Godspell is one of the most ubiquitous properties in theater history, and you don't have to be a genius to figure out why. This early rock musical based on the gospel according to Saint Matthew has a score by Stephen Schwartz that embraces more than a dozen terrific songs--including one in particular, "Day by Day," that became an international hit soon after the show premiered Off-Broadway some 30 years ago. Godspell calls for a relatively small cast of 10, and its presentational, comically improvisational style appeals to just about everyone. Perhaps the greatest tribute to the show's popularity is the fact that its unabashedly religious subject matter hasn't prevented it from receiving countless stagings in every conceivable venue.
If you're one of the legion who love Godspell, you won't want to miss the phenomenal production currently playing at the Theatre at St. Peter's in the Citicorp Building. This is a re-mounting of the acclaimed Third Eye Repertory revisal of the show seen earlier this year, now billed as the presentation of an entity called NET Theatrical Productions. (Have you got that?)
So, what makes this Godspell different from any of those you may have seen or performed in at your local community theater, church, or high school? For one thing, Stephen Schwartz has been personally involved--tweaking lyrics, making suggestions, and generally acting as a precious resource for the cast and the production team. Director Shawn Rozsa has dropped the original, late '60s concept of the show's characters as clown-like flower people in favor of something more edgy. ("Our production is supposed to be happening right now in some urban environment," says Barrett Foa, who plays Jesus as the leader of a group of hip, young bohemians. "We were thinking one of those outdoor flea market-type places.") Musical director Dan Schachner has managed to give the score a contemporary rock feel without trampling on Schwartz's gorgeous melodies. Last, but not least, this Godspell boasts one of the most omni-talented ensemble casts imaginable.
How did the company go about making the show feel as fresh as a sea breeze? "We pretty much started with a lot of improvisations," says the 22-year-old Foa. "The director gave us a general form, and we would run with that. The reason it's so topical is that we tried to strip away everything that was done in the original production. It's easy to fall into that 'Let's put makeup on each other and be hippies and clowns' kind of thing. So all of the jokes were taken out, until we just had this dry script of parables; it was basically Jesus talking for pages and pages at a time. At our first run through, everyone was, like, 'This is boring!' But then it was our job to bring it alive.
"We don't think of ourselves as a troupe of clowns performing the show for an audience," Foa continues, "but as individuals. These individuals present their various philosophies in the prologue, but they soon realize that what they believe just doesn't bring them as far as they want to go. That's when John the Baptist says, 'I have the answer.' He describes Jesus as a kind of majestic, intimidating figure--and then this lanky, blond kid comes out. The point is that Jesus is this everyday guy. He's the son of God, but he's also a man. That's why he's the perfect interpreter and teacher."
To that end, Foa says, "One of the things that Stephen Schwartz changed for this production was the lyrics for several of the philosophers. Now, aside from the originals--Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, and so on--we have people like Nelson Mandela and even L. Ron Hubbard. They're more recognizable to a modern audience, so the whole prologue sequence is a little more tangible and accessible."
Will Erat, who appears as Judas/John the Baptist in what has been unofficially labeled Godspell 2000, finds his double assignment intriguing: "When you first think about those two characters being played by the same actor, you think, 'What?!' But it kind of follows. The whole idea is that Judas wants to emulate Jesus, so it makes sense that he prepares the way for him--and that accentuates his role later on. Singing the 'Prepare Ye' number at the start of the show really helps me 'get to' Judas."
The relationship between Jesus and Judas is the cornerstone of any production of Godspell. "Will and I have a great friendship off stage," says Foa, "so that's something we don't really have to work on very hard. I've gotten to know this bunch of people so well. We function as a family. If we're feeling frustrated or down or whatever, someone's got to give a pep talk. We've been together since January, when we first started rehearsing. Even during our two-month hiatus, we were totally calling each other all the time. It's a special group, and I think the audience picks up on that." (In addition to Foa and Erat, the dynamite cast consists of Shoshana Bean, Tim Cain, Catherine Carpenter, Lucia Giannetta, Capathia Jenkins, Chad Kimball, Leslie Kritzer, and Eliseo Roman.)
If anything is problematic about the book of Godspell (adapted from Matthew by John-Michael Tebelak), it's that Judas' betrayal of Jesus can sometimes seem to come out of nowhere. "That's something we've tried to clear up for this incarnation of the show," says Erat. "There are clues along the way that Judas will turn on Jesus--like in the middle of the first act, when we go through the beatitudes. There's also the idea that the Pharisees and the doctors of the law are very dangerous people, but Jesus doesn't realize that. His attitude is, 'You only have to live for today, and every day will take care of itself.' That really sets Judas off, because he has a more belligerent view of how to deal with things. He's got a lot of anger toward these hypocrites."
The way Foa sees it, "Judas is Jesus' right hand man, he prepares the people for Jesus' coming, yet there's something about him that's always a little bit off. He wants to say the right thing but he falls short, kind of consistently. [The song] 'All for the Best' is a perfect example: Jesus says 'You must never be distressed,' 'All your wrongs will be redressed.' And then Judas says, 'Someone's got to be oppressed.' So when the betrayal finally comes, it shouldn't be such a surprise." Erat admits that, "Emotionally, it's hard for me to do the show every night, especially in the second act. We've fostered such a close group of people--not only as characters, but as friends off stage--that to be expelled from that group at every performance is tough."
Both actors agree that Schwartz's involvement has been invaluable. "Stephen really talked to us about the show and helped to structure it," says Foa. "He would offer different choices of how to play certain moments. He was incredibly open-minded about everything--yet he always insisted that, whatever the choice was, it had to be specific. If an idea was dramatic or theatrical, he would go for it." Erat describes Schwartz as "an amazing presence. When he came into our rehearsals [for the run at the Theatre at St. Peter's], we just sat down and talked about the show. We had done that early on, of course, but we'd gotten away from it. So we went around and got a sense of where everyone was."
Any good production of Godspell will engender an extraordinary feeling of creative involvement in its cast, and Erat confirms that this one is no exception. "Generally, in professional theater, you don't have such a long rehearsal process," he notes, "and you don't feel like you're building a show from the ground up. We didn't exactly originate our characters--but, in a sense, that's just what we did. It's almost as if we wrote the show again, ourselves. It's been a really wonderful experience."