Friday, May 15, 2015

Godspell and the Parables (part 2)


The Godspell play was a great success at Carnegie Mellon and, in early 1971, was performed in New York City at the La MaMa Experimental Theatre club. It then re-opened as Godspell at the Cherry Lane Theater in May 1971, with a new musical score and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. The off-Broadway play became a great success, especially after cast members sang the popular song, “Day by Day” (which reached number 11 on the top forty charts in 1972) on The Today Show on NBC. After that appearance, the play was sold out for virtually every performance (de Giere 2008: 67). It became the third-longest running off-Broadway play in history.

In 1973, the film adaption of the play appeared. The film uses New York City as the backdrop for the story, but the ten characters who make up the cast act out their story in an eerily-deserted city. Unlike its contemporary, Jesus Christ Superstar, which was also made into a film in 1973, the film version of Godspell was generally not well received.

The film begins with John the Baptist gathering a diverse group of eight disciples out of the crowds of New York City—a student (Lynne), actress (Gilmer), waitress (Katie), professional woman (Robin), taxi driver (Jeffrey), parking lot attendant (Jerry), ballet dancer (Joanne), and clothes delivery man (Merrell)—while blowing a shofar and then singing the song, “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” John the Baptist then playfully “baptizes” these eight new followers in Bethesda Fountain in Central Park.

Jesus then appears clad only in underwear and with clown-like make-up, including a red heart on his forehead; John the Baptist baptizes him—after protesting as in Matthew 3:14—and when Jesus stands, he is suddenly dressed in a Superman shirt, with striped pants and suspenders, a carnation, and clown shoes. Jesus begins to sing, “Save the People,” and everyone begins to follow him; all are now also clothed in mismatched, clown-like clothes, singing along as they make their way through a deserted New York City.

Jesus and his new followers end up in a junkyard that becomes a playground for speaking and visually representing Jesus’s teachings. The teachings of Jesus, especially the parables, dominate the first hour of the film. In the junkyard, Jesus paints the faces of his new followers and then begins to teach them. Their antics, like Jesus’s teachings, present an alternative reality—what life should be like in the kingdom of heaven. A whimsical and playful Jesus and his whimsical and playful followers speak of and also perform that kingdom for us—and they build a community of believers in doing so (Walsh 2003: 84).

In the next post, I will start to analyze the film's distinctive interpretations of the parables of Jesus.

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