Godspell is a musical rendition of the Christian Gospel—primarily the book of Matthew but also some selections from Luke and one from John—with a contemporary soundtrack and aesthetic. It was created by John-Michael Tebelak, who wrote it as his master's thesis at Carnegie Mellon University, but after its (successful) debut, its producers hired an up-and-coming composer named Stephen Schwartz to rework the music. It was Schwartz' second break-out success (after Pippin, which he worked on alongside Bob Fosse), winning him two Grammys and paving the way for further successes, such as some of the DreamWorks cartoons, the movie Enchanted, and the musical Wicked.The musical mostly uses lyrics from pre-existing Episcopal hymns, but with completely new melodies composed by Schwartz (plus one song from a fellow student of Tebelak and member of the original cast); it also showcases many of the more famous parables from the Gospels. The story is told in a light-hearted, almost vaudevillean style; indeed, in the original stage production and The Movie version, the characters dressed up as clowns, symbolizing their conversion. From a production standpoint, it can be run with a very small cast (four or five instrumentalists and ten actors), and the stage direction quite vague: each production is advised to come up with their own settings, costumes and contexts for the show, and ad libbing and audience participation is encouraged. Long story short: this is an easy production for theatres of any size, quality and shape to take and make their own (which is part of why it's been financially successful). Finally, it isn't particularly preachy, which helps keep it accessible to all audiences.It was released the year after the other 70's-rock-musical-about-Jesus Jesus Christ Superstar, and definitely benefited from the resultant hype; furthermore, it lacked the Darker and Edgier quality that put a lot of Christians off the Lloyd Webber offering (if anything, Godspell is Lighter and Softer than the way the Bible is preached in many churches!). One of its songs, Day By Day, was released as a single and achieved some success that way; it's toured about a gazillion times; there are a number of cast recordings out; and there was a movie in 1973.In 2011, a revival opened on Broadway starring HunterParrish, Lindsay Mendez, Uzo Aduba, Anna MariaPerez de Taglé, and more (with Corbin Bleu eventually replacing Parrish).For tropes concerning the 1973 film, click here.
Godspell provides examples of the following tropes:
Badass Baritone: John/Judas as compared to TenorBoys Jesus, Jeffrey, and Lamar (Herb barely sings at all unless other cast members' lines in Light of the World are reassigned to him).
The performance script encourages this interpretation, suggesting that the cast invite audience members onto the stage or serve grape juice and bread to the entire audience. The point is that the audience get to share the disciple's meal.
Composite Character: The actor who represents Judas also takes on the John the Baptist role, in contrast to the other apostles who take on various philosophers who this trope also applies to. It also sets him up as Jesus' Lancer, who assists him with his teaching while still learning himself which makes his eventual betrayal all the more painful for the both of them. Of course some people get confused or desperate for parts and either treat them as two separate characters or have them played by different actors, which is Completely Missing the Point.
The other roles are composites of various disciples, sinners, etc. encountered by Jesus in the gospels.
Counterpoint Duet: "All For The Best". There's a semi-example with "Tower of Babble", with eight counterpoint lines.
Fake-Out Opening: The play begins with an ensemble number, "The Tower of Babble", in which Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Leonardo da Vinci, Edward Gibbon, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Buckminster Fuller argue about philosophy.
Filk: Inverted Trope. Most filk songs set new lyrics to someone else's melody; Schwartz took lyrics from a hymnal and wrote new music.
Gospel Revival Number: A lot. "Day By Day", "Bless the Lord", "Light of the World", "Beautiful City", and "We Beseech Thee" all go gospel.
Hakuna Matata: "All For The Best" points out that even though life might suck, there's more to life than material wealth and that it will all even out in the end.
Hippie Jesus: Godspell is practically defined by having Jesus and his followers in hippie-ish/clownish clothing.
This one's been Jossed, however; Stephen Schwartz has claimed that they were merely supposed to be clowns, not flower children. If they looked like hippies, in the original production and the movie, that's probably because it was the seventies. Even then Schwartz says the movie's use of hippie clowns was outdated by the that point.
The Act 1 opener, "Tower of Babble", is often confused as this, but is far from it. The song basically has most of the cast representing various philosophers (which change depending on the production) before singing in eight-part counterpoint as they fight amongst eachother. It is supposed to represent what the community is like before the arrival of the Jesus-figure, that they are too entrenched in their own beliefs and philosophies to get along. Over the course of the first act they are slowly brought together into a loving and tight knit community. Stephen Schwartz is often frustrated that the number frequently is cut by directors, and it doesn't help that the song was cut from both the original cast album (as it was intended as more of a pop album than a traditional musical recording) and the film (it is more of a stage number and probably wouldn't have worked well on film anyway).
Depending on the production, the reprise of "Learn Your Lessons Well" can also be this — if you don't have the rights to "Beautiful City" and you need another solo for one of your cast members. Then again the script does say to treat it as an Entr'acte rather than as a proper musical number.
The Jester: Jesus is interpreted as one of these, teaching his message through humor and clowning. The others get in on the act, and he paints their faces to mark them as his followers.
Lyrical Dissonance: An arguably intentional example; the lyrics to the song 'Turn Back, O Man' are about how people ought to turn back on their sins ("forswear thy foolish ways") and open their way towards Godnote though, of course, it is actually sung to Jesus. However, the actual music makes it sounds like a sexy seduction song, and often the one singing it will go into the audience and sweet-talk its audience members — in fact, the actress who performed the number in both the original stage production and the film deliberately modeled her performance on Mae West.
The finale of "Long Live God/Prepare Ye/Day by Day".
Minimalist Cast: Zigzagged. Godspell's smallest cast is 10 people, but parts can be chopped up and farmed out to support much larger ensembles. This is part of why it's popular for schools or community theatres.
Mood Whiplash: The play reimagines the New Testament as a quirky, lighthearted comedy about the formation of a community, rife with Slapstick and vaudeville routines. Things take a sudden turn in Act 2 when Jesus encounters the Pharisees in "Alas For You". From there, Jesus is betrayed and crucified just as in the source material, and his disciples can only watch helplessly as the man who brought happiness and meaning into their lives bleeds to death in front of them.
Motor Mouth: Thomas Aquinas in the "Prologue/Tower of Babble" and both John/Judas and Jesus in "All for the Best".
New Age Retro Hippies: Some productions, and you can bet they're proud of it! (Not quite as retro at the time, but...)
Original Cast Precedent: A lot of productions follow certain guidelines: the cast is made of five women, three men, a Judas and a Jesus; Jesus wears a Superman t-shirt; whoever sings "Turn Back, O Man" wearsred; and Judas has kind of a ringmaster look.
The disciples didn’t have names in the original stage play, so the actors went by their own names. As a result, the names of the first cast became the characters’ official names in the play. For those curious: Sonia ("Turn Back, O Man"), Peggy ("By My Side"), Robin ("Day by Day"), Joanne ("Bless The Lord"), Jeffrey ("We Beseech Thee"), Gilmer ("Learn Your Lessons Well"), Herb ("Light of the World"), Lamar ("All Good Gifts").
Often, the actors playing these parts won't go by these names, but by their own names in a continuation of the tradition (with lines altered accordingly).
Please Don't Leave Me: "By My Side" has the woman who Jesus saved from being stoned begging Him to let her follow Him. It's especially poignant in that Judas takes money to betray Jesus in the middle of the number, foreshadowing his death.
Shoo Out the Clowns: In this case, Jesus paints the faces of the cast with clown makeup when they decide to follow him, and they wear it for most of the show, until he removes it during the "last supper" scene immediately preceding his death.
Unexplained Accent: Many, many, many. Perhaps the most offbeat is that Abraham speaks with a heavy Brooklyn accent — and it's written into the script.
Wham Line: "Then the man they called Judas Iscariot went to the chief priests, and said "What will you give me to betray Him to you?" They paid him thirty pieces of silver — and from that moment, he began to look out for an opportunity to betray Him." (Matthew 26:14-16, KJV) The line signifies the transition from John to Judas in the musical.
In the film, the final line of the speech is accented with a percussive sound not unlike Dramatic Thunder.
"This is the beginning."...of the end. Jesus says this to tell the community that was built during Act 1 that he's going to leave them to see if they retained the lessons learned from his teachings. And it all goes downhill from there, ending in His Crucifixion.
The line right before "On the Willows": "And I tell you I shall never again drink from the fruit of the vine until I drink it again with you in the Kingdom of my Father." Jesus then says goodbye to the rest of the cast.