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Theatre / Godspell

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"Prepare ye, the way of the Lord."

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 Animation 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 Film of the Play, 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 directions are 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 are 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 70s-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 Andrew 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 Hunter Parrish, Lindsay Mendez, Uzo Aduba, Anna Maria Perez 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:

  • As Himself / The Danza: invoked All actors not playing Jesus and John/Judas are themselves.
  • As the Good Book Says...: Well, obviously. The songs are all psalms set to music, with words altered to make them more melodic. For example, "Bless the Lord" is a paraphrasing of Psalm 103.
  • Bad Girl Song: "Turn Back, O Man"
  • Book Ends: The face painting and face paint removal.
    • Also the reprise of "Prepare Ye" at the very end.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: The song Light of the World at the end of Act I could be interpreted as an example of this.
    • 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 disciples' meal.
  • BSoD Song: "Alas for You". Jesus is not a happy camper as he is criticising the Pharisees for make it hard for followers to get into the kingdom of heaven.
  • But Thou Must!: Judas has second thoughts about the betrayal at the last minute and tries to turn away, but finds himself cut off by invisible walls (like a mime's box) except in the direction leading to Jesus.
  • Call to Adventure: John's horn and Prepare Ye drag the cast from their mundane lives to become Disciples.
  • Christian Rock: Along with Jesus Christ Superstar, this play led the way for Christian rock to become a popular music genre.
  • 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.
    • 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 (and, in some productions, L. Ron Hubbard) argue about philosophy.
  • Foregone Conclusion: Spoiler alert: Jesus is going to die.
  • Funny Background Event: Often happens with a large production that has an ensemble, as sometimes the script calls for the cast to dance randomly.
  • Gospel Revival Number: A lot. "Day By Day", "Bless the Lord", "Light of the World", "Beautiful City", and "We Beseech Thee" all go gospel. ...What would you expect?
  • 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.
    • Subverted by Judas' counter-melody, which gets downright cynical about who has all the benefits right NOW.
    Judas: But who is the land for, the sun and the sand for? You guessed! It's all for the best!
  • 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.
    • In most performances of the 2012 revival, while the clothing can be a bit silly, the cast at least doesn't look like hippies.
  • Invisible Wall: Judas tries to turn away from the betrayal, but finds himself in a three-sided mime's box, with walls in every direction except the one leading to Jesus.
  • Irrelevant Act Opener:
    • 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 each other. 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.
  • Jesus Was Way Cool: Pretty much the entire show is a retelling of the cool things Jesus said and did in the Gospels, showing how it made him beloved by his followers. Works on a meta-level as well, since a show that's simply a straightforward presentation of Jesus as a cool guy became a wildly popular staple of musical theater.
  • The Lancer: Judas.
  • 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 actress who performed the number in both the original stage production and the film deliberately modeled her performance on Mae West.
  • Massive Multiplayer Ensemble Number: You need at least eight voice parts/people to do "Tower of Babble", and they're all singing at once.
    • 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.
  • Mirth to Power: 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.
    • In some productions, the face painting is replaced with tokens such as flower pins, friendship bracelets, or bandanas.
  • 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.
    • The finale is a slow funeral procession, until the end when the cast sing a triumphant, cheerful reprise of "Prepare Ye."
  • 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...)
  • O.O.C. Is Serious Business: Jesus so rarely gets pissed off that it's almost jarring to see him deliver a scathing "The Reason You Suck" Speech to the Pharisees in "Alas for You." It seems his Berserk Button (so to speak) is self-righteousness and hypocrisy.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: All the songs, and maybe the entire play.
  • Opening Chorus: "Tower of Babble"
  • 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" wears red; 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).
  • Passion Play: This modernization of the Gospel accounts ends with Christ being attached to an electric fence representing his cross, and giving his final words in the opening of the song "Finale."
  • Patter Song: "Tower of Babble" and "All for the Best".
  • 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.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: "Alas For You" is an epic one that Jesus delivers to the Pharisees.
  • Rough Overalls: As the play is a Hippie Jesus retelling of the New Testament, with the cast of adult apostles having childlike faith in many senses of the word, it isn't uncommon for at least one cast member to be wearing overalls.
  • 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.
  • 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.
    • Yes, when Jesus said, "When someone slaps your cheek, turn, and offer them your other", the "other" did mean your ass cheek (in other words, walk away.)
  • Sketch Comedy: The bulk of the show, apart from the musical numbers.
  • The Song Before the Storm: Subverted with "On the Willows". Light and sweet, before the heartbreak of the crucifixion.
    • The music, at least. The lyrics are from Psalm 137, about the Babylonian captivity of the Jews.
    • 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.
  • Song of Prayer:
    • "Save the People"is a close paraphrase of an older hymn, "When Wilt Thou Save the People?" by Ebenezer Elliot (1847), itself a parody or response to the much-more-famous "God Save the Queen." In "Godspell," it places Jesus in a firmly New Testament context, as His presence is God's response to the complaint in the title of the prayer.
    • "Day by Day": A song in which the disciples declare their desire to become better followers of Jesus each day.
  • Superhero Gods: Invoked with Jesus wearing a Superman logo on his t-shirt.
  • Tower of Babel: Referenced in a metaphorical way by the opening number "Tower of Babble". See Irrelevant Act Opener above for an explanation.
  • Triumphant Reprise: "Prepare Ye/Day by Day," at the finale after Jesus dies.
  • Truck Driver's Gear Change: "We Beseech Thee" goes up a whole tone after the "boom chick" interlude.
  • 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.
    • This is taken even further in the 2011 revival, where the script specifies that Abraham is supposed to impersonate Borat.
  • Noo Yawk: It's specifically written that Abraham speak with a heavy Brooklyn accent.
  • 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.
  • You Have GOT to Be Kidding Me!: Uttered by the Pharisee (traditionally played by Gilmer) when the tax collector is preferred by God.