Aubrey Joy Maddock as John the Baptist, left, Andrew Cohen as Judas and Jennifer Copping as Jesus in Arts Club Theatre’s Godspell. (photo by David Cooper)
Before I attended Godspell, I was not familiar with the story or with the parables of the Gospel of Matthew, from which much of the content is taken. I did, however, know what a parable was, I knew that the play has been extraordinarily successful and I recognized the name of at least one song – “Day by Day” – so I assumed I had nothing to worry about.
I was wrong. By the end, I still didn’t get why this play has been so popular.
Godspell is essentially a series of vignettes that draw analogies between Matthew’s words and day-to-day life. It includes lessons such as, “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” “He that is without sin among you, …” the Prodigal Son, etc. Jesus relates these didactic stories to a group consisting of nine people that include a police officer, a waitress, an architect and a vamp. Judas and John the Baptist round out the cast of 12.
In each presentation of Godspell, the setting of the play, the costumes and some of the characters change. Updated scripts allow for the inclusion of cultural or geographic references that are familiar to the audience.
In the Arts Club production, the cast meet in a train station and the play unfolds as a game show where contestants participate based on the color of the shoes they’ve been given. Gospel analogies are acted out using modern story lines, including characters from Star Wars or rap songs.
To me, the play came across as a bunch of children’s shows that had been stitched together. I felt like I was back in elementary school, only instead of Smokey the Bear talking about forest fires, it’s Jesus and he wants you to avoid being stoned to death.
I found some of the skits infantile. In one case, the cast sing and talk like goats; in another scene, an audience member is pulled up to participate on stage resulting in some bad improv. And don’t get me started on the slapstick.
Godspell was an instant hit. It went from being a college student performance at Carnegie Mellon University to an experimental theatre production in Greenwich Village to being re-scored and opening off Broadway in 1971. John-Michael Tebelak originally wrote the play for his master’s thesis, having become enamored with the Gospels. Stephen Schwartz, a Carnegie Mellon alumnus was brought in to score. The award-winning Schwartz has become famous for his work in Wicked, as well as Enchanted and The Prince of Egypt. Tebelak was actually named most promising director of 1971 by the New York Drama Desk, but passed away at age 35 of a heart attack.
The show ran for five years off Broadway with an astounding 2,100 performances. The 2015 run in Vancouver is its sixth revival.
It had a particularly famous yearlong run in Toronto in 1972 with a cast that included Victor Garber, Gilda Radner (in her stage debut), Martin Short, Paul Shaffer, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin and Dave Thomas. When I read about this production, I thought what an amazing show it must have been – staged at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, with that magnitude of talent. Maybe a show about the Bible needs a venue of biblical proportions, along with fire-and-brimstone effects that stun the audience with shock and awe. Perhaps the performance at the Arts Club was just too small.
Either way, despite my lack of interest in this particular telling of the parables, I have to tip my hat to the high calibre of quadruple-threat talent (singing, acting, dancing and, in many cases, playing an instrument) on stage. Andrew Cohen in particular stands out in his supporting role of Judas.
Godspell runs at the Arts Club Granville Island stage until Aug. 1 (artsclub.com).
Baila Lazarus is a freelance writer and media trainer in Vancouver. Her consulting work can be seen at phase2coaching.com.