THERE'S A GOOD reason the John-Michael Tebelak/Stephen Schwartz musical Godspell has endured and prospered for more than 40 years. Its Christian theme notwithstanding, it's a story about love and family-building.
Oh sure, the lead character is named Jesus, and throughout the play’s arc he’s imparting a series of Biblical parables and lessons—faith is a big part of Godspell, if you choose to see it that way. Tebelak based his script on the Gospel of St. Matthew, although the loosely connected vignettes are acted out by a limber troupe in ragtag clothes and dabs of face paint.
And the music and lyrics by Schwartz (Pippin, Wicked) are engaging, sweet, full of harmony and occasionally very funny. In this way, one can take Godspell in two very different ways—it can be a lighthearted Christian morality tale, or a warm and enveloping chronicle of disparate people who develop a community where once there was none.
For some, those two things are pretty much the same.
With the exception of Jesus, and John the Baptist (who morphs metaphorically into Judas Iscariot), the characters in Godspell don’t have names—in his notes, Tebelak instructs every actor to use his or her actual first name.
Directed by Pam Sears, Armstrong Atlantic State University’s production of Godspell opens April 10. Every member of the cast understands the playwright’s reasoning behind the name usage.
“I’ve done theater before,” says Jonathan Handley, “but coming in and essentially playing myself, that’s one of the things that stands out. Because what we show onstage —all these people coming together and creating a community—is almost, literally, what we went through, from the rehearsal process on forward.
“That’s one reason it’s such a beautiful, organic show, because we live that in a sense. We came in as strangers not knowing each other, and then we built around this one common goal.”
Walter Pigford, who plays Jesus, loves the ambiguity of the message. “The point of the show, I think, is to grow morally from the lessons,” he says. “I’ve grown from just rehearsing them every day. It’s about love and acceptance and just being the best person you can be.”
The son of a Methodist minister, David Willis (John the Baptist) wasn’t familiar with Godspell, and came into the production with the notion that it might be a religious hammer used to bop audiences over the head.
He was wrong. “Honestly, I was worried about doing the show because I thought that element might be a little too much for me to handle,” Willis explains. “But my favorite part of this show is that it’s about being kind to one another. It starts with this big argument, and then they begin to form a community around this incredible person.”
Kind of like life.
In theater, offers Justine Scrutchins, “Usually you come in and put on this different persona. But here, it’s literally the journey of ourselves. Just with this message. And it’s open and welcoming to everyone.
“We made it a point, thanks to Pam, to not push Christianity on our audience. To really just stress the messages. So people aren’t saying ‘They’re preaching at us.’ We didn’t want that at all.”
Lo and behold, these young thespians, many of whom had never met before director Sears cast them, have formed their own tight-knit community. It’s a cozy camaraderie that translates to the stage, and to their characters. Just what Tebelak intended.
“We have to build each other up onstage, and we’re also building each other up offstage,” Daniel J. Hilton says. “The cast members, we hang out, we eat together, we talk about the show for hours, we talk about other things for hours. We’ve literally become like a family.
“I think that’s what makes this show so classic—the love that is on the stage is not acting. It’s literal love and acceptance of one another. Being projected to this audience.”
And then there’s this, from Joshua Lewis: “The very first time we ran the Jesus death scene, there wasn’t a dry eye in the entire cast. And I don’t think anybody’s faked it since. It just keeps getting more and more real.”