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Godspell - Notes from Directors

Layers and Layers of Subtext ~ or ~ What's Really Going on in Godspell?

By Rusty Andrews

Shoestring Theatre Company, Los Gatos, CA

Rusty Andrews has directed and performed in Godspell many times and has analysed its meaning in ways that may help other directors. Copyright 2001.

Just about a year ago I was selected by the Shoestring Theatre Company to direct a production of GODSPELL. Now, I've spent a lot of years both behind and in front of the scenery (mostly behind) but this was my first chance to direct a show, and I wanted it to be great--the definitive GODSPELL. My one strong recollection of the only time I'd seen the show was how wonderfully excited and energized I had felt at the end.

Quick I logged on to Amazon.com and ordered the latest recording-at that time the 1993 London studio cast recording that Stephen Schwartz had supervised. I spent the next week reveling in the delightful songs and visualizing them onstage.

It wasn't until I received the play book from MTI that I began to realize just what I had gotten myself into. At first blush, GODSPELL appears to be almost completely random in form. Most book musicals come fully equipped with linear plot lines that more-or-less dictate how the show should look and feel.

GODSPELL looked like a mish-mash of blackout sketches, vaudeville routines, and burlesque comedy interspersed with the memorable songs. It never became even vaguely linear until the second half of the second act. Thank goodness for Stephen Schwartz' wonderful introduction. In it he takes pains to point out that much of what goes on in the show is not conveyed at its surface-that it's subtext. He then goes on to explain that the show isn't really about Jesus, that it's really about creating a community and talks a lot about the first act character arcs. Well, that was fine as far as it went, but, as I read the script and began to work on blocking, I couldn't help feeling that there was more here than met the eye-maybe even more than Stephen's statement about the show's subtext would indicate.

Most musicals are pretty straightforward. You've got a story. You've got characters. You've got traditions or conventions about the way it's presented. All you really have to do is fill in the blanks. GODSPELL seemed chock full of blanks that I couldn't immediately fill in. In researching the show's history I could see that some directors had so danced on the vehicle that it bore little resemblance to the original show, and I couldn't see how they fulfilled the author's original intent. Maybe that was it-maybe John-Michael Tebelak was actually trying to do more than just tell the story of the formation of a community based on a martyred philosopher's homely little morality stories. It was then that I began building a more complete understanding of what's really going on in GODSPELL.

My interpretation of the show is based on a great many things, not the least of which are my own life experiences, educational background, theatrical experience, and religious opinions. Maybe the only way for me to explain what I came to find in this deceptively simple show is to begin by explaining myself.

I'm middle-aged (over 40, under 60). I have degrees in English and in American Studies; both disciplines based on analysis and interpretation of the written word. My primary interest in American Studies was the area of popular culture: movies, comic books, popular theatre, popular music, etc. studied in terms of classical themes, archetypes, and so forth (Joseph Campbell, where are you when I need you?). I have also had a lifelong love for musicals-my collection of first-edition vinyl show recordings is somewhat larger than my wife would like.

I grew up in the Episcopal church and am a child of its rather liberal theology. I was a teenager/young adult in the late 60's-early 70's when GODSPELL was new and when, coincidentally, most mainline churches were trying to figure out how to restore their dwindling congregations.

The idea of "de-mythologizing" Jesus (stripping away the supernatural "clap-trap" and dealing exclusively with his teachings) is nothing new to me-in fact, it's really one of those "form vs. content" things. I am still an active churchman, and this production of GODSPELL was being produced at my home church.

Over the months that I was working on the show I came to a number of conclusions and had more than a few epiphanies (those little "ah-ha's" of life) with regard to this show. All of which became part of the show that as I wanted to direct it.

Who's this Jesus fellow anyway?

Despite the frequent admonition that "GODSPELL is not gospel", the Jesus that's depicted in it is definitely the Jesus of the New Testament. He's not dressed in a long flowing robe, doesn't perform miracles (well, there are a few cheesy magic tricks that hardly seem to fill the bill), doesn't heal the sick, and doesn't rise from the dead. On the other hand, he's warm, loving, a patient teacher, and definitely presents the central element of Bible-Jesus' teachings, "Love God and, because you love God, be good to those around you". GODSPELL-Jesus confronts hypocracy, celebrates the Last Supper, forgives sinners, teaches his friends how life could be if they'd work at it a little, is betrayed by one of his friends, and is finally executed because he threatens the status-quo of the power structure.

So who are all these other people?

Besides Jesus there are nine other characters in the show. Judas doubles a John the Baptist at the beginning, and the others act out other characters-Pharisees, demons, and characters in parables-during the course of the show. They're almost a commedia troupe, and I honestly contemplated placing the show on a pageant wagon and presenting it as a commedia piece. In fact, each of them represents a type: Gilmer is sweet and silly, Herb is a commedian, Peggy is shy, Joanne is brash, Sonia has seen more than her share of life, Lamar is faithful, Jeffrey is an innocent, Judas is cynical, and Robin is eager to believe. They represent various elements of Everyman and act as an audience-surrogate so we can enter into the magic of the show.The nine followers each experiences a "conversion" during the course of the show. Eight gradually move from wherever they were when the curtain went up to complete acceptance of Jesus' teachings.

So, Judas is a real bad guy, right?

That is the conventional wisdom about Judas, but GODSPELL is almost anything but conventional. At the beginning of the show Judas is the one who, in the guise of John the Baptist, introduces Jesus to the audience and to the soon-to-be disciples. Subsequently he's seen as Jesus' best friend-probably a childhood buddy. He's frequently Jesus' "stage manager", making sure that the stage is set up right for the next event, parable, or game. Unfortunately, Judas also never seems to really "get" what Jesus is talking about. As the show progresses,

Judas undergoes a conversion just like everyone else does, but his is in the opposite direction. Where the disciples move from being confused uncommitted individuals into being a community of believers, Judas gradually moves further and further away from Jesus' teachings until he finally betrays and almost reluctantly executes him.

The character of Judas is rather confusing until you quit trying to see him as either "evil" or as Jesus' opposite. Just like the other disciples, he's another aspect of Everyman-the darker, less certain side. He's really just a regular guy who's not quite able to fall in with Jesus' teachings as much as everyone else is. Judas is the most interesting of Jesus' disciples; as we see in "All for the Best", he's Jesus' alter-ego. Where Jesus is patient and loving Judas is impulsive and a little intolerant. He's also the one that's most like us.

So that's what it's all about?

I wish it was that simple. This is only the first layer of subtext, and not even all of that. Scratch this surface and you get into a lot of other things: the show's structure, the "message", why the resurrection isn't depicted, and de-mythologizing Christianity to name a few.

What's the Prologue for?

In the prologue we are presented with a number of religious-philosophical positions that have, and continue to, affected human attitudes and thought for centuries. It's included in the show to depict not only the conflicts among philosophers, but also the chaos that can ensue when we (as represented by the Philosophers) make life too complicated. This serves not only as the canvas on which Jesus appears, but provides a wonderful contrast with his simple, straightforward views about life. Numerous productions of GODSPELL have left it out over the years. That's a shame.

What's special about the show's structure?

Most shows have a linear story. This show doesn't get around to anything like that until you get to the last half of the second act, and even then it isn't all that linear.

The first act appears almost totally random. Parables, games, stories, and skits are happily placed here and there with songs interspersed with them. At first blush it all seems pretty uncontrolled. The reason for this is that the first act has only one real purpose: to get the audience to fall in love with Jesus and his followers. In so doing each member of the audience begins to identify with one or another of the characters and goes along for the ride with them as they experience their individual conversions. Yes, each character has an "arc" that must be accomplished by the end of the first act, but that's dramatic mechanics. The point of the arc is that Gilmer's arc or Peggy's arc or Herb's arc is also our own arc. We move along with them as they change and grow within the context of the play.

The point of all of the foolishness in the ways that the stories are presented is to help us look at them in a new light, let in a little fresh air, to see them as immediate and relevant today, to replace piety with true acceptance, to turn us into True Believers.

The second act is somewhat more orderly, and less fun, but it's too late-we've been caught by the first act. The first time I saw the show I approached the second act with the ridiculous hope that the show might end differently with Jesus somehow miraculously evading the forces set against him. I didn't want the fun to end, and when it did I was desolated.

Anything else about the structure of the show?

Lots! Over the months that I was researching GODSPELL I read a lot of interviews with and articles about John-Michael Tebelak, and came to a number of conclusions about him. Okay, folks, the next paragraph is background (some of it undoubtedly apocryphal) compiled from various sources that I think is necessary in order to fully understand this show.

John-Michael Tebelak was a lifelong Episcopalian, may or may not have considered entering the Episcopal clergy at one time, and may or may not have attended an Episcopal seminary for some undetermined period of time. He was inspired to create GODSPELL while a graduate student in drama at Carnegie-Mellon Institute in 1970 after attending a particularly unsatisfying Easter Vigil service at the local Episcopal cathedral. The liturgy of the Episcopal Easter Vigil is supposed to be exciting and invigorating, but the service he experienced was lethargic and uninspiring. Apparently he left thinking to himself, "There's gotta be something better than this!". The "something" that he and several fellow students created eventually grew into GODSPELL.

Strangely, or probably intentionally, the overall form of GODSPELL follows the form of the Episcopal communion service almost exactly. Beginning with the "Service of the Word" (Act 1 and the beginning of Act 2), it then moves into a confession of sin ("We Beseech Thee") followed by re-enacting the Last Supper and the final instruction, "Go forth into the world, rejoicing the power of the Spirit". You may see this as a "stretch", I think it works nicely. If what Tebelak wanted was an updated "religious experience", then that's what he got-by following a very traditional worship structure and contemporizing it.

Why isn't there a resurrection in GODSPELL?

That bothered me for a long time. It wasn't until I realized that the show is not about Jesus as much it's about our experience of Jesus that I began to understand why there isn't a resurrection depicted in it. Stephen is fond of saying that GODSPELL is about the formation of a community based on the teachings of the main character. Well, what kind of community would that be? A Christian community, known in contemporary terms as "the church". St. Paul calls the church "the body of Christ".

With that in mind, take another look at the final sequence of the show. Jesus is dead. His followers take his body down off the fence (or whatever the director used to crucify him) and carry it out through the house, singing the hopeful "Long Live God". This song eventually merges into a slow reprise of "Prepare Ye". Then there's a tempo change and the song changes from a dirge into a hymn of celebration as the cast rushes back onstage and celebrates Jesus. If you remember Jesus' final instruction to his disciples to "Go into the world, teaching all nations," you can see that what's happening here is the actual "body of Christ" being taken into "the world".

I really don't think that John-Michael Tebelak was very interested in the concept of a physical resurrection; he probably felt it distracted from the heart of Jesus' message, "Love God and do good to those around you". Depicting a physical resurrection would have distracted the audience from the heart of the show as well. If the show is about Jesus' teachings, then focusing on the man at the end would have diluted the power of his teachings, and he wanted the teachings to comprise the center of the show, not the personality of Jesus.

Where does Beautiful City belong in the show?

Excellent question. It wasn't part of the original show and there is no clue in the package of materials that you get from MTI or Theatre Maximus about how to use it. The song was written for the movie to replace "We Beseech Thee" (which the director didn't like) and the "Day by Day" reprise (movies almost never reprise songs for some reason). It's such a great song that community theatres have been permitted to use it in the show, but there really hasn't been any guidance about how to use it. It's been used in place of the "Learn Your Lessons Well" reprise that opens the second act, as a curtain song, and just about everywhere else imaginable.

In the early 1990s, in the wake of the Rodney King riot in Los Angeles, Stephen Schwartz rewrote "Beautiful City", changing it from an upbeat song into a ballad and completely changing the lyrics-understandable since the original ones were a little "treacly". Anyhow, instead of being a song of celebration, the rewrite made it almost into a prayer. In it Jesus describes for his disciples the kind of world he envisions: a world that can be built by people doing the things that he's been teaching about.

With that in mind, it fits perfectly in the second act immediately after "We Beseech Thee" and before the last supper as Jesus is taking the face paint off of the disciples. Used in this way the song and the physical act of removing the disciples' face paint so they can rejoin the world and "spread the word" reinforce each other. It's even better if you can find a way for the song to build so that includes the disciples on the last verse as they begin to "see" Jesus' vision.

Is that it?

Probably not. GODSPELL invites us to think. More than almost any other musical, it inspires directors to experiment. Unfortunately, many of these directorial experiments have been less than successful (or complete debacles!) because the director didn't take the time to understand the show. What resulted might have had plenty of style, but perhaps not much substance.

With pre-production and final presentation, I lived with GODSPELL for eight months, five of those before we ever cast a part or rehearsed a line. I spent a lot of time researching the show and its creators, analyzing, forming opinions about the show, and then figuring out how to present all that on stage. Much of the result came from trying to merge GODSPELL with my religious and educational background. In literary circles, it's called pre-writing. I don't know what you call it in stage terms, but it's absolutely essential.

Most shows don't "invite you in" the way GODSPELL does. Directors don't usually feel bound to re-conceptualize "Annie" or "The King and I". GODSPELL inspires us on a humanistic level even if it doesn't on a spiritual one.

Finally...

I've tried to describe just some of the many levels of meaning that I found in GODSPELL. Like anyone else, these are colored by my background and my beliefs, but that doesn't make them less valid. Rather, it points out how intensely personal GODSPELL can be for both the audience and for the people putting it on. If you're planning a production, I strongly encourage you to take the time to "mull over" the show, to really internalize it and make it your own. Then put that vision on stage. It'll be an experience unlike any other you've had directing a musical.