I’ve been a fan of Stephen Schwartz for a very long time. I don’t think his importance in musical theater is fully appreciated. He, and not Andrew Lloyd Webber, was really responsible for modernizing musical theater. And, of course, whereas Webber has a very shallow well of melodies, Schwartz is very deep indeed. His first musical was Godspell, which I saw as a kid, but hadn’t thought about much until recently. So I just watched the 1973 filmed version of it. And it is very touching. It is a story of Jesus that I can get behind.
Of course, it is hardly accurate. Jesus in the Bible is not a very pleasant guy. You know all the things that people are saying about Glenn Greenwald, snarkily observing him “telling bold truths that the corrupted partisans are too blind to see, in a manner that in no way is sanctimonious, is an inspiring example for us all”? Well, that’ kind of Jesus in the Bible. And he’s not very nice or happy. He’s always scolding the disciples. I mean, if he ain’t the son of God, you would never want to hang with him.
But the only time the Jesus of Godspell gets really upset is in the Garden of Gethsemane, and then it is clear that he is feeling very vulnerable—not so keen on dying for everyone’s sins. Otherwise, Jesus is absolutely the guy you want to hang out with. Sure, he’s a little preachy. But he’s fun and he explains what’s important in life. And they all play and act and dance and have puppets.
There are some very interesting aspects of the film that I’ll bet really bug the more conservative of the Christians. For one thing: Jesus is not resurrected. But the disciples carry his body off as they sing and dance. From this, I take it that it is the message, not the resurrection that matters. It’s a kind of Gnostic approach to Christianity and salvation that I’ve always preferred. The whole “just believe in Jesus and you are redeemed” has always struck me as more Tinkerbell than any kind of a adult theology.
There’s another Gnostic aspect of this where Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats. The sheep go to heaven and the goats go to hell. But at the end, he comes back and tells all the goats to come with him. Not a proper reading of the Bible, I would say. But one most people would prefer: God gives the bad people a good talking to, and then we all get on with everlasting life.
Another interesting thing is that John The Baptist and Judas Iscariot are combined in one part. And the way it is played is rather like the Gospel of Judas, which had not been discovered until after this film was made. After Jesus is dead, John/Judas is the head pallbearer on the right hand of Jesus. And this leads to a very thoughtful ending where the disciples joyously sing and dance as they carry Jesus down and empty street. They turn a corner and the camera follows but long after them. Once we see around the corner, they are gone and the street is filled with people, going about their usual business.
What are we to make of this? To me, it is that Jesus’ message lives on. But it is drowned out by the banality of everyday life. Since the film was made (Four decades ago!) things have changed. Christians have become much more vocal. Or at least, a certain kind of Christian has become much more vocal. And they are not banal. If I had one word to describe them it would be: angry. Or perhaps: hateful. And I’m not here to tell you that this is the wrong reading of the Bible. But there are a lot of Christians out there (quieter Christians) who interpret the Bible the way Godspell does. I can’t imagine a Universalist not loving the message of this film.
In addition to all this, the songs are great. They are quite varied. The whole thing is very much like Pippin, which Schwartz also wrote. It is quite a joyous film. You ought to check it out if you have any interest at all. Here is a compilation of scenes set to “We Beseech Thee,” which is not in the film, but was in the play. It is sung by Jeffrey Mylett, who is in the film, but I assume the recording is from the original cast album: