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Reinventing ‘Godspell’


Advertised as “reinvented 30 years later,” “Godspell” has returned to Off-Broadway. Gone are the hippies and clowns of yesteryear. With new lyrics and updated dialogue that includes references to Johnny Cochran, MetroCards and Reebok, this production seems contemporary -- with one major exception. The language of scripture remains in the past, with reference after reference to the deeds of men and brothers. Didn’t anyone think to pick up a New Revised Standard Version of the Bible?

In a telephone interview with composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz, he admitted he hadn’t thought about updating the scriptural language. But he defended the show’s adherence to the King James version, saying inclusive language “fails as art” and “falls tinnily on the ear.”

“I take the word man to be generic rather than gender-specific,” he said.

I saw the original Off-Broadway production in the fall of 1972 as part of my senior class trip to New York from Notre Dame Prep in Towson, Md. In those days we knew nothing of inclusive language. We enjoyed the show for the same reason the largely 20- and 30-something audience in the Theatre at St. Peter’s Church seemed to enjoy it now. It’s lively, it’s funny and the music is great. Turning St. Matthew’s gospel into a rock musical worked then, in the era of rock musicals, and, judging by the young audience, it still works.

Actually, “Godspell” has never stopped working. This Energizer Bunny of musical theater is still performed a couple hundred times a year from high school auditoriums to regional theaters, has been translated into a half dozen languages, played before popes, produced a gold record (“Day By Day”), and its music was used in Catholic liturgies into the late 1980s when, as graduate students at New York University, we were still singing “Long Live God” at Masses sponsored by the Newman Center. The power of this musical even reached South Africa where, in 1974, it became the first show to break the color barrier after Schwartz insisted it be performed by an integrated cast before integrated audiences.

Perhaps the key to the show’s endurance is its simplicity. With no set to speak of and few props, 10 actors share Jesus’ final days in song and story, bringing out the humor as well as the message. The talented cast in this production, under Shawn Rozsa’s direction, turns familiar stories into campy skits, in one case making the Prodigal Son’s father into a Marlon Brando-like Godfather to emphasize family loyalty.

The cast still engages the audience by involving people in the front rows and along the aisles in jokes and by inviting everyone on stage at intermission. When the invitation was extended to us in 1972, it came with the lyrics: “We all need help to feel fine/Let’s have some wine.” We happily would have joined the cast for a glass, but our headmistress blocked us. Now the invitation is to join the cast to dance to the music of the show’s band, Shirley Temple of Doom. About half the audience, representing a variety of ages, did.

“ ‘Godspell’ is about the formation of community,” Schwartz says. “If you don’t have that, the show doesn’t work.”

He says many productions miss this point and become “either 10 people doing competing nightclub acts or going the other way and becoming ponderous, like a Sunday school lesson.” For this reason he attended some rehearsals and talked with the New York cast about his original intent that “these strangers come together and form a community, and the audience is part of that.”

Born in 1971 when musical theatre of the past was giving way to rock musicals like “Hair” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” “Godspell” was a hit the first time out for Schwartz, then 23, who quickly followed it with two more, “Pippin” and “The Magic Show.” With all of them playing on the Great White Way by 1974, Schwartz became the first composer/lyricist to have three shows running on Broadway at the same time.

In the last decade Schwartz has found success in the world of animated feature films, first with Disney where his lyrics to “Pocahontas,” including the song “Colors of the Wind” were part of the score and won Academy Awards. In 1998 it was back to the Bible, this time the Moses story, as he wrote music and lyrics for “Prince of Egypt,” the first animated feature of DreamWorks SKG.

And now along comes “Godspell” again, back from the hinterlands, first into a successful production Off-Off Broadway at Third Eye Repertory and then into the current Off-Broadway venue. After this, who knows? A tour is planned and, given its crowd-pleasing history, if “Godspell” shows up on Broadway again I won’t be surprised.

Schwartz says “Godspell” came out of his 1960s mentality that people should respect each other’s beliefs, especially at that time when the country was divided over issues like the Vietnam War. He says the message remains the same.

“There’s a necessity for us to pull together as a community instead of dividing even more into armed camps and niches. This is the most mean-spirited time I’ve lived through if you care about how people treat other people.”

Schwartz is right. “Godspell’s” message doesn’t need to change. But the language does.

When I told Schwartz that I found the stories’ constant references to men -- such as “Don’t practice your religion before men” and “Whatever you do for your brothers you do for me” -- to be painful, I suggested “neighbor” as an alternative. Schwartz responded enthusiastically and said he would talk to the director about changing it. “You make a good point,” he said.

If the language is changed, then this new generation will truly see a reinvented show. Right now, in a significant way, it’s still their parents’ “Godspell.”

Retta Blaney, an arts and religion writer in New York, is founder of Broadway Blessing, an interfaith service held every September to bring the theater community together to ask God’s blessing on the new season.

National Catholic Reporter, September 15, 2000