'Godspell' for the Internet Age

I have seen the future of "Godspell" and it works - mostly.

The joyous counterculture musical, based on the life and parables of Jesus, was a '70s phenomenon. Opening in New York in 1971, it spawned a movie (1973) and productions around the world. In Boston alone, the show ran for nearly two years. One of its songs, "Day by Day," became a No. 1 Billboard hit.

Composer Stephen Schwartz wrote the music and lyrics for "Godspell." More recently, with Alan Menken, he's written scores for Disney ("Pocahontas," "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," and TV's "Geppetto") and, for Dreamworks, "The Prince of Egypt."

The updated "Godspell," now on a national tour, is directed by his son, Scott Schwartz, who's put an intriguing high-tech, turn-of-the-new-millennium twist on it.

Scott "talked to me about the idea he had about using the changes [since the show first opened]," the senior Schwartz said in a phone interview last week, "the distancing effect ... and the isolating effect that the Internet and the new media have had as sort of a metaphor for a society that needs to come together.

"I said, 'Go ahead and try it.' "

The new staging sets the action in a kind of technological junkyard, with hundreds of TVs piled upstage. From time to time the actors make clever use of hand-held video cameras to project closeups of the onstage action onto the TVs or large video screens that come and go from the stage.

Meanwhile, the songs have been updated from '70s folk-rock style to today's harder-edged sounds. The dialogue's been reworked, too, with scores of new pop references from this fall's lingering election ("I want a recount!") to "Blair Witch," pro wrestling, sock puppets, and takeoffs on various teen idols.

A parody of a reality cop show tells the story of the Good Samaritan. A video camera follows a toy police car across the stage to the crime scene, where tiny cops (Samaritans), represented by actors' hands with two fingers standing on the stage, render aid.

"This is a 'Godspell' quite different than anyone has seen before," Schwartz says. "It's a very original take on the show."

Oddly enough, he says, Godspell is more controversial today "than it was when it first came out," with the criticism largely coming from some Christians who see the depiction of Jesus and his followers as a kind of comedy troupe as undignified or disrespectful. And the show ends with the Crucifixion, which many Christians feel leaves out an essential part of the story, the Resurrection.

Schwartz takes a different, perhaps more inclusive, view. Though "Godspell" is based on the New Testament, "it really doesn't matter whether you believe that Jesus was bringing a message from heaven or not - it's really about the philosophy that he brought and the way that can be used to form a community across barriers of different types of people.... We live in a time when the community seems to be fractured, and there's a lot of divisiveness, and that's exactly what 'Godspell' speaks to."

The actors talk with the audience during the show, and at the intermission they mingle with the crowd in various ways. Thus this sense of "community," built first between the characters on stage as they learn the lessons of the parables, eventually extends, Schwartz hopes, to everyone present.

Audiences familiar with the Bible stories in "Godspell" may wish in some instances that they had been more thoughtfully presented. But by bringing even a glimmer of these teachings to new young theatergoers, "Godspell" may be doing a whole world of good.

'Godspell' continues its national tour through May. For locations and dates go to www.godspellontour.com. Write to Arts & Leisure at entertainment@csps.com.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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