With their stage sitting silent for over a year now, Bay City Players is poised to ignite their 104th season of live theatrical performances with an ambitiously expansive and innovative production of the revised 2012 version of the landmark Broadway musical GODSPELL, which will be staged outdoors in the bandshell at Bay City’s Wenonah Park for a series of performances that will run from Thursday through Sunday, July 15-18th at 7:00 PM.
This enthralling and joyously inspired production takes audiences upon a musical journey following a set of parables, primarily based upon the Gospel of St. Matthew, that are rendered with humor and a positive spirit to retell stories and narratives that lead to a happier and more loving life.
When GODSPELL opened off-Broadway back in 1971 it followed quickly upon the heels of such groundbreaking theatrical endeavors as Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair, but actually began as a project by students at Carnegie Melon University that moved to an off-off-Broadway Experimental theatre in the East village of Manhattan. It was then rescored and re-written by Stephen Schwartz with a book by John-Michael Tebeiak and was again revived in 2011 where it enjoyed a successful Broadway revival run through June, 2012. This revised and updated version is the one that Players have decided to stage.
GODSPELL is also witnessing the reunion of Director Leeds Bird and world-renowned pianist & musical arranger Kevin Cole, who since 1977 have joined forces together on twenty-four different theatrical musical productions.
With a cast that features Ryan Sequin in the role of Jesus, David Bowden as John the Baptist, Paul Jacobs as Judas, and fifteen other actors portraying non-Biblical characters who sing and act out the parables, this gifted ensemble of performers each possess unique character traits and roles that add deeper dimension to the narrative of each parable and are onstage together for a majority of the production.
When asked what he feels distinguishes GODSPELL from most contemporary musicals, Leeds references the substantial core of its structure. “When the students that created GODSPELL came together they didn’t put together the structure of a show meant to be performed on Broadway and did the best they could do,” he reflects. “White the script has substance and was recognized as being good, it was also viewed as not being marketable, which is when they called in Swartz to rewrite and rescore it.”
“What I find distinguishing about the narrative is how they take parables from St. Matthew but also pull simple quotes and turn them into a song. What I find interesting about this approach is that the song or number that accompanies the parable doesn’t necessarily say what the parable does in the same way; but says it in its own way, so you get the message from two different perspectives. The music is very clever and how Swartz managed to shape the parallel between the two perspectives of the parable and the song, so rather than driving the point home too hard instead drives it home pleasantly and successfully with each topic that flows through the musical while its happening.”
Tradition & Legacy
“My history with GODSPELL goes back to a production of the original version of this musical that Leeds did at Garber High School back in 1975, shortly after it first appeared on Off-Broadway,” states musical director Kevin Cole. “I was just playing organ as part of the rock band in the high school production, so when Leeds approached me about doing this new 2012 revised version for Bay City Players, I thought it best to listen to the new score, as all I was familiar with was the original one.”
“With this new revived version Swartz updates the script so the philosophers are more current and the script lines more contemporary, but musically speaking instead of being a Folksy Pop and more Broadway type of musical score, while this one still has those elements, the band charts are a little edgier and Rock oriented and the use of electric guitar more contemporary. The guitarists have to be able to read music really well.:
“Another result of this revised version of the play is that a number which once had a Country flavor in the older version now has a Disco flavor; a number that was rendered in a more Burlesque Mae West kind of way now has more of a James Bond feel to it, and both Leeds and I liked the direction that the revised version was moving the play.”
“While audiences that have seen this show have most likely been exposed to the traditional version, we felt doing the contemporary version opened more avenues for us. But for me personally, the biggest challenge with this production is taking a cast that normally is done with 10 actors and opening it up to 18 actors.”
“The Director notes state it’s possible to cast this production for any size,” adds Leeds, “so because we had so many people audition and hadn’t staged anything for a year we thought what do we have to lose? Plus, because we are performing this in Wenonah Park, which is twice the size of Players stage, we thought visually it would make for a better production, which was a big factor for us.”
“Actually, another important reason we decided to go with the newer version of GODSPELL is that it allowed us to go with the concept of wanting this show to speak to America as it is today,” states Bird.
“America today is a country in strife and we wanted to show there’s harmony in life if you pursue it through the teachings of Jesus. Moreover, the actors are each cast as a different profession in the United States, so we have a doctor, a fire fighter, a pregnant lady, a college student; and in the end there’s a wonderful song called Beautiful City that celebrates how people are capable of creating a beautiful city, so we hope to present people a picture of a united landscape and country.”
Out of the Box & In the Open Air
The fact this ambitious production is being staged outside of the enclosed space of a theatrical stage and in the open air spanning the expanse of Wenonah Park no doubt presents its own set of unique challenges; however, this is nothing new for the team of Bird & Cole.
“Kevin and I did a production of Annie Get Your Gun that we once staged in an actual horse arena in Kentucky that featured real horses in the show, so we’ve had a flavor of dealing with the big picture of an outdoor show once before,” notes Leeds. “We walked through the Band Shell at the park and I designed a set that I thought would fit its size. We rehearsed on stage and it all works and we’re using a lot of platforms and cubes without any vertical scenery, so the perspective from the audience is much greater than it would seem. Actually, the shell itself becomes a visual in this sense.”
Insofar as any musical of this nature - especially one involving so many voices - is only as strong as the cast comprising its vocal instrumentation, both Kevin and Leeds were equally impressed with the audition process. “For the first time we used video auditions, as at the time of casting we couldn’t see people in person, which presents its own kettle of fish because It’s impossible to get any vibes in terms of how the actors interact with one another as others enter into the picture,” notes Kevin.
“But vocally speaking this is one of the strongest casts I’ve ever had. We have new faces and voices and each number features one or two people, sometimes three, so we’re able to spread that out, whereas a lot of musicals it falls on one or two people to handle all the big vocal numbers. This is really well spread out for the cast and we have a lot of strong vocalists with moments to shine, plus everybody sings in every number.”
“Ensemble singing has to really shine, so my challenge was having 18 voices to deal with and how to best balance them, given that some of the numbers go into four, six, or even eight part harmony, so we had to do a lot of pre-production planning,” continues Cole. “I’m pretty good with remembering voices in my head, so I was able to see where each actors strengths and weaknesses were in the audition and once we got together I didn’t have to do much switching around, plus I was surprised at the vocal blend because many times a good strong lead singer doesn’t know how to go back and blend, but everybody in this group reads music, which is equally helpful and unusual.”
With the band consisting of Todd Lane on acoustic & electric guitar & mandolin, Dave Miller on acoustic & electric guitar, Joe Balbaugh on bass, Pat Cummings on drums/percussion, and Kevin playing keyboards and conducting, there’s certainly some serious firepower to back up the vocal frontline of 8-part harmonies emanating from the voices of 18 actors.
Needless to say, excitement is running high for this ambitious musical excursion. Tickets are only $20.00 for adults and $10.00 for students (plus applicable fees) and patrons must bring their own chairs & blankets.
“I think this open-air performance gives a more friendly and casual nature to casual nature of the setting that is inherent in GODSPELL,” concludes Leeds. “Structurally the show is very relaxed in many respects, plus with this cast we’ve seen 18 people who didn’t know each other becoming friendly with each other and still doing that, so it’s very positive in that respect as well, and the casual atmosphere of people sitting on the lawn only contributes to it.”
“We’ll also be doing the show without an intermission and it lasts 90-minutes, which is a great length for an outdoor production.”
Tickets for Bay City Players production of GODSPELL are available by phoning the box office Monday - Thursday from 10 am to 2 PM at 989.893.5555 or by purchasing online at baycityplayers.org/tickets. Tickets can also be purchased at The State Theatre box office by phoning 989.892.2660 or visiting statetheatrebaycity.com.
9th February, 2024