April 7, 2012

The Latter-Day Resurrections of "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar"

Here’s a question for the Baby Boomers among you:  was the substance you abused in your youth more likely to be speed or hashish?

I ask because the answer could determine which of the two Gospels-inspired rock musicals from the ‘70s you might prefer. For both Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar are now back on Broadway. And what better time to assess them than on this Easter weekend.

Of course, you already know the story and you probably know the shows too even if you never saw them because they were among the last of the Broadway musicals to make a big splash on mainstream radio. I bet most of you could karaoke Godspell’s “Day by Day” and Superstar’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” with very little help. 

Both shows were younger siblings of the trailblazing Hair, which first brought the hard rock sound and patchouli spirit to Broadway.  But they took distinctly different paths. I was an abstainer in college.  Really. I didn’t inhale, snort, amp up or trip. So I’m kind of agnostic when it comes to choosing between the two and actually found things to enjoy in both.

Although Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell opened on Broadway in 1976*, it was still steeped in the flower-power ethos of the mid-‘60s. Its laid-back hippie tribe roams the stage spouting parables from the New Testament's Book of Matthew and singing Schwartz’s catchy folk-rock songs.

The current revival, which has interpolated some current pop cultural references—Occupy Wall Street, Kanye West—is just as frisky as the show ever was and so family-friendly that I was surprised that there were so many empty seats the night my theatergoing buddy Bill and I saw it. 

The actors playing the disciples are young, amiable and possibly the most ethnically diverse cast now working on the Great White Way.  Director Daniel Goldstein has them making most of their entrances and exits through the audience at Circle in the Square and the eight-man band is embedded in the audience too, which creates a kind of we're-all-in-this-together intimacy.

The staging is simple and the props are few but there is some audience participation; all the marks seemed particularly game at our performance. At intermission, everyone is invited to join in a communion of grape juice.

But it’s really the singing that makes or breaks this loosey-goosey show and this production has some  terrific singers. In fact, the weakest of the group is Hunter Parrish, best known as the oldest son on the cable series “Weeds,” who plays Jesus. 

Parrish, who is scheduled to hand over the role to “High School Musical’s” Corbin Bleu on April 17, is not a bad singer.  But he’s surrounded by some terrific ones. If you put a gun to my head and forced me to single out just one, I suppose I’d have to go with Telly Leung who sings the hell out of the song “All Good Gifts.” 

Most of the reviews have been lukewarm but the audience the night Bill and I saw the show went crazy for Godspell.  And it seems precisely the kind of show that tourists from Middle America would love, which is why I don’t get why its attendance is hovering in the mid-70s.  It’s not for lack of marketing.  The show’s lead producer is the energetic Ken Davenport, who seems to have an idea a day about how to promote it. 

He's even developed word of mouth by crowdsourcing part of the show's financing so that people could get producer boasting rights for as little as $1,000 (their combined credit in the Playbill actually reads “The People of Godspell”). And cast members participated in a challenge on the Bravo reality show "Project Runway." Maybe they'd be getting more bang for their buck (and more butts in seats) if they’d shown up on the religious Trinity Broadcasting Network instead.

Superstar grooves to a different beat. Even though it originally opened in 1971, five years before Godspell,* its aesthetic is harder, more punk-tinged and cynical. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice created a sung-through oratorio in which Jesus suffers inner doubts and Judas’ betrayal of him is motivated by his belief that Jesus is too into the celebrity thing. 

I didn’t think much of the show when my college roommate Laura and I saw the original production but Des McAnuff, who cut his teeth on rock operas when he helmed The Who’s Tommy back in 1993, keeps things moving at an appealingly fast—and almost breathless—clip in the current incarnation now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre.

McAnuff has also found some fantastic singers, lead by Paul Nolan as a kind of stoned surfer-dude Jesus and Josh Young, who goes so all out with his emo vocalizations for Judas that both my friend Jesse and I worried about how he’ll manage to keep doing it eight shows a week.

The thunder-voiced Marcus Nance also deserves kudos for his scene-stealing work as the high priest Caiaphas. Meanwhile, Tom Hewitt brings welcomed maturity and nuance to the role of the reluctant executioner Pontius Pilate. 

And the creative team—particularly lighting designer Howell Binkley and video designer Sean Nieuwenhuisprovide plenty of eye candy, including neon tickers and strobe lighting effects. There isn't really a dull moment in the entire two hours it takes to get Jesus to the cross.

Still, this Superstar is a show I respect more than like.  It takes itself so seriously. The campy “Herod’s Song” number almost stops the show simply because the audience is so desperate for a laugh and a let up from the rest of the show’s unrelentingly sober intensity.

But the real challenge for both shows has been to figure out how to end. Which, of course, is the whole point of the passion play.  Superstar opts for a multimedia extravaganza. Godspell just kind of leaves Jesus, well, hanging there. But whichever one you choose, you'll find  some good stuff on the way to Calvary.

*my friend Howard Sherman reminds me that Godspell first opened off-Broadway in 1971.

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