendent nature of the musical. "I never saw Godspell as a 'Christian' show," he has said, "or indeed, as a show about 'religion.' To me, the basic dramatic event of the show has to do with the formation of a community. . . . The idea of community and the need for people to understand and support one another seems to me to transcend any specific religion or creed."
Opening with an intricate prologue, Godspell bombards the audience with quotes from the writings of philosophers Edward Gibbon, Socrates and Friedrich Nietzsche, among others. From this cacophony of ideas comes a "voice from the wilderness"--none other than John the Baptist, singing, "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord." This proclamation is followed by the baptism of Jesus, which begins His public ministry.
At this point, all Biblical chronology is left behind, and Jesus and His followers (not the 12 apostles, but a group of unlikely companions ranging from tomboy to temptress) begin their bantering: challenging and illustrating Christ's sayings and parables, each of which is drawn from the Biblical record.
This freeform show uses puppetry, charades, sign language, ventriloquism, magic, impersonations, vaudeville and cartoon sound effects to bring home the message of each teaching, all reinforced by the memorable music of Schwartz. Before the show began, one could almost hear patrons singing "Day by Day" in anticipation of the show's most popular song. But woven throughout the evening are other such wonderful pieces as "All for the Best," "By My Side" and "We Beseech Thee."
The whimsical first act treats the interaction between Christ and His followers with lightness and humor. While some could argue that the subject matter is too serious for such treatment, what comes through is the humanity of Christ, a part of Him often lost in our churches today. His followers openly exhibit their wonder and excitement at His teachings--sort of an MTV Bible Hour.
The second act of the show takes on a much darker feel, as the focus turns to the final week of Christ's life. Beginning with the Last Supper, where Judas the betrayer is introduced, we are led to the deadly truth of Christ's message: He was born to be a sacrifice. In one of the most moving scenes in musical theatre, we watch as each character, who has developed his or her own relationship with Jesus, says goodbye to a doomed friend. The haunting trio, "On the Willows," provides the backdrop to this scene of wrenching separation.
This is theatre designed to shake your emotions, and the on-fire cast of ASU's production does just that. Led by Christopher McKim, with his boy-next-door interpretation of Jesus, and by the talented and versatile William T. Badgett as John the Baptist, this cast leads the audience through an aerobic church service that brought the opening-night audience to its feet. Working against direction that is sometimes confining and a combo accompaniment that is too thin, these young performers, ultimately, succeed in casting Tebelak's spell of God over the audience.
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