Chapter 7: Day by
The movie theater we sat in was only half-filled. The film we were about to see wasn't a box office smash as the off-Broadway play had been. But my two friends and I were excited at the prospect of viewing any ''religious'' film which truthfully put Bible stories on the screen.
The city streets of Manhattan, bustling with shoppers and crowds, was the unlikely setting for the film. Soon a ram's horn was heard and the strains of ''Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord'' emerged from the crowded streets. The fantasy began. A few New York City residents from various vocations, who were to be the main characters of the film, threw away their earthly woes and possessions and joined the singer. The din of street noise faded away as the characters danced and sang their way into the land of Godspell.
Then, a young white man with an afro-type hairdo appeared. He wore overalls and a Superman T-shirt. His face was painted as a clown's. He was Jesus, being baptized by John in a New York fountain.
I was totally caught up in Godspell. Because of the allegorical style I was taken offguard, but I was excited regardless. My two friends, however, weren't quite so pleased. After only a few moments, they left the theater.
When I saw my friends the next day, I inquired about their leaving after only about ten minutes. They explained that both of them had been offended by the sacrilegious tone of the film; it made fun of Christ by putting him in a clown suit. They didn't want to see what happened next. As far as I was concerned, I was entertained and at times edified by Godspell. I would see the film nearly a dozen
times in the next five years, something of a record for me. Each time I was refreshed. The differing views that day in the theater were indicative of the opinions being voiced everywhere.
Godspell had been conceived and directed by John Michael Tebelak; the music had been written by Stephen Schwartz. Based on the Gospel according to St. Matthew, the play was a musical review done in what one magazine described as a mixture of ''slapstick, vaudeville, satire, circus and expository preaching.''
The difference in Godspell's stage presentation and that of Jesus Christ Superstar was extensive. Superstar had portrayed Christ in a flashy, superstar role; Godspell showed him as a gentle clown. Life magazine's theater critic Tom Prideaux stated that ''compared to Jesus Christ Superstar, Godspell is a carefree beggar beside a rich Pharisee.'' A more humorous comparison was that offered by The Christian Century: ''Godspell's ho-ho Jesus and Superstar's woe-woe Jesus.''
Superstar had never allowed the resurrection of Christ, and Godspell left the resurrection ''just offstage.'' The hornets' nest stirred up by Superstar among the more conservative Christian population was still buzzing when Godspell appeared on the scene. Tebelak's portrayal of Christ as a harlequin was just as offensive to the conservatives as the deluded Jesus in Superstar.
What the critics censured was what the supporters applaudeda characterization of Christ as a humble and gentle leader, teaching His followers to be as little children and always to look to Him for answers. He directed them with love and wisdom so simple it was profound. The play brought to life Matthew 18:4, in which Jesus said, ''Except ye be converted, and became as little children, ye shall not enter the kingdom of heaven.'' The clown figure of Jesus allowed the plain message of the Gospel of St. Matthew to come through loud and clear, not just in words, but also in acted-out parables.
Director Tebelak, who had conceived Godspell while working on His Master's thesis at Carnegie Tech's School of Drama, stated, ''The church has become so down and pessimistic. It has to reclaim its joy and hope. I see Godspell as a celebration of life.''
And a celebration it was. Stephen Schwartz composed the music and wrote new lyrics for Godspell. Several of the songs were Anglican hymns and anthems of yore, with new musical foundations constructed by Schwartz. According to one report, ''when asked how he could give such fresh tunes to old hymns, Schwartz said it was no problem at all since he had never heard the old tunes.''
Schwartz's songs in the play ranged the entire gamut from rock
to barroom music, each song taking on the character of the scene in which it was used. The song which rose out of Godspell as the greatest commercial hit was ''Day by Day,'' one of the revitalized hymns Schwartz used. ''Day by Day'' reached the #13 position in national pop music charts in May 1972.
In 1973, the movie version of Godspell came along, following record-breaking runs for the play in places such as the Ford Theater in Washington, D. C. The movie was greeted with the same span of opinions as the play had been.
Certain Christian publications, such as Christianity Today, gave the Godspell film positive reviews. However, some other critics flayed the film for presenting a too-shallow view of Jesus and an overall too-shallow play (even though the script was lifted almost directly from a two thousand-year-old literary masterpiece). One disappointed writer went so far as to describe Godspell as ''the Gospel according to St. Cutesy-poo.''
Though such critics tore down the play and the film, and though many people were greatly offended by the unholiness of Godspell, lives were affected. To some people the actors may have portrayed ''cutesy-poo'' characters, but to many the play was much more significant.
Scott Ross, whose wife, Nedra, sang for several years as part of a pop group, the Ronettes, saw Godspell do some heavy work. ''A well-known secular record producer called Nedra and me one day,'' he recalls, ''and asked us to come to New York City and see Godspell, because he wanted Nedra to record a couple of songs from Godspell for a secular label. I'd already seen the show, but we took up the invitation and went to New York to see it with him.
''We got to the end of the show where the Lord is crucified on the chain link fence. All of a sudden, this producer, who knows nothing about the Lord to my knowledge, grabbed my hand. I turned and looked, and he had grabbed Nedra's hand on the other side. He had sunglasses on, but I saw the tears streaming down his face. I'm not overdramatizing the instancethe tears were literally streaming down his face. I could not believe it, because I knew something about this guy's life. He trembled. He shook from head to foot.
''I looked around the audience, and I'd say half of them were Jews, people in show business. It was a new show; everybody in town was trying to see it. People all over the auditorium were crying. This friend we were with couldn't take it any longer. He jumped up and ran out of the door.
''After the end, when the cast had come down the aisle saying,
'God is not dead,' we went outside and our friend was standing on the sidewalk. He said, 'We've got to go eat something.' He was still trembling. He said, 'Tell me about Jesus.'
''We sat for five hours in his apartment telling him about the Lord. He didn't ever make a commitment, nor did Nedra ever record that album, but I know that that day something happened in his life. A seed was planted in a major way.''
Though Godspell's producer Tebelak said he did not consider his play a part of the Jesus movement, it was. There was no way of avoiding it. The same young people who had expressed their joy in Christ in and out of churches gladly embraced a chance to experience that joy in the theaters of the nation too. To them, Godspell was an excellent alternative form of entertainment.
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