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Film / Godspell

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Godspell (also known as Godspell: A Musical Based on the Gospel According to St. Matthew) is the 1973 film adaptation of the Off-Broadway musical Godspell created by John-Michael Tebelak. Directed by David Greene with stars Victor Garber as Jesus and David Haskell as Judas/John the Baptist, the film is set in an empty modern-day New York City. John-Michael Tebelak is credited as co-writer of the screenplay and served as the creative consultant, although director David Greene said Tebelak did not write the screenplay

Filmed in late 1972, this production fleshes out the stories of each of the cast members a little bit, showing them going on about their lives in Manhattan. John the Baptist arrives, appears to each of them and sounds his horn calling them to Bethesda Fountain in Central Park. From here, the production takes place in a New York city devoid of other people. Stories and numbers are performed in places such as Lincoln Center, Central Park, and the (still under construction) World Trade Center.


For tropes concerning the stage production, see Godspell.

Godspell provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Adaptation Distillation: Learn Your Lessons Well and We Beseech Thee are cut as numbers, but remain in some form. The first song appears as a skiff act (with the cast yelling "Amen" after it's done), while the latter is featured briefly as a piano instrumental.
  • Adaptation Expansion: You get to see the cast members in their lives before being called.
  • As Himself: All actors not playing Jesus and John/Judas are themselves.
  • Award-Bait Song: "Beautiful City". It is now included in stage productions of Godspell, too.
  • Big Applesauce: The movie version is set there. It's a literal interpretation of the play script, which says that the play is meant to evoke "urban sprawl."
  • Bishōnen: Jesus and Jeffrey both qualify. The latter even has his own fansite.
  • Advertisement:
  • Book Ends: The face painting and face paint removal, the full New York at the beginning and the end.
  • Breakaway Pop Hit: Of all the songs, "Day By Day" was the one that had mainstream success. "Beautiful City" was also used in New York City tourism ads.
  • BSoD Song: "Alas for You". Jesus is not a happy camper.
  • Call to Adventure: John's horn and Prepare Ye drag the cast from their mundane lives to become Disciples.
  • Composite Character: Judas/John
  • Covered in Gunge: Robin (as the Rich Man in "Lazarus and the Rich Man") is sent to Hades and tormented by demons who present her with scrummy looking strawberry-and-cream pies — which they then drizzle ketchup on (during her speech, you can hear her voice change - as if saying, "Ewwwww" - as they pour the ketchup on.) And then pie her with.
  • Creator Cameo: Stephen Schwartz (who wrote the score) is the man drinking coffee in the diner, and John-Michael Tebelak (the original writer of Godspell) voices the Pharisee.
  • Dramatic Thunder: "And from that moment, he began to look out for an opportunity *booooom* to betray him."
  • Hope Spot: "Beautiful City" is a hopeful ballad following the dark "By My Side", promising everything will be alright. Unfortunately, only From a Certain Point of View do things get better.
  • The Lancer: Judas.
  • Low-Angle Empty World Shot: Many of the shots in midtown Manhattan when they couldn't justify the expense in clearing the street are these. One notable one is when the troupe is carrying Jesus at the end down one of the streets.
  • 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 . 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 written score for the number includes the notation "a la Mae West."
  • Mirth to Power: Jesus is interpreted as doing this, 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. The script identifies them as clowns.
  • Movie Bonus Song: "Beautiful City"
  • Never Say That Again: Upon hearing the teaching to turn the other cheek, Judas whines "Aw, Jesus Chr—" before another apostle shuts him up. It's enough to send Jesus (and several other apostles) into the vaudeville "Slowly I Turned" routine.
  • Patter Song: "All for the Best".
  • Please, Don't Leave Me: "By My Side" is this for Katie and eventually the rest of the disciples.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: "Alas For You".
  • Rule of Symbolism: Why else would a healthy young man die from being tied to an ordinary chain-link fence for 10 minutes?
    • Fridge Brilliance: It's a passion play that the performers do ritually. Note that the "blood" is red streamers.
  • 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 film, until he removes it during the "last supper" scene immediately preceding his death.
  • Shout-Out: The story of the prodigal son takes place in a theater. It's Cherry Lane Theater, where the first production of Godspell opened.
  • Show Within a Show: It's subtle, but the entire film depicts a passion play being performed by the group.
  • Shown Their Work: Jesus speaks the Passover Seder prayer in Hebrew. Most Christians forget that Jesus was a rabbi and The Last Supper was a Passover Seder.
  • Sketch Comedy: The bulk of the film, apart from the musical numbers.
  • Slapstick Knows no Gender: The slapstick fight.
  • The Song Before the Storm:
    • Subverted with "On the Willows". Light and sweet, before the heartbreak of the crucifixion.
    • The production after All for the Best becomes increasingly more serious. Alas for You marks the end of all buffoonery in the production, and takes a markedly darker tone.
  • Triumphant Reprise: "Prepare Ye/Day by Day".
  • 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. The final line of the speech is accented with a percussive sound not unlike Dramatic Thunder.
    • When Jesus says someone amongst them would betray him on that night, all of the Disciples jokingly ask, "Can you mean me?":
      Judas: Rabbi? Can you mean me?
      Jesus: (Beat) The words are yours. Do quickly what you have to do.
      (Judas, startled, looks around, then flees, to the other Disciples' shock.)
  • Wham Shot: After the Disciples carry Jesus around a corner, New York springs to life again, with pedestrians and passerby suddenly appearing.
  • Writing Around Trademarks: Jesus can't wear a Superman insignia as he is supposed to in the theatrical productions, so he wears a shirt with a stylized "S" that suggests it instead. (Movies follow different rules than theater does.) Merrill got away wearing a Mickey Mouse tee, though.
  • You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me!: Uttered by the Pharisee when the tax collector is preferred by God.