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."

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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.

The late John-Michael Tebelak conceived of the premise for Godspell as a 21-year-old master's student at Carnegie Mellon University in 1970. Producers in New York hired the 23-year-old Schwartz, who was brought up in a secular home in Long Island, to rewrite the score.

Tebelak's career interests had bounced between the Episcopal priesthood and musical theater. He spent the last 10 years of his life (he died in 1985 at age 35) staging liturgical drama at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan. There is almost nothing spoken or sung in Godspell that isn't scriptural. The words are ancient, solemn and wise, but Schwartz set them to popular music, transforming heavy ideas into a party that left audiences feeling compassionate despite the discord outside the theater.

"I think what people responded to was the fact that the underlying journey of the show is basically formation of a community," says Schwartz, whose Wicked is playing at the Gershwin Theater, right next door to Godspell. "First among the cast and then ultimately with the audience in the house that night."

That sense of audience community and participation is aided in the show's current incarnation by the in-the-round set-up of Circle in the Square Theater. Some audience members are invited to sit on pillows next to the stage. The band members play among the theater seats, and the cast spends almost as much time in the aisles as on stage. The revival takes pains to place itself firmly in 2011, with references to iPads, Donald Trump, and even the Occupy movement itself.

While it's unlikely that many of those occupying Wall Street could, or would, afford the price of a ticket for a Broadway musical (and this particular show is staged, literally, beneath a bank), the core of the protestors' complaints about today's America are anchored in ultimate truths taught by most of the world's religions, including those set out by the earliest Christians and dramatized by 10 young actors on 50th Street in New York City.

It's unclear that there is an overt spiritual element to the Occupy movement, though London's incarnation, which set up its tents outside St. Paul's Cathedral, has prompted a debate within the Church of England about Christianity's responsibility toward those fighting for social justice. In New York, the music drifting down Broadway from Zuccotti Park is more likely to come from drum circles than a book of hymns. Yet at the park's western edge someone has set up a shrine of sorts in a circle around a tree. Images of John and Yoko and of Gandhi are propped against its trunk, behind a banana decorated with two feathers serving as an incense burner. Above, fixed to the tree with blue electrical tape is a sign announcing the circle as a "Community Altar, Sacred Space."

New York Mayor Bloomberg has compared Occupy Wall Street unfavorably to the Vietnam protests he remembers. But Schwartz says that while he's reminded of those same demonstrations, he sees in the Occupy movement a hungering for social justice similar to 1971—a broad demand for human rights that might be difficult to articulate on a sign, but that can be summed up nicely in a few joyful songs whose lyrics were written 2,000 years ago.