Monday, October 31, 2011

Godspell in two acts

On Sunday evening, I went to see the musical Godspell with my oldest brother, Fr. Charlie, at The Circle in the Square theater at 50th and Broadway.  I received two complimentary tickets from the show's production company (Davenport Theatrical Enterprises) with the request that I blog about the show afterwards.

I'm going to approach this post in two acts: first an entertainment review, then an evangelical assessment.  There's even an intermission.  On to Act One!

The Entertainment Review
The show is performed in the intimate setting of The Circle in the Square downstairs theater.  This is a small circular stage, surrounded by seats on all sides.  Such a setting always introduces challenges to a production; you don't want the actors to have their backs to a quarter of the audience for too long.  But the setting also provides for a dynamic use of the stage space, as well as some playful self-aware riffs, such as the embellishment on Turn Back, O Man's "See ya later, I'm going to the front of the the-a-ter."
Hunter Parrish (l) as Jesus
and Wallace Smith as John / Judas
The stage is covered in trap doors which are used to great effect twice in the production, first during Prepare Ye (along with a comedic exchange between Jesus and John the Baptist), and then during We Beseech Thee... but I won't tell you how.  Just in front of the stage, on opposite sides, were cushion seats — not chairs, just cushions on the floor.  These might have been uncomfortable (and suitable only for younger attendees) but they were just one element of audience participation which occurred throughout the first act.  Much of the audience got the chance to mill about on the stage when some light refreshments were served during the intermission.

Tower of Babble
The show has been rather well contemporized:  the opening number (Tower of Babble) employs social media devices (today's enablers of babble, as my brother pointed out), well-known celebrities and public persons are impersonated and often playfully mocked (including Oprah Winfrey, Donald Trump, Charlie Sheen, and even President Obama), and plenty of pop-culture references are infused throughout (including a reference to "Occupy Wall Street", a bit of the wedding procession dance, and a rather fitting incorporation of LMFAO's panegyric to alcohol and sex, Shots).  The vignettes in between the songs are done in a variety of styles, including hip-hop and game shows.

The updating of the show for today's (younger) audience is where the show takes its greatest risks, usually succeeding, although sometimes falling a little flat.  There are a couple of uses of "Jesus Christ" as exclamations, but these are very well-timed, obviously ironic, and ultimately non-offensive.  The "exclusive language" (e.g. "man", "he", "him") was retained in the songs, and in the vignettes which were not completely revised for other reasons; the archaic "Thee"s and "Thou"s are still there too.  There is also some degree of retention of the 70s origin of the musical, although not to the extreme.  As mentioned earlier, there were plenty of pop culture references — not that I got them all — and most worked well, although a few seemed forced and did not garner much of a reaction from the audience (such as a reference to iPad tablets being used in heaven because Steve Jobs is there now).  The updating of the vignettes also posed a problem of transitioning between a vignette and the song that followed it.  The transitions were a bit sudden in the first act, but I did not notice any such problems in the second act.

Telly Leung on piano
The cast was incredible and boasts several talented Broadway debuts.  Their voices were clear and powerful, and Telly Leung stands out in my memory as having a beautiful voice and an impressive range to go with it; his post-intermission singing took me by surprise.  Along with their voices were their passionate and emotional performances of the show's songs.  The audience was clapping and moving and singing along with them.  The Last Suppper scene is particularly poignant, as the disciples individually reminisce with Jesus via some gesture related to a song they sang or a vignette they featured in, before He embraces them warmly.

All in all, a very enjoyable Broadway experience, and a delightfully refreshing fare.  Playing beneath Wicked, no less!

First, if you would like to buy tickets at a reduced rate for the show, just click here, or enter the discount code GSPRD719 when you order them.

Second, if you would like to win two free tickets, either comment on this blog-post, share it on your own blog, or re-tweet this tweet of mine.  (That's three ways you can enter, and you may use all three to enter the drawing three times, but I won't accept more than three entries per person.  And no cheating... you're trying to win tickets to a musical based on the Gospel according to Matthew, for heaven's sake!)  I'll do a random drawing at the end of the week and the winner will be announced here and on Twitter.

If you want something to eat or drink, if you've already had something to eat or drink and need to use the restroom, now's the time.  Then come back for Act Two.

The Evangelical Assessment
No matter how you slice it, Godspell is a religiously-themed musical.  It's based on the Gospel according to Matthew, and not in a merely thematic sense, but in a dramatic sense:  you will hear several of the parables and teachings of Jesus Christ proclaimed in a positive manner in a Broadway theater.  Yes, it is couched in a half-modern, half-vintage setting, and it is paid entertainment — you pay to get in, and the actors get paid to perform their roles — but the musical gets its message in part from Jesus Christ and His Gospel.

Godspell is an entertaining presentation of some of the Gospel, but does it work as an evangelical outreach to non-believers?  Does it inspire non-Christians to take not only the message of Jesus Christ, but Jesus Himself, seriously?

The Gospel as encountered in the show is, of course, not the complete Gospel, nor even the whole of the Gospel according to Matthew.  To be sure, much of Matthew's Gospel is incorporated.  (Roughly: Matthew 3:1-15; 4:3-10; 5:1-48; 6:1-6, 19-34; 7:1-12; 13:1-8, 18-23; 21:23-32; 22:16-21, 36-40; 23:1-39; 24:4-8; 26:20-22, 25-29, 34, 36-56; along with a crucifixion scene and Luke 10:30-37 (the Good Samaritan), 15:11-32 (the Prodigal Son), 16:19-31 (the rich man and Lazarus), and John 8:2-11 (the woman caught in adultery).)  The songs also draw heavily on the Psalms and hymns.

But these scriptural excerpts are only Jesus' parables and teachings and commandments.  As powerful and important as they are, there are no miracles represented, except as alluded to in local performances; for example, the 2011 Broadway revival makes a reference to the wedding at Cana, as a gag.

There is also little explicit recognition of Jesus as the Messiah or of His divine nature, although it is there if you are perceptive; for example, John's opening song is Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord, and the crucifixion includes the wording of "O God, you're dying".  Both, I think, are deliberately ambiguous: you can interpret them as saying that Jesus helps prepare the way of the Lord (but is not Himself the Lord) and the ensemble is using "O God" as an exclamation; or you could say Jesus is the Lord Whose way John is preparing, and the ensemble addresses Jesus as "O God" as He hangs on the cross.  (More explicitly, Jesus says "I send you prophets" in Alas For You. But does the average theater-goer pick up on the implication of that?)

There is also officially no representation of Jesus' Resurrection in the musical, although some local performances choose to add it.

So if you take the Gospel, remove the birth stories and the resurrection, omit the miracles, and leave out the other supernatural events (such as the voice of God the Father at the Jordan), you essentially have the Jefferson Bible; that is, The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth, Thomas Jefferson's attempt to extract Jesus' doctrine from the New Testament, avoiding any supernatural aspects.  The Jesus that remains, while speaking the truth, is potentially not distinguishable from any other prophetic and charismatic leader who angers the officials and is put to death as a result: just another prophet in a long line of prophets.

Jesus' message in Godspell is clear: repent of your sins, forgive others who wrong you, live virtuously, and above all, love God. He mentions Hell and eternal punishment several times.

But the show does not provide an adequate or intelligible segue from Jesus' teaching to His death. During the song By My Side, it is mentioned that Judas begins to look for an opportunity to betray Jesus, but it is not said why. Jesus' tirade against the Pharisees from Matthew 23 is well-represented in the musical (especially through the song Alas for You) but it's not clear that those Pharisees have enticed Judas to betray Jesus, and why exactly they want Him dead. The Last Supper scene includes mention of a "covenant" but without any other context: what is a "covenant", what is the blood of a covenant, and why is Jesus suddenly having a special meal with His disciples? The result is that the crucifixion is simply the death of the disciples' leader, but not the death of his message and teachings which live on in the disciples.

So from that perspective, Godspell is about (part of) the message of Jesus, and not about Jesus Himself. I think that hinders its ability to evangelize non-Christians. (Not that I think the musical was written to be a means of Christian evangelization, but it is sometimes employed by Christians for that purpose.)

That being said, Godpsell preaches the message that God is love.  If people can take that message home with them, and if that message can be a good seed in the fertile soil of their souls, then the evangelical power of Godspell is immeasurable.  Consider the song We Beseech Thee from the musical (lyrics adapted from the Thomas Henson Pollock hymn, Father, Hear Thy Children's Call): "Come sing about love / that made us first to be. / Come sing about love / that made the stone and tree." The same Love Who made the universe made us each to be, and made man to be at all.  And the cast sings about Love so energetically, so passionately, so powerfully.  If only Christians could sing about Love — and speak, and act, and live about Love — with as much enthusiasm and conviction, the collective Christian witness would have unimaginable and far-reaching effects.

There's one difference, though.  I do not say this as a slight against the cast of Godspell, but they're paid to sing about Love.  As Christians, we are not paid to sing about Love; at least, we are not guaranteed any worldly reward.  Is that what stops us?  I hope not.  Let's starting singing about Love again.  Do it today, on your way home from work or school, as you prepare dinner or do the dishes, as you tuck your children into bed, as blog and tweet and surf the web.  Sing about Love.


Monica said...

Excellent review. I really want to see Godspell! Sounds like a wonderful show filled with talent and a good message.

Joe Cleary said...

Thanks for the review Jeff - I hope I can get up to NYC and see this revival. The short videos @ DeaconGreg's site bring me back 30 years.

Two comments for your consideration - first I totally get that GODSPELL is not an evangelical tract- but I have to add an important "yet...."
Somehow this show delivers a message and reaches people ( me too!) in way that is often lost in our other religious settings. You point to the message of love in your blog- so true but I would add infectious joy with that message of love.

My second comment relates to the first- of course these are paid actors on Broadway. And yet my own conversations with various actors and in both unpaid as well as semipro productions - and these folks I know are all over the map religiously- is that this show touched them deeply and in way they haven't experienced with other shows. It isn't just another show for those who have been in the show.

GODSPELL brings HIS message of love and joy in a manner too often bypassed in our lives and even our churches.

Monica said...


When are you drawing the winner for the tickets? I've been anxiously waiting with my fingers crossed. I'm really hoping for the chance to see Godspell, especially after reading your review.

Jeffrey Pinyan said...

Monica, I'm waiting to hear back from the rep. who has the tickets. As soon as I have confirmation from her that the tickets are ready, I will do my random drawing.

Sorry for the delay and the suspense!

Jeffrey Pinyan said...

Where are you, Monica?!

Monica said...


I'm in NYC. Have you been trying to reach me?

Jeffrey Pinyan said...

I meant, "Where are you on the Internet so I can send you your tickets voucher?" :)

I don't have an email address or anything for you.

Please email me at thecrossreference AT gmail DOT com

Monica said...

Thanks so much, Jeffrey!! :) I just sent you an email.