On Easter Sunday, 1970, John-Michael Tebelak, a graduate student of theater at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie-Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, attended an Easter service that he found boring and devoid of spirit. This was the era of upheavals in the church – the Catholic Church allowed mass in the vernacular, and guitar-playing priests and ministers started springing up like weeds.
Tebelak wanted to show the human and common touch of Jesus, and to appeal to young people. Thus he wrote a theatrical piece he dubbed "Godspell" – after a medieval English term for Gospel but also literally meaning God’s spell. He first worked on it in Pittsburgh and then in Greenwich Village. Although it had one song – "By My Side," written by cast members Jay Hamburger and Peggy Gordon – and some incidental music, producers who saw the show suggested that it needed a whole musical score. Tebelak was matched up with a fellow young Carnegie graduate, Stephen Schwartz, who was trying to sell producers on a musical that he had written, called "Pippin" (later produced after the success of "Godspell"). Coincidentally, at almost the same time, in England, a young unknown composer named Andrew Lloyd Webber was writing another musical about the life of Jesus – "Jesus Christ Superstar."
The finished product of the collaboration of Tebelak and Schwartz took New York by storm. "Godspell" was first a great success off Broadway, and then later moved to Broadway. This might have seemed unlikely – after all, the show featured characters who were "hippies," dressed as clowns, giving a plain and impassioned presentation of the life of Jesus, who wore a Superman costume.
"Godspell" follows the life of Jesus as given in the Gospel of St. Matthew, but told in a way aimed at appealing to young people in the present day. The songs are an amalgam of various styles, from gospel, to vaudeville, folk, torch song, and rock. The characters in the play are named by the actors playing them (this is also traditional). They may play other roles (such as John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles), but it is clear that we are seeing "street theater."
The current production of "Godspell" at Princeton Summer Theater dispenses with clown and Superman costumes and adds a few contemporary references – such as iPods, and a very short excerpt from the Michael Jackson hit "Thriller" – but this is entirely in keeping with the spirit of the show. As the audience takes their seats before the show begins, a group of young people on stage are gathered together in what looks like a city playground surrounded by chain link fences festooned with posters. One couple is tossing a ball, a few others are chatting around a picnic cooler, and four musicians are jamming . Gradually they start quarreling, when Rob (Rob Walsh) bursts in, and, as John the Baptist, calms them down and sings "Prepare Ye (the Way of the Lord)." Next, Jed (Jed Peterson), playing Jesus, enters and sings "Save the People." For the rest of the first act Jesus tells parables, while members of the cast act them out and sing songs to illustrate the parables’ lessons.
Carly (Westminster student Carly Voigt) sings perhaps the best-known song from the show, "Day by Day." At the end of the first act, the cast offers audience members "wine," Act II leads up to the "Last Supper" and the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.
The cast is young, attractive, and energetic, infusing real passion into the story. The show moves along at a good pace, thanks to the direction of Jonathan Elliott and choreography by Marisol Rosa-Shapiro (who also sings the torch song, "Stand Back, O Man"). My favorite number was "O, Bless the Lord, My Soul," a rousing gospel sung by Westminster student Liz Flemming. Peterson (also the artistic director of the company), a quite accomplished actor with tremendous presence, was a riveting and acrobatic Jesus. Walsh was an equally arresting John the Baptist. The rest of the company – Kyle Booten, Craig Jorczak, Amy Widdowson, Tim McDonough, and Virginia Pourakis – fit together well.
Each show this season has a Princeton connection. For "Godspell," it’s Stuart Duncan, Princeton resident and long-time theater critic for the Princeton Packet who, along with Edgar Lansbury (brother of the famous actress Angela Lansbury), and Joseph Beruh were the original producers of "Godspell."
"Godspell" is an enjoyable evening and, for those of us old enough to remember, a trip back to the spirit of the 1960s.
"Godspell," Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton-Murray Theater, Princeton University, 609-258-7062. Thursdays through Saturdays, July 21 to 23, and 28 to 30, at 8 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, July 23 and 24, and 30 and 31, at 2 p.m. $13 to $15 with student and senior discounts. Post performance discussions on Friday evenings.