In the original 1971 Broadway musical, composed by Stephan Schwartz with a book by John Michael Tebelak, Jesus is an afro-wigged clown in a Superman t-shirt and his flock of disciples is a troupe of harlequins who sing and recite parables in a junkyard.
In the SWC version directed by Ruff Yeager, Jesus (Daniel Ward) takes the form of a lifeguard and his apostles become a diverse band of beach-goers clad in colorful Hawaiian leis. Together they retell the lessons from the Gospel of Mark (and a couple from Luke) while switching between English and Spanish.
“Godspell” opens with a prerecorded rendition of the fugue “Tower of Babel,” a piece that is sometimes omitted from stage productions due to the song’s strange and chaotic nature. It begins with philosophers from throughout history singing their ideologies until their voices overlap, creating a cacophonous roar as they attempt to sing over each other and make their ideas heard above the din. It is Schwartz trying to show that, as competing doctrines drown each other out, the voice of Jesus is one of the few that rises above the rest.
As the physically- and ethnically-diverse cast recounted familiar stories from the Bible with dramatic flair, old parables like “The Good Samaritan” are presented in a more energetic light. With the occasional switch between the two languages, it becomes obvious that it is the message that matters and not the messenger. Jesus and his follower may look and act funny, but their performance does not sully their words or their ideals.
“Day by Day,” a Top 40 hit in 1972, may have been based on a prayer written by Saint Richard of Chichester, a 13th century bishop, but its lyrics aptly describe the relationship millions of people have with God.
“Oh, Dear Lord, Three things I pray: To see thee more clearly, Love thee more dearly, Follow thee more nearly, Day by day.” Yeager made the bold decision to blow up the song, give it a mariachi arrangement and have it sung in Spanish.
For those acquainted with the Bible, language is no barrier. Even though the songs and scenes may be difficult to follow if one cannot understand half of what is said, the players pantomimed their parts well enough to fill in the gaps. Expertise in the New Testament is not required to get something out of “Godspell.”
Most of the cast members were able to deliver their lines well and sing powerfully in both languages, though Jesus had to read his Spanish lines off a piece of paper. But given the almost-goofy atmosphere of the play, there was enough levity to make it seem more of a joke rather than a deficiency in the actor’s language abilities. Ward made up for it with his beat-boxing and vaudeville skills.
Michael Buckley’s set, a recreation of the border wall at Border Field State Park in Imperial Beach, loomed between the players and the always-brilliant SWC Mariachi. New walls are built at a terrible cost. In “Godspell,” the sin of building a wall between the United States and Mexico is equated with the kind of evil that led to Jesus being crucified.
“Godspell” is notorious among the more dour Christians, those uncomfortable with the events of the Bible being depicted so lightheartedly. The original production was criticized as being too liberal an interpretation. Some thought it blasphemous for Jesus to be a singing and dancing clown.
In 1973, “Godspell” opened in Maseru, Lesotho for five months before it opened at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa, where it was quickly banned for blasphemy.
Jesus and his followers know when to turn the dial up to 11 for the dramatic finale. During his crucifixion Jesus calls out, “Oh God, I’m dying!” and his followers respond, “Oh God, you’re dying!” with such emotion that the actors seemed to feel the weight of his ultimate sacrifice.
Many productions, including the SWC version, move the song “Beautiful City” to the end as an answer to the backlash from previous productions that lack a resurrection scene. It matters not that Jesus came back from the dead, but that his teachings have helped so many people to improve their lives.
The Jesus of “Godspell” is not the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Jesus whose teachings are far removed from the actions of his followers. Instead, he is truer to the original source than most other depictions, since this Jesus is more like a real person than the intangible Son of God.
One does not need to be Christian or even religious to appreciate “Godspell.” It was born as educational theater and it remains so today.