GODSPELL: An Analysis

by Scott Miller

Godspell is the musical theatre's equivalent of ABC's animated School House Rock—a thoroughly entertaining way to approach serious subject matter. Though the show is often dismissed as the theatrical equivalent of "empty calories," it has a lot going on under the surface, much like Stephen Schwartz's Pippin. John-Michael Tebelek, who conceived and wrote Godspell, spoke about his impetus for writing the show in an interview in America in 1971. He had attended an Easter Vigil service but was greatly disturbed by what he experienced. He found that the congregation seemed bored, and the priest seemed to be in a hurry to finish. Tebelek wanted to make the religious experience accessible once again to the masses. He saw that a religious service is theatre—the text/script, structure, use of ritual, and to a degree, standardized blocking and gestures (especially in the Catholic church). But making the religious experience into a play or musical isn't easy. There's a big difference between dramatizing a religious story or event (Jesus Christ Superstar, Two by Two, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Children of Eden, etc.), and dramatizing the actual experience of formalized worship. When you sit in a church service, there is no dramatic action, no conflict and resolution; you have already been converted to a set of beliefs. The religious ceremony is an expression of an already achieved goal—religious faith. Godspell actually dramatizes the conversion leading up to the ceremony, but this is ultimately its greatest structural flaw. The conversion is complete in Act I, and consequently, there is little left to dramatize in Act II. But despite its flaws, it can genuinely move an audience—Christians and non-Christians alike.

Tebelek assembled a cast of college friends in 1970 to mount the first production of Godspell at Carnegie Tech School of Drama, and members of the cast set hymn texts to their own original pop music. Tebelek's script was taken almost entirely from the Gospel of Matthew. The show was a success and moved to Cafe La Mama in New York, where the New York producers decided they needed a full, unified score. Another Carnegie Tech grad, Stephen Schwartz, was shopping his idea for a musical called Pippin Pippin around town, and was invited to write the new score. Completed in five weeks, his soft rock score with lyrics taken from hymns, psalms, and other religious sources, was interpolated into the already-running Off-Broadway show. It moved uptown to Broadway in 1976. Much more accessible to the adult ticket-buying public than the harder rock of Hair's score, Schwartz's songs became immediately popular. Godspell ran in New York for six years, was made into a movie, revived off-Broadway in 1988, and still has road companies touring the world.

Bringing God to the People

Tebelek's intention was to recreate the situation of Jesus and his disciples in contemporary terms. Like the disciples in the Bible, the twelve followers in the show are average people. Jesus teaches them through stories, and in this modern context, through other contemporary forms of storytelling, including puppetry, mime, "improvised" and sketch comedy. The main point of the parables was to translate complex philosophical ideas into terms easily understood by lay persons. In the Bible, Jesus uses everyday situations familiar to the disciples to create stories that illustrate his lessons. In Godspell, he does the same thing, but because Godspell is set 2,000 years later, the details of the stories are similarly modernized. In both cases, he makes religious philosophy easy to grasp. People today can't relate to masters and slaves, innkeepers and silver pieces, pharisees and tax gatherers; but they can relate to contemporary pop culture references, pop music, and modern slang.

The most important point for anyone mounting a production of Godspell is that it's not a revue or a variety show; it is literally a religious experience. In far too many productions, the spiritual side of the material is flatly ignored in favor of flashy song and dance. These productions are still entertaining, but not moving. The Last Supper and Crucifixion are not powerful moments because there has been no emotional base created on stage. Those of us familiar with Christianity know that we should be moved, but we aren't. For the show to succeed, the audience must be converted along with the cast.

The experience must be genuine in every sense. The skits, puppets, and ad libs are a way into the material for the audience; but they are not an end unto themselves. Though the show is a lot of fun on its surface, the text is taken almost entirely from the Bible, mostly from the Gospel according to Matthew, and the parables are attempting to define a moral code. The purpose of the show is not merely to be cute, but to communicate serious philosophical and moral concepts in a user-friendly context. Even the structure is like a mass—readings and lessons alternating with songs/psalms. The point of the show is that religion should be fun, accessible, joyful; but should not be supplanted by razzle dazzle.

Developing a Concept for the Show

John-Michael Tebelek wrote Godspell in order to give people a "way in" to religion in general and the teachings of Christ specifically. The physical production must work toward that end as well, through the sets, costumes, staging, and acting style. The show's original concept was based on Harvey Cox's 1969 Feast of Fools, which argued that for religion to once again reach the people, it had to reclaim its festivity and fantasy. Much of organized religion had become so somber, so serious, that the joy had gone out of it. From this concept, Tebelek seized upon the idea of using clowns to recapture that lost feeling of celebration and revelry. The cast put on clown make-up and wild colorful costumes after being drawn together by Jesus. This concept was based not only on Cox's work, but also on the joy and freedom of the youth movement of the 1960s and early 1970s. The cast as ordinary people becoming clowns illustrated a dramatic change, a very visible kind of conversion. This hybrid of clowns and flower children was a familiar image to audiences of the early 70s. It is not, however, to audiences of the 90s.

In the years since Godspell premiered, thousands of productions have been mounted. Many directors have looked for ways to make the show fresh again, to remove it from the confines and perceived shallowness of the 1970s and update it. The 60s youth movement is no longer familiar to most people, and as a society, we're getting used to more and more realism on television and in the movies. The fantasy world of the original Godspell may seem too naive, too innocent for those of us brought up on Hill Street Blues and CNN. The purpose of Godspell is to use what is familiar to the audience to help them connect with the material. It's considered common practice to insert your own jokes and pop culture references into the script, and this helps update the material to an extent, but fundamental elements of the show must be re-examined. In a society which is no longer controlled completely by white males, many productions of Godspell cast women, blacks or Asians as Jesus, and this gives the show a strongly contemporary feel. I've seen productions that portrayed the twelve disciples as painters or construction workers in an empty building, young people on a playground, street people in a junkyard or vacant lot, etc. The only flaw in these conceptions is that they have Jesus coming to an already assembled group of people, instead of drawing average people from the general populace, as he did in the Bible. It is the diversity of the disciples that makes them an interesting group, capable of going back to various parts of society to spread the word after Jesus is gone.

A production I directed set the action in a diner. A group of very different people were drawn to the diner where they encounter Jesus. These twelve included the diner's owner, two waitresses, the cook, a business man, a business woman, a dance teacher, a cop, a married woman on her way to tennis, a salesman (John the Baptist/Judas), a hooker, etc. They came from all parts of society, yet they could find common ground in the diner. They were dressed in street clothes and they applied no clown make-up; their conversion was a gradual one, conveyed through their acting. As might be expected in real life, some of them immediately accepted Jesus as teacher, others did not. The clown costumes in the original production signified dramatic change, but was that change too instant, too easy? We have become a skeptical, cynical nation. If someone came up to one of us and told us he was Christ, we would naturally assume he was delusional. Though any musical requires a certain suspension of disbelief, there are limits to an audience's cooperation. Depending on the personality of each character in our production, some of them became involved in the stories more quickly than others. Eventually, they had all accepted him as teacher and as the son of God. The disciples are the audience's surrogates, their representatives, and the audience must be able to see themselves in the situation onstage. Like we would, the people in the diner had to consider what Jesus was saying, had to doubt him, weigh the risk of trusting him, and finally decide to let their guard down. The dramatic action of the first act is almost entirely in the conversion of the twelve, so letting it happen more slowly provides that much more of a dramatic arc. Because this more contemporary, realistic group of people represents the audience, the opportunity for non-traditional casting among the disciples is perhaps even greater than with the original concept.

Right From the Start

Godspell is incomplete without the Prologue, yet the majority of productions eliminate this opening musical number (perhaps because it's not on the recording). Godspell is about reconciling God and the Bible with our modern world, yet how can we do that if we don't put both in their proper context? The subject of God and organized religion has dominated philosophical discussions for centuries; and at this time in history when organized religion is frequently under fire, how can we examine where we are morally and intellectually without looking at how we got here? This is what the Prologue accomplishes, a fascinating survey of some of the greatest minds of the western world—Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Leonardo Da Vinci, Edward Gibbon (English author of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), F.W. Nietzsche, Jean Paul Sartre, and R. Buckminster Fuller. Each philosopher has a verse (each with a different melody) to expound upon God and religion, and their impact on society. Some of the philosophers believe in God; others do not. Yet even the atheists among them admit the profound force of the concept of God. Because the philosophers are presented in (mostly) chronological order, we can see the evolution of religious thought over time, and the actors have a chance to research these men, giving them a stronger base upon which to build this religious experience. The lyrics of the Prologue are quite well written, and it's fun to see how well Schwartz has captured the various views in just a few lines. It will also give the audience a more solid base on which to understand the whole show in philosophical terms.

The Prologue segues directly into "Tower of Babble," in which the philosophers come together in unison to tell us that they are indeed the greatest minds of history and that we should listen to what they have to say. They then proceed to sing their verses again, this time all at once, creating a carefully constructed mosaic of conflicting philosophies. The point is that all these views have combined (as their melodies now have) over time to create the basis for contemporary religious thought; and though many of the ideas are conflicting, they still work together to form a solid foundation on which to build. The Prologue and "Tower of Babble" place both Christ and us, the audience, in historical context.

With the Prologue in place, the need for the clown costumes is not as great because now we can see a different conversion—the cast changes from philosophers to "believers" before our eyes. We see the dramatic difference between philosophy, something complex that is forged in the brain, and faith, something very simple that resides in the heart. This difference is underscored by the transition from the intricate counterpoint of "Tower of Babble" to the extreme simplicity of "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord," a song with an unadorned melody over a very basic chord progression, and a one-sentence lyric. As the cast has been transformed, so has the score. Jesus enters and we see the last element of the transformation, from the philosophers' complicated discourse to the intentionally unpretentious words of Jesus Christ.

Losing Your Religion

The broad appeal of Godspell lies in its pop/rock score and its cheerful approach to the Gospel. People like to direct and perform in Godspell for the same reasons they like to see it—it's fun and it makes you feel good. But the show isn't just about doing funny skits; it's about the teachings of Christ. This is serious fun. The jokes, skits, and other shtick must support the parables, not overwhelm them. We must see the disciples learning what Jesus is teaching them, and we must learn along with them. The most important element of the show is the relationship between Jesus and the twelve disciples. Because the disciples are the audience's surrogates, their relationship with Jesus is really our relationship with him. This relationship must be explored and developed throughout the first act. Each actor must be aware of how his relationship with Jesus grows and changes. We need to understand that Jesus sees them as his friends, his students, and his children, and he loves them deeply in all these ways. Whether the last half-hour of the show is as moving as it can be depends entirely on these relationships. During the Last Supper, the knowledge of their impending separation should be utterly gut-wrenching to everyone in the cast, especially Judas; and it can be equally so to the audience if we've seen the love and trust between them all grow over the course of the first act. If you wait to focus on this until the Last Supper, there will be no emotional basis established for the grief the audience should be feeling. Everything in Act I leads to the Last Supper and Crucifixion, so everything must be staged and acted with that in mind. Act I not only teaches the parables, but also sets the audience up for the tragedy of Act II.

Words and Music

Though Stephen Schwartz's score was interpolated into the show after it had already been running for a while, it is well integrated and functional, but in different ways from an ordinary musical theatre score. There are two kinds of songs in the score: book songs and diegetic songs. Book songs are those that grow out of the action, in which the characters are saying something in the context of the situation onstage. These songs are more like traditional musical comedy songs; they function like speeches and the characters aren't aware that they're singing. They're not singing to the audience; they're "talking" to Jesus, to each other, or to themselves. For instance, in "Save the People," Jesus is talking to God. In "Day by Day" and "By My Side," the cast is telling Jesus what he means to them. In "On the Willows," the cast (or band) is expressing their feelings as they say goodbye to Jesus. In "Alas for You," Jesus is talking to the Pharisees.

Diegetic songs are those in which the act of singing is part of the story (like when a character in a musical sings in a night club), and the characters are aware that they're singing; the songs would still be there even if it wasn't a musical. Diegetic songs in other musicals include "Willkommen" and "Cabaret" in Cabaret, "Dames" and "We're in the Money" in 42nd Street, "Parlor Songs" in Sweeney Todd, "Honey Bun" in South Pacific, and the title song in La Cage aux Folles. In Godspell, the diegetic songs are mostly the songs in which the lessons are summarized or the cast is just having fun, including "All for the Best" "Turn Back O Man," and "We Beseech Thee." These two different kinds of songs should be staged and acted differently to help the audience see the distinct function of each.

There are four basic kinds of prayers: those in which we ask for help, those in which we ask for forgiveness, those in which we ask for help in becoming better people, and prayers of thanks. Because the lyrics in Godspell are largely taken from the Bible, many of the songs in the show fit into these four categories, thereby reinforcing the parallel between Godspell and an actual religious service. "God Save the People" asks for help; "We Beseech Thee" asks for forgiveness; the cast asks for help in becoming better people in "Day by Day;" and "All Good Gifts" and "Bless the Lord" are songs of thanks. The most important thing about the score is to understand how each song works and why it's in the show. The actors should read the lyrics as text and make sure they understand the message of each song, so they can successfully communicate it to the audience. Because the songs will invariably be staged as one showstopper after another, it's important to help the audience see beyond the visual razzle dazzle to the meaning underneath.

Act II Trouble

It's interesting that so many musicals have trouble with the second act when they're in previews. In fact, a number of wonderful musicals still have Act II trouble even after they open. Most of us don't think about Godspell having a problematic second act, but if you're not careful with it, it can. As mentioned before, a great deal of the success of Act II depends on how well the emotional ties between Jesus and the disciples are established in Act I. Without a solid base already set, the drama of the second act will fall flat. The narrative Act II has an entirely different tone from the more presentational Act I; in Act II, we're actually observing a series of events that follow logically toward a climax and resolution. The only action in the first act is the growth of the relationships. The encounter with the Pharisees early in Act II is the first time there is an extended dramatic conflict; it's the first time Jesus encounters a serious antagonist. It is significant that, though Jesus knows this is coming, the disciples don't. They are completely stunned by this sudden confrontation. This should be dramatized in the different ways Jesus and the disciples react to the Pharisees. To avoid the evening feeling like two separate musicals, "We Beseech Thee" has been saved to use fun and frolic as a connection between the two acts. But despite this brief respite, it has become a very different show, and in many ways, a more traditional plot-driven musical by this point.

The Last Supper is the first of the two major events in Act II. The scene opens with "By My Side." The cast knows Jesus will be leaving them, but they don't know if he'll be back. They're scared and they don't want to lose him. Jesus wonders whether he has prepared them sufficiently to go on without him, and to pass on what he has taught them. The Last Supper is their last time together, and if the audience has been properly prepared emotionally, this scene will be devastating to watch. Perhaps Judas is the most upset of all because he knows he must betray Jesus. In some productions, when he leaves to go to the priests, he actually physicalizes the fact that he's been trapped by fate through mime or other abstract staging. This can be very interesting, but not if it's the only instance of this style of acting in the show; an abstract moment can't be randomly thrown into an otherwise realistic show. The entire Last Supper scene must radiate tremendous tension, for slightly different reasons in each character on stage. The audience should feel the loss and fear the disciples are experiencing, and the fear that Jesus is feeling as well.

The crucifixion is the climax of the show. Jesus has to be put up on the cross, and depending on the set you've designed, you can be creative about this. In our diner set, the front door of the diner, up-center, became his cross—his "doorway" to heaven. The finale must be extreme, uncontrolled, anguished, completely over the top. These twelve people are watching their friend, teacher, father, and God nailed to a cross to die. It's a frightening thing for an inexperienced actor to portray extreme emotion, but the power of the scene depends on it. In the production I directed, the disciples tore apart the diner during the instrumental sequences in the finale, throwing chairs and tables across the stage, ripping signs down, etc. Their grief was so extreme, so consuming that it couldn't be expressed just through the voice. The anger and rebellion associated with hard rock music, the distortion of the electric guitar, the driving beat of the drums, the flashing lights all contributed to the intensity of the moment. During these sections, the actors writhed in agony on the floor, beat their fists on the stage, screamed, moaned, etc. The sudden silence after Jesus had died and the music paused before going on to "Long live God" was deafening. The silent theatre, filled only with the quiet sobbing of audience members (this usually hits them pretty hard) was a powerful illustration of the emptiness and aloneness the disciples feel. But they know they must go on, and must pass on what they've been taught.

One by one—the women first—they rise as they sing "Long live God." Soon the men begin "Prepare Ye" in counterpoint; they will now prepare the way for the teachings of Christ. In this way, "Prepare Ye" functions as bookends at the opening and closing of the action, and as reminders of one of the show's central themes, the passing on of the teachings of Christ. As the counterpoint continues, they take Jesus down from the cross and carry him off (in our production, out through the audience). Some productions end the show there, where the script ends; but most use the curtain call (a reprise of "Day by Day") as the Resurrection, as Jesus returns to the stage with the cast. If you've done it right, your audience will be instantly on its feet, clapping, singing along, and probably sobbing. As long as you don't forget the spiritual and emotional underpinnings of the material, Godspell can be a unique theatre experience for both the cast and audience.

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Copyright 1995. Excerpt from Scott Miller's book, From Assassins to West Side Story. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.