Stephen Schwartz’s 1970 musical “Godspell” is about the life of Jesus. Except it’s not. While the show is loosely based on the Gospel of Matthew, the show goes beyond those ecclesiastical themes, turning religious parables into a larger parable about the formation and dissolution of community. One can easily compare this show to Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” released the same year as “Godspell,” and see two vastly different musicals that might deal with the same subject but create vastly differing meanings.
Future Waitstaff of America (FWA) will be presenting the musical “Godspell” in the Mug on April 13 at 8 p.m., April 14 at 4 p.m. and 9 p.m. and on April 15 at 3 p.m.
Despite the theological basis of the production, Director Jennifer Jacobs ’20 believes there is more to the show than meets the eye: “People always think this is a musical about religion, and it kind of is. But it’s the most non-religious religious musical.”
Jacobs expanded: “It’s a lot about coming together despite differences. Everybody is on their own, but they’re still able to share their time and space together, which I think is a valuable skill. It’s about being able to look across differences and find a space that’s safe for all different kinds of people.”
Highlighting the communal themes of the show, this production is set at a bar, taking advantage of one of the Mug’s previous incarnations. Of the two Broadway productions, the original iteration of the show was based on hippie culture and was notoriously campy, while the 2011 revival strove for an edgier tone. FWA’s production aims for a happy medium. For everyone involved, the main focus has been creating a united ensemble, both within the cast and with the audience during the performance.
Music Director Daniel Slade Rosen ’19 spoke about the deep and unique feelings that a collective setting can evoke, which this production hopes to capture: “I love that sense of community when you go to a concert and suddenly everybody is singing the same lyrics, and everybody has their own individual meanings of the songs but they all somehow mean the same thing. There’s this balanced sense of community and individuality that’s coming together, at least for that moment, giving you purpose and a sense of something greater.”
One of the distinct features of the musical is that all of the actors in the ensemble play characters that bear their real names, a tradition since the first production of the show.
Zane Diamond ’20 plays Zane. Explaining the work that has gone into creating this character, he said, “That’s the thing about ‘Godspell.’ It’s an ensemble cast and you basically just play a version of yourself that is just a lot more extra. I’d say that the tones of the different songs really tell you a lot about the character as a person and there’s a very specific reason that each song is being sung by each person.”
Jacobs agreed with Diamond and spoke about the difficulty this posed for the cast: “It’s hard to reconcile the words of the song, but also the different personalities of the characters, because of the fact that the people in my cast are not the people in the original, but I think everyone has sort of made it their own, and that was exactly what I was looking for.”
Schwartz originally composed “Godspell” in 1970 while attending Carnegie Mellon University, with the book by John-Michael Tebelak and lyrics directly adapted from traditional hymns. The show premiered off Broadway the following year. An immense success, “Godspell” has been revived multiple times and was eventually made into a film in 1973. The original Toronto cast featured many notable performers who would go on to mainstream success, including Victor Garber, Andrea Martin, Gilda Radner and Martin Short. Schwartz has subsequently received praise for his work as composer for “Pippin” in 1972 and “Wicked” in 2003 and was lyricist for Disney’s “Pocahontas” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” as well as DreamWorks’s “The Prince of Egypt.”
Rosen analyzed where “Godspell” fits thematically in Schwartz’s compendium of work: “I think there is so much in his shows about finding what morals are important to you, finding the people you can trust and also how to be a leader for yourself. In ‘Godspell,’ you have the lessons that you need to learn, and in ‘Pippin’ he’s going through all these different avenues in life and ‘Wicked’ takes it to the next step in a whole evaluation of morality. I think there is a through line.”
Besides “Godspell,” FWA will be presenting “Ariadne,” a new musical written by Michael Oosterhout ’18, on April 12–14 in Rocky 200. Their other full-length production is “Little Women,” based on Louisa May Alcott’s 1869 novel, on April 19–21. The student theater org will also be continuing their Late Night series with “Late Night Legally Blonde” on April 28.
Diamond related how the show’s communal themes can be particularly pertinent to Vassar students: “I hope the audience understands that there is a time limit to communities, in that people grow together and apart, though that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And sometimes a specific place and time and space were exactly what you needed, but anything more might not be good. I think it’s important to cherish the moments when you’re together as a community and to keep them in your memory but know that they don’t have to be the same ever again.”