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,
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 Jr., an abridged version of the musical designed for younger performers.
Despite its storyline focusing on Jesus teaching his disciples,
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.
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
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
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.