Rant of the Week



Apparently, Godspell is being revived on Broadway this year.  The title "Godspell", by the way, is not meant to suggest some kind of spiritual magic: "Godspell" comes from the old english words for "good word", which also evolved into the more familiar "gospel".

There was "Jesus Christ Superstar" and there was "Godspell".  Superstar was incredibly polished, elaborate, and ambitious.  It was sophisticated and complex.  It was an opera.  Godspell was like the country bumpkin cousin, all jocularity and clowning, but, underneath it all, as conventional and conformist as the church in the wild dell.  Astonishingly, Christians still objected to it, because the cast looked like hippies, and because, after all, Jesus was portrayed as a clown. 

Here's an oddity.  John-Michael Tebelak, a student at Carnegie Mellon University, wrote the musical while he was still in college, as a masters thesis.  He died of a heart attack April 2, 1985 (age 35).  Jeffrey Mylett, cast member, May 7th, 1986 (AIDS).  Lamar Alford, April 4, 1991, age 47, cause of death not disclosed.  David Haskell, brain cancer, 52, August 30th, 2000.  Lynne Thigpen, cast member, cerebral hemorrhage, 54, March 12th, 2003.   Merrell Jackson (one of the apostles), February 23, 1991, age 39.  His cause of death is conspicuously unmentioned anywhere on the web.  He could sing, he could act, he could dance: let me guess.  [Sonia Manzano, another cast member, clearly implies it was AIDS.]  Two members of the celebrated Toronto production (May 1972-August 1973), Gerry Salsberg (June 22, 2010, car accident) and Nancy Dolman (natural causes, August 21, 2010) who was married to Martin Short, have also died. 

Victor Garber, who played Jesus in Toronto, performed the same role in the movie.

Tebelak was both a believer and a hippie, and Godspell shows it.  I'd always regarded it as charming at some level, but sloppy and unfocussed, which is another way of saying it shows its roots as an improvised piece that was taken in different directions at different stages of development.  The deciding factor of its success seems to have been the involvement of Stephen Schwartz, though some seem to think the original score by Duane Bolick was more authentic, more rock'n'roll.  We'll never know-- I've never heard of it being available anywhere.  On the internet?  Duane Bolick doesn't seem to exist.  He's probably dead.

Here's another oddity.  The original, with the music by Duane Bolick, was a smash success among the small crowds that saw it at Carnegie Mellon, and when it first went to New York.  So, if you have a smash success, you want to throw out the music, right, and rewrite it?  I don't know what to make of that.  The template for this kind of makeover is Hollywood, which almost always cuts the heart and soul out of a story before castrating it into innocuous vehicle for Leonardo Di Caprio.   But there was a more immediate template:  James Rado and Gerome Ragni's Hair.  Hair (1968), like Godspell, seems to be about the rock'n'roll generation, and outwardly acknowledges rock music, but it is structurally, heart and soul, a Broadway musical.  It should be: the composer, Canadian Galt MacDermot, had never encountered hippies before being contacted by Rado and Ragni

Many people, including cast members who played in both versions, concede that Stephen Schwartz is a genius, and that he made it sound more clever and polished and sophisticated.  Like Barry Manilow and Bette Midler? 

And here's another oddity: Stephen Schwartz also came from Carnegie Mellon University.  And yet another oddity: many of the original cast members, and the director, who happened to be John Michael Tebelak, made it all the way to the Broadway version.  Tebelak was even involved in the movie script.  Surely someone has written a Hollywood movie about this plot: sincere, visionary hippie writes a musical that rocks the world, transport him and his cast to broadway, and wins a Tony.  Of course they didn't really win a Tony: Hollywood doesn't care.

The movie version of Godspell is set on the streets of New York, including an extraordinary sequence with cast members dancing and singing on window washer platforms and on the roof of the unfinished World Trade Center.  It's all a bit precious in some ways, but it's also a courageous attempt to take the gospel out of the sterile Mayberry of Andy vintage, and it's own quiet irrelevance, into a vital, crackling, youthful urban setting: God speaks to the twin towers!  It remains startling in concept, which is outrageous considering that it is 2012, but it's even more outrageous that Rick Perry and Michelle Bachmann campaign for president as if it were the 1950's, devout and puritanical, and ragingly hypocritical.  God rules everything when it comes to prayer in schools and abstinence training, but his authority is severely limited when it comes to stewardship of the environment: drill baby, drill.

Tebelak's Jesus, by the way, is a bit sanctimonious.  When John the Baptist/Judas almost uses his name in vain, he slaps him, and the rest of the troupe are aghast when Judas almost slaps him back.  It's a weird scene.  This is not a new age Jesus, sheep-like, tolerant, inclusive.  It's a strong moment in the play and I am amazed that the considerable forces of homogenization and pleasant superficial conformity didn't filter it out.


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