The musical Godspell certainly came into the world at the right time, during the height of the early Seventies “Jesus Rock” mini-genre. Although the concept album Jesus Christ Superstar had hit the stores in 1970, this Stephen Schwartz-penned production hit the stage first, debuting Off-Broadway in March of 1971 several months before the Andrew Lloyd Weber-Tim Rice blockbuster raised curtain on the Great White Way. At the same time, the AM stations were sprinkled with hit songs like Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” and Ocean’s “Put Your Hand in the Hand.” The idea of Jesus as a sandal-footed advocate of selfless human values had firmly caught on with many in the counterculture as the Sixites gave way to the new decade.
Meanwhile, in my own little corner of the world, this musical trend played out during my last two years (7th and 8th grade) of parochial school. There had been a marked change during the eight illustrious years I spent at St. John’s School in downtown Peabody, Mass. The earlier years were marked by a grim catechism and vestiges of corporal punishment—ear-pulling was still a go-to tactic of the older nuns (luckily I was spared). By the time I hit sixth grade, the modernizing Vatican II decrees were in place, and there were hippie-ish nuns and younger priests with acoustic guitars at “folk mass.” By seventh grade, we were listening to Jesus Christ Superstar in class, our homeroom sister tittering at the use of the term “J.C.” to address the Messiah.
Although our tastes were running more to Rod Stewart and the Stones, we dug JCS. It was a straight-up rock opera, musically compelling and contemporarily astute in its retelling of the Passion of Christ, with anti-hero Judas at the center of the action. In the eighth grade (1971-72) it was all about Godspell, with a field trip to Boston’s Wilbur Theater in the offing to see a performance by the touring company. The record, with its familiar illustration of Jesus against a red background, was ubiquitous and the single “Day by Day” hit #13 on the Billboard charts. But this was a different proposition, a more traditional (and largely plotless) musical based on a series of parables adapted from the Gospel of St. Matthew. Godspell also seemed to tap into the so-called “Jesus freak” scene of the time, with its ragamuffin characters exuding relentless good spirits and hamming it up in such a way as to convince the world that vaudeville was not dead after all. Still, we 14 year-olds ate it up, debating our favorite songs and having a ball at the Wilbur Theater. It was my first time at seeing a big-time theater production and though I could sense the corniness of it all, the in-your-face eagerness and enforced audience involvement, it was a spoonful of sugar that helped the last year of my Catholic medicine go down.
By the time this film adaptation hit the screens in 1973, that overweening flower-power jauntiness must have seemed to many to be past its shelf life. It doesn’t take long for the film to give you this feeling. Shot entirely on location in the Big Apple, it begins with John the Baptist (David Haskell) pushing a cart over the Brooklyn Bridge pedestrian boardwalk into Manhattan and into cinematic immortality of a sort. He cases out eight potential disciples in a manner that may nowadays seem a little creepy. He then blows his fanfare trumpet from the top of the Bethesda Fountain and, after a quick Friends-style baptism, it’s showtime!
And so it goes for most of the film, until the betrayal and death of Christ is quickly taken up near the end. Jesus is played by the wispy Victor Garber whose face paint and mime-like outfit, complete with stylized Superman t-shirt, is like an open invitation for skeptics. But hey, I’ve always considered myself a fair-minded critic and I will say that the early parts of the movie are the strongest, before the relentless mugging and prancing becomes too much. “Save the People” exudes a certain poignancy, Garber’s plaintive tenor is just right as he ponders “Shall crime bring crime forever?” and pleads for the exaltation of everyday people, “not thrones and crowns.” The camera’s telephoto shot of massed skyscrapers neatly show the concentration of power and money that have replaced those thrones and crowns, never mind the fact that when it pans down to the street the troupe are playing leapfrog on the empty avenue. The J-man and the Baptist lead the apostles, now all dubiously attired in patched-up glad rags, light out to their new HQ on Randall’s Island. They take on a purposeful, march-like gait under the multitudinous (and cathedral-like) support beams of Hell Gate Bridge, apparently prepared to set the world to rights.
But there’ll be no fishes ‘n’ loaves action here. From here until the end credits you’ll hardly see another soul. The ten-member cast proceeds to sing and tell parables amongst themselves in a strangely de-populated New York City, strange that is until the recent scenes of a ghostly Gotham in the throes of the current Covid-19 pandemic. Of course, this insularity derives from it being a play with humble beginnings (Godspell was conceived and first staged by Jean-Michael Trebelak at Carnegie Mellon Univ. as his masters’ thesis). But the insularity, along with the suffocating positivity, soon gives the group an almost cult-like demeanor, starting with the clip below.
The troupe put a fresh coat of hippie paint to their new scrapyard base of operations, set to the new version of “Day by Day”, here sung by the tomboyish Robin Lamont (all the apostle actors retain their first names in character)
Rather than go out into the world and do good deeds as the historical Jesus probably would have wanted, director David Greene retains the let’s-put-on-a-show impetus and “opens up” the stage musical by using his Columbia Pictures budget, and an oft-used zoom lens, to stage scenic production numbers all over the city: Lincoln Center, Times Square and the top of the nearly-completed World Trade Center are just three of the famous sites used in a single song, “All for the Best.” A nice “get” was the interior of the Andrew Carnegie Mansion, used as the setting for Joanne Jonas’ solo turn a la Mae West in “Turn Back O Man,” petitioning mankind to give up its foolish, materialistic ways.
The late Lynn Thigpen, who some may recall for her role in the Carmen San Diego TV series, does a bang-up job with “Bless the Lord” though the all-fall-down ending points up the film’s reflexive silliness.
Stephen Schwartz’s songs, with their appealing melodies and soaring choruses, can only support this movie so long with all the troubadour triteness going on. A lot of one’s receptivity to Godspell depends on how much one accepts the built-in artificiality at stage musicals. My receptivity became very limited very quickly after seeing the Boston production in 1972, by the mid-70s my idea of a touring company was when Jethro Tull or the Allman Bros. Band hit the Garden across town. Things improve a bit when the mood turns serious at the end, esp. with Katie Hanley singing “By My Side” and the vaulted supports of Hell Gate Bridge make a great setting for the “funeral” of Jesus.
But to what end? Does Godspell have something to say today, even for us secular humanists? There is if you stretch your imagination, and the kindness espoused does stand in stark contrast to the callous evangelists of today, who more closely resemble the money-changers Christ went ballistic on way back when, the ones who now defy state orders and recklessly urge their hapless parishioners to congregate during a pandemic, lest they miss even one week of the collection box. But for that we may need a new kind of righteouness, leaving the Godspell movie as the “patches and face-paint” relic it was even in 1973, never mind today.
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