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
|Hunter Parrish (l) as Jesus|
and Wallace Smith as John / Judas
|Tower of Babble|
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|
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.