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Godspell (1973)

"Before viewing" talks introduce the film without spoilers. Watch it, then click on the "After viewing" talk for more. More»» by Randy Heffner

Playfully serious, musically excellent, and rich in spirit, Godspell romps through New York City exploring and embodying wisdom for life and relationships from the Bible’s Gospel According to Matthew. Set in 1973, Jesus and his disciples are played as a joyful, clowning theater troupe, relishing in each other’s company, creatively re-enacting Jesus’ parables, making what they can out of the discards in a junkyard. Most importantly, Godspell is not preachy or evangelistic, but rather simply builds from Jesus’ words and wisdom, mostly just as he said them, giving what I believe to be a rather accurate (though not literal) sense of how his ways foster community and love.

In the heart of busy New York City, 1973, eight twenty-somethings are trying to make their way, pushing back at being shoved, yelled at, and indoctrinated by the grind of the city’s fast-paced, me-first manner. Coming across Brooklyn Bridge into the City is a colorfully and curiously dressed man pulling behind him a red two-wheeled cart on top of which sits a horn (as in: from an animal, fashioned to make a loud noise) — John the Baptist. Each of the eight, in turn, sees a flash vision of John or hears his horn (in one case through an earphone). Responding to the call, the eight gather at Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain (also called Angel of the Waters Fountain), where they play in the water and douse each other. Meanwhile, NYC has become deserted, with not another soul to be seen. Jesus shows up to be baptized, after which he leads his disciples through Central Park and the City romping, teaching, singing, and living life to the full. Running time: 103 min.

If you’re not a Christian and have no thought to become one, why is Godspell worth your time (besides the fact that the movie is a load of fun, if you let yourself enjoy it)? Primarily to have a reminder of (or to see for the first time) the heart that the lives of Christians should show but all too often does not. And also to have a reminder/corrective that detractors of Christianity most often throw out the baby of this heart with the bathwater of the misdeeds of Christians and Christian churches and institutions. In a pluralistic society, true tolerance involves knowing the spiritual aspirations of others, so that one might kindly and graciously redirect inappropriate hostility and look for common ground on which to build bridges.

If you are a Christian, the first reason to see Godspell is the same, but the second reason is to be drawn back, by way of reminder or corrective, to the core simplicity and joy of the life Jesus came to give. It is that life from which shines the light and love that our world so needs and longs for, not a life of religious rites and practices.

Stephen Schwartz’ lyrics and music are flowing, rich, and varied, deftly taking on the pace, tonality, and feel that each number needs, as well as embodying the wide, deep, and wry emotions that infuse a rich life (Christian or otherwise). Most all the disciples get at least some solo voice time, and all the voices are strong — some are amazing. The film’s colorful and odd-angled, quirky — even dorky — re-enactments, interspersed with moments of the seriousness of Jesus’ mission, bring to life the light-hearted joy mixed with true love seriousness that Jesus came for. The cinematography and staging add greatly to the film, including some quite nice long zoom shots that take us from the expanse of the city to the intimacy of the players dancing down an empty NY street (or vice versa).

Lapsing for a moment into a bit of an impertinent voice, I’ll say that some viewers may find themselves too “grown up” to connect with the film’s playfulness. Were the film’s dominant manners simplistic childishness, I would be right there with them. Instead, I find that, with perhaps a small number of exceptions, its playfulness comes off as an exuberant childlikeness. Would that we all retain that type of spirit — and even the ability to act just plain silly sometimes, for the fun of it.

There is very little to mention in the way of content. At most, there is one song sung in a sexually suggestive manner, a half-spoken expletive, and emotional intensity at the reenactment of Jesus’ Crucifixion.

  • Director: David Greene
  • Screenplay: David Greene, John-Michael Tebelak
  • Leads: Victor Garber, David Haskell, Lynne Thigpen, Katie Hanley, Merrell Jackson, Joanne Jonas, Robin Lamont, Gilmer McCormick, Jeffrey Mylett, Jerry Sroka
  • Cinematography: Richard G. Heimann
  • Music: Stephen Schwartz, with a lyrical base from the Episcopal Hymnal and the Bible, except for “By My Side” which is by Jay Hamburger and Peggy Gordon

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"After viewing" talks assume that you have seen the film. They will contain spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

It must have been about the third time that I watched Godspell — over the space of 30 years or so — that I finally was able the feel the full joy of the film. I had come finally to understand the how the film embodies the critical depth of life (as opposed to religion) that Jesus had come

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Screenshots and dialog copyright © 1973 by the filmmakers.

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2 Responses to “Godspell”

  1. lizebeth says:

    In regard to your analysis of Godspell, I believe the explanation of the face paint is that everyone has their own pet sins..their own unique set of hurts, hangup, habits that make us different from every other aND which ade clear as day to Him. Jesus paints it on each face to show them that he knows each of them completely (warts and all) and loves them regardless. Then at the last supper he wipes everyone’s “sins” away except his own to signify that with his death all their sins are wiped away. That is why he leaves his own on –the heart. It signifies the reason he took our sins upon himself : LOVE. The tears signify his suffering by ta king on all our sins.

  2. That’s a lovely thought, lizebeth. Building on that, I see two other things. First, he paints their faces as he is talking about the law (see the first still in the post above), which aligns with your reading that the paint points us to each person’s uniqueness, including their sins. Second, Jesus paints attractive things on their faces, and often we don’t see the ugliness of our sins, but instead we sort of wish to see them as something nice that we want to keep. There are indeed rich images here.

    Thank you for your comment! It enriches me now, and will also enrich my next viewing of Godspell.

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"Backstory" talks speak of things behind the film. Go to "Before" or "After" talks for the film itself. More»» by Randy Heffner

The big picture behind Godspell

When a film dwells heavily in the content of a particular organized belief system, the way that Godspell dwells in Christianity, a couple of the main backstory questions to arise are “What were the beliefs of the creators?” and “How do those beliefs factor into what they were trying to do with the show?” For the film Godspell, the three most significant creators to consider, and their main orientations toward the work, are:

  • John Michael Tebelak originally created Godspell as a small production for work on his master’s in drama at Carnegie-Mellon University. A member of the Episcopal church, even at one point considering the priesthood, Tebelak credited a specific inspiration for the show: An Easter Vigil service (i.e., an anticipation of the Resurrection) that left him feeling that they treated Jesus as more dead than alive. He had been re-reading the Gospels in the Bible as a potential source for material, and in them found “a great joy, a simplicity.” The stark contrast between this and his experience at the Vigil sparked a rapid burst of writing to create Godspell. With Godspell, Tebelak said he “wanted to make it the simple, joyful message that I felt the first time I read them and recreate the sense of community.” For the “clown” schtick in Godspell, Tebelak’s inspiration was the book Feast of Fools by Harvard’s Harvey Cox (especially the chapter “Christ the Harlequin”).
  • Stephen Schwartz was brought in later to re-write the music for Godspell. Schwartz’s primary focus with Godspell is on the community being built by the disciples; he downplays a focus on Jesus. He was not so much a fan of the film version. Schwartz has said that, prior to doing Godspell, he “didn’t really know anything about” Jesus beyond the general story “of his birth and then his death and the belief of some in his Resurrection.” Godspell gave Schwartz a stronger appreciation for the Golden Rule (i.e., “do to others as you would have them do to you.” As a matter of policy, Schwartz does not publicly disclose his religious/metaphysical beliefs.
  • David Greene directed the Godspell film. I was unable to turn up anything beyond biographies of Greene’s professional work — nothing specifically about his views of or work on the film.

I find that Tebelak’s vision comes through strongly in the film. Furthermore, I find it significant that Tebelak’s vision was sparked by his attendance at a service of observance of the Resurrection. Though neither the film nor the stage play contain a literal depiction of the Resurrection, Tebelak’s response to observing a failure-of-life in the Easter Vigil led him to Godspell, whether intentionally or not, as an expression of the deeper point of the Resurrection: that life comes through death. In the grand narrative of Christianity, it is through Jesus’ death and Resurrection that we have life, yet even in small ways, such as one’s forgiving a small offense, there are small deaths that lead to life (i.e., giving up one’s “right” to revenge).

Schwartz’s focus on community (shared also by Tebelak) is a strong and important element of a life-giving response to Godspell — and to Jesus himself. Schwartz’s general lack of knowledge of Christianity did not prevent him from capturing and reinforcing the strong spirit of Christian life in Tebelak’s vision. Perhaps his lack of Christian knowledge is also part of his downplaying a focus on the importance of Jesus’ teachings.

Once a work of art is complete and its creator(s), not being a part of the work, fade to the background, the work is there to stand on its own. The context and intent of its creation is still there, relevant, and interesting, yet a work may speak things that the creator(s) never even considered. Thus, even if Tebelak’s background and vision were not centered in appreciation of what Christianity should work in one’s spirit and life, I would hold it valid to read Godspell as a beautiful embodiment of the life Jesus came to bring and valid to place as much (if not more) focus on how his teachings lead to life as on the bonding of a community. The fact that these were Tebelak’s vision simply strengthens the reading of Godspell as such.

Other interesting points

Some other backstory points are worth noting about Godspell:

  • Bethesda Fountain, with its Angel of the Waters statue where the disciples first gather for the baptism scene, was designed in reference to John 5:2-9, where the waters of the pool of Bethesda were said to have healing powers whenever an angel would stir the water.
  • After the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles in 1992, Schwartz rewrote the lyrics to "Beautiful City." He finds his original lyrics to be "'drippy' and somewhat cloying." Certainly the updated lyrics recognize explicitly the brokenness of our world (e.g., "Out of the ruins and rubble" and "When your trust is all but shattered / When your faith is all but killed"), whereas the original centers on the desirability of the vision (e.g., "We're not afraid of voicing / All the things we're dreaming of" and "We see nations rise / In each other's eyes"). Perhaps both together make a complete vision (both are listed here, with the newer version noted as the "alternate").
  • In a short piece, Joseph Barton of Brooklyn Preparatory School, provides a few extra quotes by Tebelak that confirm and expand Tebelak's vision as noted above. In particular, Peggy Gordon, a member of the cast and co-writer of the song "By My Side," quoted Tebelak as saying the show was intended to "weave God's spell over the audience."
  • The Godspell Motto, repeated by the cast before each performance, is a beautiful quick mediation on being loving, teachable, and growing. As it has to do with the staging of the show, I find "Speak in a low, persuasive tone" to be the most significant part. It mitigates against the show being just a series of gags by encouraging the cast to have a tone of seriousness in the midst of the fun.
  • As Schwartz notes in 1999 notes for the stage play, several of Godspell's songs were largely based on the Episcopal hymnal, including "Save the People", "Day by Day", Bless the Lord", "All Good Gifts", and "Turn Back, O Man". Lyrical adaptations from the Bible include "On the Willows" (Psalm 137), "Light of the World" (Matthew 5), and "Alas for You" (Matthew 23). However, in 1982, "Turn Back O Man" was proposed to be removed from the hymnal for reasons of unsound theology (specifically, it was thought that the hymn inappropriately fostered the notion "that the initial and fundamental steps towards salvation are made by human effort, apart from the assistance of divine grace").
  • The song "We Beseech Thee" is in the stage play, but film director David Greene thought it wouldn't work for the film. So he asked Schwartz to write another song and (the original) "Beautiful City" was the result. A fan used a recording of "We Beseech Thee" and clips from the film to create this video (after you play it, YouTube may well show you other videos of Godspell stagings).

Other interesting links

  • The Godspell section of MusicalSchwartz.com, a fansite for Stephen Schwartz — go toward the bottom of the page for content about Godspell's history and backstory.
  • The FAQ at Stephen Schwartz's official site, which has a few interesting questions and answers about the show.
  • The forum archives at Stephen Schwartz's official site, which has a history of questions Schwartz has answered about Godspell, his life, and (what he will say in regard to) his religious/metaphysical beliefs. There are many separate parts of the archive. Look first under the Godspell sub-heading and the "Stephen Schwartz" main heading.
  • On MusicalSchwartz.com, Peggy Gordon talks about the meaning of the song "By My Side".
  • Wikipedia article's listing of locations used in the film.

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