Written over the summer, lost in document folder until this week.
I had a miserable high school theater experience. Far from being my place to belong, Drama Club made me feel alienated, self-conscious, and friendless – with one notable exception: our production of Godspell.
Not the rehearsal process, oh no. That was much the same as it had always been: me, alone, while the cast made inside jokes with the music director and snickered at me. On stage was a different story.
Godspell is inherently about belonging. It is the story of a group of friends who love each other and cavort about having a great time. When that’s done well, that feels nothing but real. Our cast frolicked. We cavorted. We sobbed through the ending, singing as best we could through tears. Anne – my nemesis! Anne! – and I held hands through the final song, finding comfort and friendship in each other for those fifteen minutes.
Much of my love of Godspell, comes from that experience, but that love is in no way unconditional. Vassar put up a Senior week production that was less a musical than a lecture, managing to suck all the joy out of the script. A show at the Oxford Playhouse had me wishing aloud that Jesus would just die, already, so I wouldn’t have to watch him anymore.
Imagine my joy, when the current Broadway revival brought back all that I held to my heart. The show is nothing but delightful from beginning to end, from a text-messaged re-envisioning of the too-often-neglected prologue, to choreographed trampolining during “We Beseech Thee.” There’s a nod to the iconic Superman shirt, as Jesus considers, then passes over in favor of a baseball jersey, and the facepaint has been replaced with pin-on flowers, but the camaraderie remains, as does the joy, the dancing, the giddy-good-times that makes the inevitable denouement that much more heartbreaking.
Critics are claiming Godspell smacks too much of high school to have any credence, these days, on Broadway. (Where, I wonder, is this backlash when Guys and Dolls comes back around? Because Lord knows there are far too many pubescent tenors squeaking out “Luck be a Lady” beneath ill-fitting hats.) I suspect the issue is less about the show’s history than it is about critics having a difficult time evaluating a show that is meant, primarily, to be fun. “Where is the art?” I can hear them moaning.
The New York Times’ Charles Isherwood’s rather condescending review makes it clear that Godspell was not worth his time, and also makes it clear that he has no idea what the show’s intention was to begin with.
Godspell is a close to bare-bones script, with room for each cast to improvise and to make connections to themselves, their audience, and the pop-culture of the day. It’s what we loved about the show in high school, it’s what makes each production something new, and it’s what makes this show wonderfully accessible. Someone didn’t pass this on to Isherwood, it would seem: “The original book,” he sniffs, “has been stuffed fruitcake-full of gags about contemporary figures and current trends … You eventually start to wonder: if the story of Jesus and his apostles cannot be treated as timeless, what on earth can?”
I’d send him across the street to see Jesus Christ, Superstar, but I suspect Andrew Lloyd Webber is beneath his dignity as well.
“ … the juvenile spirit of the show tends to infantilize its moral and spiritual subject matter, turning the story of Jesus’ life and his followers’ education in the rewards of faith into a series of schoolyard games. (Remember Pictionary?)”
Ah, Pictionary. Yes, I suppose I can see that adding Pictionary to the already scripted dialogue involving Charades might be an issue. Well, no – I can’t.
Oh, Charles. I wish I could loosen your tie and take you to see this show with me. I’d convince you to let go of our preconceptions of what theat-ah “should be”, sit you down in first row with the throw pillows, and make you just. watch. It must be difficult to remain aloof in the face of the sheer exuberance and delight of the cast – I can’t imagine holding the façade in place on a second viewing.
It’s true – Hunter Parrish can’t sing that well. He’s pleasant and earnest on the ballads, but “Alas for You” is somewhat distressing in its awfulness. I’m willing to overlook that in the face of his genuine likeability. Truly caring about this character is, really, more important that being able to belt out a particular song. And the rest of the cast will make you forget Hunter can’t sing that well – because, man, can those folks sing. These are the kinds of voices we long for – pure and huge and ovation inducing.
Godspell is about belonging. It’s about finding each other and being together. This is why some of us are actors: to find that kind of family, if only temporarily. If a production can achieve that for its audience, can make a family out of them for those two hours, can make us feel a part of the understanding and joy and togetherness - isn’t that a good show?