Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
Scott Schwartz tells us what it's like to direct a tour of his dad's best-loved musical, Godspell.
During a recent telephone interview, Scott spoke with TheaterMania about this new look at a seminal rock musical.
TM: How's the tour going, Scott?
SS: Apparently, it's going very well. I haven't seen the show for a few weeks; I've been here in New York for the Jane Eyre opening.
TM: Where and when did your Godspell begin?
SS: We started in Nashville in mid-September, so we've been running for a few months now. I'd stayed with the show for its first two stops. Since then, it's been all over the place.
TM: Is this the first time you've directed Godspell?
SS: Yes--it's my first attack on the show! I got a call from the people over at Phoenix Productions. Ironically, I was recommended to them by no one who's related to me; I don't even know who it was. They interviewed four or five people as possible directors. We had a really good conversation, and we seemed to want to take the show in the same direction, so it all worked out quite happily.
TM: The publicity materials for the show don't stress the fact that you're Stephen Schwartz's son. Was there much discussion on whether or not to do so?
SS: My dad and I have a great relationship. It was fun to work on one of his shows. I haven't done that too often--quite purposefully, because I want to develop my own body of work and be my own person. But it's certainly no secret that we're related. He wasn't too involved with this tour, because it was kind of a major reconception of the show. He just let me do what I wanted to do.
TM: It's interesting that there was a well-received revival--or revisal--of Godspell in New York just as your tour was being planned. Did you see that production?
SS: I didn't see it at the York [Theater], but I saw it when it premiered at the Third Eye Rep.
TM: To what do you attribute this resurgence of interest in Godspell?
SS: That's a really good question. It's a little bit of a mystery, but I think there are a couple of reasons. First, the 30th anniversary of the show is coming up, and there may be some special energy around it because of that. Also, because of the spiritual issues and questions about society and community that it addresses, I think it's kind of a millennial show. It deals with common concerns that we all have. But, occasionally, shows just go through swings of popularity. It's funny how you'll look in the trades and sometimes notice that everyone seems to be doing the same three or four shows. It must have to do with the chaos theory of musical selection!
TM: Godspell has always been a very a malleable show. When it's done now, I wonder how one decides how much to update it--musically and/or textually--and how much to leave it alone.
SS: That question is central to our production. When I was asked to do the show, I frankly didn't have any interest in a traditional approach. I've seen so many productions of Godspell in my life, some of them wonderful. But because of who I am and the nature of my work as a director, I really wanted to do my own version from the ground up. I also feel strongly that, when Godspell originally came out in 1971, it was incredibly hip in its theatricality and humor, and also in its music. If you do a traditional production of the show nowadays, it's lovely, but it's a little bit of a period piece. Because of the malleable nature of the show, I wanted to see if I could make it feel as modern in the year 2000 as it was when it first opened. I read the script, of course, and I also talked to my father about what they originally did and why they did it. What emerged was that the show is really about the formation of a community of people; a group of strangers come together under the leadership of this guy who happens to be named Jesus, and we see the challenges they face when their leader is eventually taken away from them. I thought: How do people form communities today, and how is that different from 1971? How has society really changed? The thing I decided to focus on was technology, and the fact that the way we communicate nowadays is completely different than it was 30 years ago. E-mail, cell phones, faxes, video links, minute-to-minute news updates--these are all phenomena of the late 20th century. And what's interesting about technology is that, while it enables instantaneous communication, it also can be very distancing. People no longer need to leave their homes to do their jobs and fulfill their basic human needs. In fact, you never have to see another person in your life if you don't want to; you can sit at a computer screen with your phone and everything can be done for you. That's one of the subjects we deal with in the show.
TM: How has the music been adapted or re-arranged?
SS: Again, when Godspell was new in 1971, the score was contemporary pop music. In fact, the album was a hit on the pop charts. So I wanted to find a way to bring the music into the year 2000. I got together with Alex Lacamoire, our wonderful arranger and musical director, and we looked at a lot of different, contemporary performers and bands--people like Jewel and Alanis Morissette and Dave Matthews. We focused on alternative rock and folk rock sounds, and then we tried to infuse the score of Godspell with those sounds. We were loyal to the original lyrics and tunes, but in some cases there have been major departures from the original takes on the songs.
TM: Would you talk about the cast a little bit?
SS: Well, it's a wonderful cast. Basically, they're all new, very young talent. This is a non-Equity tour, and I think Godspell is a good show to do in a non-Equity production, because it's about raw energy. You don't want people who are too polished. I think the oldest member of our cast is 26, and most of them are 20, 21, 22. We really wanted to find that kind of youthful vibe. I think we've managed to assemble a pretty dazzling group of performers. All of them, I think, have real futures.