The 'Godspell' Revival: A Broadway Production Fit for Occupy Wall Street

The spiritual singalong debuted at the heights of Vietnam War unrest, and returns with an updated script that still preaches the gospel of fighting for the little guy

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AP Images / 'Godspell'

Two weeks before Godspell opened off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theater on May 17, 1971, 12,000 protesters were arrested in Washington while chanting "The whole world is watching," and demanding that Congress ratify a "people's treaty" to end the Vietnam War.

When the curtain goes up on the show's first Broadway revival today, its actors will look out at an America similarly disenchanted. The underlying themes of Godspell are in such harmony with the Occupy Wall Street movement that the show could tap into a significant cultural moment at just the right time. One of its first songs, for example, asks God, "When wilt thou save the people...not thrones and crowns, but men?"

The caustic tone "in America today is very, very similar to where things were in 1971," says Stephen Schwartz, the show's composer. "I think there may have been an underlying longing for community at a time when there was very little sense of that in our society. We are clearly in a time like that again, and that's why the show may resonate again."

The musical, based on the parables in the Gospel of Matthew with lyrics from the 1940 Episcopal Hymnal, is at its heart about love of neighbor, and a 1971 public tired of confrontation embraced it enthusiastically. Its message of peace and love, grounded in ancient scriptures instead of a new-agey hippie subculture, heartened some in a country whose more perfect union was disintegrating. The show ran for 2,600 performances in New York, was nominated for a Tony, won a Grammy, and was made into a (horrid) movie.

While Broadway may be resurrecting it, Godspell never really died. In addition to many professional productions, amateur shows have been mounted in countless community theaters, high school auditoriums and church basements over four decades. In the last 10 years alone, according to dramatic performing rights agency Music Theatre International, there have been 5,000 licensed productions and more than 20,000 performances of Godspell and Godspell Jr., an abridged version of the musical designed for younger performers.

Despite its storyline focusing on Jesus teaching his disciples, Godspell is not a religious artifact, Schwartz says. "It's about the formation of a community around very, very basic principles that this character Jesus espoused. The whole thing is built around two very simple things he said."

The first is Matthew's version of the Golden Rule: "In everything do to others as you would have them do to you." The second is related, but carries special emphasis for Zuccotti Park occupants carrying "Jesus was the 99%" signs: "Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me."

"Really you could let go of all other beliefs, and just do these two things, and society would be transformed," Schwartz says.

Godspell begins with philosophers and theologians through the ages—Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, Jean Paul Sartre—calling out their ideas. They talk on top of each other, past each other and eventually their once-powerful messages bleed together in a cacophony of nonsense, a Tower of Babel. It takes the sound of a shofar—in Judaism, a call to repentance—to calm the chaos on stage and point to the teachings of one Jewish philosopher, according to one of his evangelical biographers.

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Tim Townsend is the religion reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His book about the U.S. Army chaplain who ministered to the Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg trials will be published next year by William Morrow.

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