Forty years later, there actually are people who don’t know the show Godspell, save by name and reputation. Even some who were around when it debuted and just never managed to catch either the stage show or the surprisingly faithful movie…Surprisingly faithful because Godspell’s language is unavoidably that of the theatre; and the film’s having managed to maintain that and be terrifically cinematic at the same time—opting for a kind of art-house surrealism—was something of a miracle. Not least because if you’d never seen the show, if the film was your first exposure (as indeed it was mine) you were absolutely, thoroughly initiated. There was no confusion about what Godspell was, or what it intended to be, and because of the film’s uncompromisingly unique approach (which was in essence to film the show on locations within an “empty” and depopulated New York City, a black box approach writ large), you had a very clear idea of what the theatrical experience would be like too. (At least I thought so, and subsequent NY revivals proved me right.)
And what was there to understand?
Let me describe the show as originally done: The cast of Godspell assembles for an opening number about the difficulty of finding truth in a world of conflicting philosophy and general babble. All twentysomethings, a few maybe a little younger, seemingly drawn from the walks of everyday urban life, they suddenly forsake their generic citizens’ outfits to don the improvised garb of street clowns. Whereupon another clown appears in their midst. He is their leader, they are the apostles. And so we embark upon the Jesus story told, for the most part, implicitly through the parables recounted in the Book of St. Matthew. The applied theatre techniques are drawn from improvisation, clown routines and some anachronistic interpolation referencing modern society and idiom. The dialogue is spare, the score is primarily pop rock of an ageless sort, and the show generally transcends religion per se to be a sweet, funny, touching rumination on Peace, Love and All That—tacitly by way of the then-just-fading hippie movement…though it transcends that too.
Sounds simple enough, but because its connective tissue is all implied, because it never directly articulates its game or spells out the life of Jesus—only deals with His teachings and offers brief text dramatizing His death—it requires a rigorous clarity of imagery, and a clean, streamlined approach to its bits of business. The illusion of improvisation is coin of the realm here. In reality not much is left to chance.
That established, I must report that right at the top of the new revival at the Circle in the Square theatre, where it is performed in the round, I wondered seriously if anybody who hadn’t been exposed to the show previously would understand what was going on in more than just a cursory fashion.
The first ominous clue for me was that the traditional Godspell backdrop—the chain link fence of the abandoned playground that usually serves as the playing space—is gone. The fence is where, previously, prop and costume pieces were hung; that in the end was transformed into the instrument of Jesus’s crucifixion. To be scrupulously fair, over the years, many different backdrops have been used in productions of Godspell; the text specifies no particular place. But at Circle there’s no backdrop at all; physically there can't be. To all intents and purposes, the stage is simply bare. And bare of props; and lacking pieces of costume. So how, I asked myself, would the gradually assembling cast of twentysomething citizens make the transformation into youth-clown apostles?
The answer is: they don’t. They finish their opening and go offstage, leaving the actor who first appears as John the Baptist and later Judas alone onstage to greet Jesus. And then the others come back out. In depriving the audience of seeing the transformation—which is, in effect, an act of rebellion in search of better answers—director Daniel Goldstein also dilutes context. Throughout the show, other such transitional beats have been eliminated in the false belief that "the audience will just get it." In short, we're stranded in a theatre games universe in which the game is not clearly communicated.
one thing, the arrangements and orchestrations have been made more
contemporary—and not for the better. In trying not to have the score
sound dated (which in truth it doesn’t, not in any way that can’t be
tweaked), the musical department has rendered it without character; it
into the current vocabulary, but generically, at times at the expense
of dramatic function. For another, not only the arrangements of songs,
but sometimes the energy, has been radically rethought—again, not
for the better; in one extreme case, "Alas for You", Jesus's rant
against false prophets and "blind guides," the song has been so denuded of rage
that it's nearly insensible.
And then there's the casting of Jesus. There's this odd
phenomenon that happens in some revivals with certain lead roles: Where
originally very idiosyncratic actors were cast, to give a
particular spin to a familiar archetype, and exploit deeper values—not
articulated in the script, but implied—new directors, who haven't
seen the original actor, nor given much thought to why he
was cast, wind up engaging a performer who is all about the surface
attributes the script makes obvious…but doesn't address the tacit
complexities beneath. For example: on the surface, the Jesus of Godspell would seem to bethe
gentlest street clown of the ensemble, preaching peace,
love and The Way. But he is, after all, Jesus, and must have a reserve
of palpable anger at injustice, for he speaks on behalf of a jealous
God, and espouses an inflexible code of behaviors, the violation of
even in misdemeanor committed without repentance, is punished with
eternal damnation in hellfire. Hence, in the original off Broadway
production, the role was played by Stephen Nathan, whose voice isn't
even all that pretty, and in
fact has a rough edge. Better still was Victor Garber—Jesus in the
Canadian company where it seems he defined the role iconically, a
definition that got him cast in the film as well—who carried with him,
beneath the gaeity, a profound sadness. (Indeed the ability to tap
into the darkness has fed a good deal of his post-juvenile career).
Whereas the current Jesus, Hunter Parrish, is only a
boyishly pretty fellow with a boyishly pretty and not very strong
voice, a modest acting range and—at least here—no "teeth" whatsoever.
Lest this sound like the revival of Godspell is
some kind of mess or disaster, no, not at all…a degree of
Broadway-worthy competence informs the delivery if not the vision…and
it must be declared that for the most part, the young and energetic
company are a fiercely talented group with a palpable sense of ensemble
cameraderie and terrific, infectious spirit. And I won't tell you the
audience aren't responding to that. Of course they are. But that's
where youth can be seductive, even deceptive; and I just wonder if the
audience members who resopond with enthusiassm are giving over to the
generous energy of attractive performers, more than embracing the
interpretation. (I know several people, for example, who cheered the
cast enthusiastically and later admitted being disappointed in the
Can't say conclusively. All I can say for sure is, there's industrial strength Godspell and there's Godspell diluted. And if you attend this revival, no matter how good or disappointing a time you may have, you won't be getting the first…
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