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Monday, February 06, 2012

Godspell


When I was in grade-school--I don't remember which grade, specifically--my classmates and I were taken by yellow bus on a field-trip to see the matinee performance of a local college production of Godspell. While most of my memories of the experience have long since melted into the haze of early childhood, I can remember a few things about it: The costumes were colorful. There was a lot of movement. The woman who sang "Turn Back, O Man" flung herself into the laps of various unsuspecting male spectators as she wended her way up the aisle to the stage, which made a lot of people in the audience laugh.

What I remember with even more clarity, however, was the ride home in the yellow bus: The score had worked its way under my skin, and as we wove back to my suburban grade-school, I pressed my face against the bus window, looking dreamily out at the perpetually overcast Pittsburgh landscape, and singing "Day by Day" to myself, probably fairly tunelessly, over and over and over again. In short: I remember seeing this particular production only vaguely; I can still feel it to this day.

When it comes to Godspell, I am hardly alone, of course. Godspell is one of those productions that evokes comforting, hazy childhood memories in a lot of people from my generation. The musical, which presented parables taken from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, was something of a monster-hit through the 1970s, which only seems ironic in that the musical is in no way a "monster" the way we conceive of spectacles nowadays. Otherwise, its reception history makes perfect sense. The show harnessed the Christian revivalism of the 1970s, and unlike its contemporary, Jesus Christ Superstar (also a childhood favorite for lots of us), was remarkably free of the culture of cynicism that pervaded the times. Teachings from the New Testament, which were presented vaudeville-style in broadly schticky sketches, were updated by means of innovative staging, tons of topical humor and a contemporary setting. In the original production of Godspell, which began Off Off Broadway at La MaMa in 1971 before moving Off Broadway to the Cherry Lane later that year, Jesus's followers are a group of young, contemporary lost souls, and Jesus is a kind, lovable clown in a Superman t-shirt. I suppose it helps to know something about the teachings of Christianity in seeing the show, but then again, it may not. As a suburban Jewish kid, I had no idea about the religious stuff; I just liked the songs, the schtick, and the colorful costumes.

Godspell is easily adaptable to any number of settings: there is no need for lots of scenery or props; emphasis is simply on bodies in motion. An ensemble cast reenacts the parables, engages in lots of slapstick, and sings its guts out, revival-style. The cast members also hug each other a lot. Jesus here is no robe-clad, ancient savior, but a loving, hip good buddy: the nicest, most awesome, most magnetic dude these lost souls have ever met. When he dies at the end, his new hippie friends are sad, but then again, they have internalized his teachings and resolved to live by them anyway, because he has helped them all immeasurably.

It is no wonder, then, that this show, with its joyful, wide-eyed embrace of Christianity, took off as wildly as it did: after its lengthy run in New York (where, despite very mixed reviews it lasted at the Cherry Lane for 2124 performances before moving up to Broadway for another 567 before closing), the show toured nationally, and also spawned countless local productions. When I was a kid, not only did colleges across the country stage Godspell, but so did community centers, professional and amateur regional troupes, and, of course, churches, churches, churches. I made it to college knowing pretty little about Christianity and never having read a word from the New Testament, but I knew every single lyric from every single song from Godspell.

I admit that my interest in seeing the current production--which was received by critics about as iffily as the first run was--had mostly to do with the nostalgia trip. I've seen the show performed a few times since my childhood, and have always appreciated its endlessly variable topical humor, its kinetic energy, and its catchy score. My friend and neighbor, who confessed a similar relationship to the show, suggested that we see it with our children, so she took hers (ages 13 and 8) and I took my older daughter (almost 9). My daughter is now about the age that I was when I first saw the show.

I know, I know, the current revival has been reviewed already, and not always terribly well. I don't feel that I have much to add on that front, so, in short: I agree that the new prologue and the new song in act II don't add much to the show. I agree that this production lays on the topical humor so thickly that it can sometimes suck the energy from the show. There was so much rapping, so many imitations of current celebrities, and so many Republican primary jokes that some of the sketches dragged unnecessarily. On the other hand, I had absolutely no problem with the trampolines that the cast bounced on during "We Beseech Thee".

In general, then, I found the show to be quite enjoyable. Some of this has to do with my feelings about the show, sure, but also, this production was done well by a cast that was good to excellent, and that genuinely seemed to be enjoying themselves. They made me enjoy myself, too.

But even more, I enjoyed Godspell this time around because I got to see it with my daughter. And while she doesn't always connect with the show she's watching, this time around, she proved an absolutely terrific audience member. Like I was, she is being raised Jewish, and is just beginning to develop a sense of what that means and how that relates to her overall identity. So seeing this show was an experiment in comparative religions for her; her questions and comments, whispered into my ear during the show, reflected a real attempt to tease out the differences between Judaism and Christianity: "Wait! They're singing in Hebrew!" "Hey! Why did they call Jesus a rabbi?!" "We drink wine in Judaism too!" Finally, near the somber, comparatively talky and heavily liturgical end of the show, a frustrated sigh: "Mommy, Judaism is so much easier to understand!" This last comment was easily her funniest, but was also most reflective of her own experiences: she is learning about all religions through the lens of her own. She worked hard, during the show, to figure out where she fits, not only as an audience member, but as a spiritual person.

She was not alone. There were clearly plenty of other kids who were busily watching the show and relating it to their own developing senses of the world. During intermission, I overheard another mother telling her small son how proud and happy that she was that he "recognized so many of the stories!" Clearly, this little boy is learning all about the parables in Sunday school, just as my little girl is learning to recite the Hebrew blessings in hers.

The long and the short of it is that it's a rare and wonderful experience to be able to relive a happy childhood memory while simultaneously watching your own kid formulating ones of her own. I enjoyed Godspell a lot. I suspect that, like a lot of people in my generation who are taking their offspring to this particular show, I enjoyed watching my child watching Godspell even more.

2 comments:

Mike Dickerson said...

Thanks for the review. Was the new song truly a new one by Schwartz? I know that the show has always been one of those with a few songs that are optional and some have alternatives. What blows me away is that some productions leave out "Day By Day." That's just crazy. That's like Hair leaving out "Age of Aquarius" or The Sound of Music without "The Sound of Music."

lizwollman said...

Hi:

As far as I can tell, yes, it's by Schwartz. And really, it was fine--I suspect it was added in to help segue into the suddenly serious ending, but it didn't work for me.