When Godspell debuted in the 1970’s, the theme was ancient, but the production was of its time….with a colorful cast of hippie-esque singers and dancers in celebration around Jesus. Quite ‘Woodstock era’ in costume and make-up with the central character opening hearts through parable and by example of love and light with (if memory serves) a heart embellishing his face. Based on the Gospel According to Matthew, the play which was made into a movie in 1973, winds its way through the last days of Jesus. The songs were written by the amazing then 23 year old Stephen Schwartz who would later go on to pen music for Wicked. Clearly he was ‘defying gravity’ with both musicals.
This past weekend, I travelled to New York to see the latest Broadway version at the Circle in the Square theater with my friend Barb. The last time I saw a performance in the round was at the long gone Valley Forge Music Theater, so this was a treat. The stage was bare, except for a ladder and an open panel from which water was gently bubbling. Anticipation mounted. I had, with delight, watched the movie version of the play whose name is connected with the word ‘gospel’ which translates to ‘good word’. To frame this experience for you….I was raised in a Jewish home, attending Hebrew School until age 16 and the Jesus who is portrayed here was not part of my paradigm. I was curious and my parents encouraged my exploration, allowing me to go to church with friends, but was reminded that our family’s beliefs and practice were different. As I watched the movie and also productions of Jesus Christ Superstar, throughout my life, I was (and still am) puzzled by the concept of blaming humans for the crucifiction of Jesus. In the Garden of Gethsemene, he is in dialogue with God and agrees, if reluctantly, to die. In Godspell, Jesus speaks of the prophecy of the ending of his corporeal existence. The historical Jesus was a practicing Jew and called Rabbi by his disciples, so again, it is at odds with anti-semitism in the name of One who came to teach peace and love. When I began studying A Course in Miracles in the 1980’s, I had persistant headaches, because it felt like it flew in the face of my upbringing. It wasn’t until I recognized the compatability of the loving words of Jesus that encouraged open hearted acceptance, trust in the God of my understanding; the perception of which has undergone major metamorphosis over the years, that the headaches dissipated. When I became an interfaith minister in 1999; ordained through The New Seminary in New York, I embraced the teachings without the ‘hellfire and brimstone’ attitude that sadly accompanies some beliefs held by people who claim to be followers of the teachings. Nothing I have read and nothing I witnessed in Godspell, reflect hatred of any kind. Even when Jesus is speaking about the need for some behavioral change, he is not spewing venom on anyone. The word ‘sin’ is derived from the Hebrew word ‘het’ which means to miss the mark, like in archery.
Returning to the play…. it is updated for modern times, with cultural references that would have had us scratching our heads and saying “Huh?” 40 years ago. In the opening scene, the characters bustle about on stage, carrying iphones; talking and texting, with labels on their clothing or backpacks or briefcases with names of philosophers with various opinions on Life, The Universe and Everything. I smiled with recognition at the additions of L. Ron Hubbard and Marianne Williamson. Later on, political references are made that reflect the current presidential campaign. In two of the dance pieces, the Macarena and Chicken Dance were added to the choreography, What fun!
When one of Jesus’ followers offers him wardrobe options, he turns down the stereotypical white robe, a vivid purple one, and a Superman shirt (an homage to the original costume in the 1970’s version). His choice is an unbottoned light blue baseball shirt with the #1 on the back and the word ‘co-pilots’ on the front. Now THAT is a Jesus with whom I can resonate! He offers his disciples a red carnation that they pin on to their own costumes which include a lime green bowling shirt, a purple short cropped military style jacket, a silvery tutu that floated above a pair of glittery high tops, an orange and white numbered jersey and pair of short pantaloons and bandana over pig tails, a t-shirt under suspenders that reads ‘We’re here’, a leopard print set of tights and sleeveless vest that exposed a set of biceps that I endeavor to have, and one costume that I totally lusted over, which was a rainbow colored corset and filmy skirt over kickin’ cowgirl boots. It seems that the flower represented the love that Jesus was scattering and would be a recognizable symbol of their connection to him. At the end of the play, they give them to each other and to him, perhaps as a ritual of affirmation of their shared sense of community as family of choice. I was moved by the way Jesus held space for his disciples to truly shine, reflecting the quote “Greater things than these you shall do.”
The youthful cast which includes recognizable actors such as Hunter Parrish as Jesus (from Weeds), Telly Leung (from GLEE), Anna Maria Perez De Tagle (from Hannah Montana), Wallace Smith (from The Lion King) who played the dual roles of John The Baptist and Judas, as well as Uzo Aduba who, I had never seen before, and reminded me in voice and appearance of one of my favorite musicians…Tracy Chapman, join together with a score of other talent who seem tireless as they dance, sing, splash water, bounce and leap on mini trampolines embedded in the stage, scatter confetti, and run up and down the aisles encouraging audience participation. The musicians who were seated about the theater, add their voices to the production pieces as well. I found myself wishing for an opportunity to get up on stage and dance with them. Barb and I were sitting in the ‘catbird seats’ since we got last minute tickets an hour or so before the show, so there was no way to do that even if we could…..until…as they were announcing intermission, a voice invited us all to come up on stage to join the cast, so my intention came to be. I was able to stand next to Lyndsey Mendez, the actress wearing the desired costume and the ooohhhh and ahhh factor was even better up close. The musicians continued to play and I joyously ‘sweat my prayers’ in the midst of others who were engaged in similar worship. An unihhibited towheaded little boy was moving to his own beat and doing a wonderful job of it right next to me.
Throughout the rest of the play, I found myself moving through laughter, tears, and heart swelling contemplation of my spiritual practice and the ways in which I could embody the messages in this ‘good word’ that expressed with holy humor that indeed we are each The Light of The World.
http://youtu.be/NL4aFn1DxGE Montage from the musical Godspell