When the off-Broadway musical Godspell first burst into national consciousness back in 1971, it was at the height of a period where the Hippie movement, driven by conflicting goals of narcissistic self-awareness and achieving 'higher consciousness' - whether chemically induced or realized through spiritual meditation - splintered off into a sub-culture that came to be known as 'Jesus Freaks'.
Notions of communal living and indeed, the very definition of what a community truly consisted of, started manifesting itself by pilgrimages back to nature, where realization of man's human potential could only be realized through a spiritual quest towards enlightenment, as opposed to material gain. Another good reference point is Beatle George Harrison's Living in the Material World, who's first post-Beatle hit My Sweet Lord also rose to the Pop charts around the same time Godspell first surfaced.
Written by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tabelak, Godspell followed in the wake of previous Broadway musicals that sought to capture the 'essence' of the 'youth culture' such as Hair and Jesus Christ, Superstar, but the difference with Godspell is that it carried an entirely different onus: rather than trying to 'capture' fictionally something that may or may not have existed, Godspell structured its musical around a series of parables, based on the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. These parables are interspersed with a variety of modern music set primarily to lyrics from traditional hymns, and the entire project began as a college project performed by students at Carnegie Mellon University.
So it seems entirely fitting that Saginaw's Pit & Balcony Theatre would kick off its 81st season with an innovative new translation of Godspell, directed by none other than First Congregational Churchsenior minister Dr. Todd Farley, whom also had the amazing privilege of studying under the Great Mime Marcel Marceau earlier in his career when he worked in Paris from 1984-87 with Marceau's mime troupe.
“The art of mime is a very universal language,” explains Farley, “and European mime is more stylized, so you watch what the body is doing as much as you pay attention to what the words are, or in this case what the words are not, saying. Sometimes people are uncomfortable with silence; or actors get nervous if they aren't doing something between their lines; but my feeling is the movement should be as rich as the text. Movement should be alive and mime trains an actor what to do in silence and support his works. That is an important sensibility that my study of Mime has brought to my own tool bag - a deep appreciation for movement as well as speech to fill the spaces and complete the actions in any given scene.”
Apart from his obvious religious background and duties at First Congregational, Farley has toured Europe and America with both his own and other theatrical companies and has authored productions, including his first established Broadway play With Legacy & History.
When asked where he feels Godspell falls within the lexicon of modern American musical theatre, Farley references the entire Hippie Love Movement of the early '70s pop culture with 'Free Love & Free Spirituality'. “The churches of the day had problems with Godspell because of the fact there was no resurrection of Christ in it and Jesus was portrayed as a 'clown'. But clowning was very popular in the 1970s and I think this musical is a rich example of a period piece written for a specific culture.”
“Thematically it takes interpretations of the scriptures and various parables involving Jesus and retells them,” continues Farley. “Just like the scripture itself there is no continuity - it's a series of random stories involving moral living and issues of truth. You can't go to Godspell and expect it to tell a cohesive story. It's basically about the community that tells stories and lives together and what lessons they learn and what conflicts they go through. The real story doesn't happen until the end, with the death of the Jesus character. We see the crucifixion but not the resurrection, which I think is appropriate because the narrative, to my mind, is really about the community becoming the Christ and taking on the spirit of being reborn, so its not so much about Jesus being reborn as it is the community becoming reborn.”
In taking this non-traditional hippie musical from the early '70s and translating it to the Pit & Balcony stage, Farley is leaving his own innovative stamp upon the context of this production by “making it an allegory for Saginaw.”
“The church I am involved with here in Saginaw commissioned some Imagine Saginaw pieces of street art that you can see driving around the city,” explains Farley. “So we've painted the front of the stage with a lot of those scenes and the staging will take place in Saginaw. We're setting it local because of the parallels that run between the 'run down city' and the 'beautiful city' and everything in between. Basically, we are applying the allegory to the hopes, struggles and dreams of our own city.”
“Godspell is really a message of hope for Saginaw,” continues Farley, “so I'm trying to really bring out this idea that we can move from degradation and destruction into an arena of hope. Additionally, we are changing the hippie motif to one of radical hipsters with bright colors and will re-stylize the production with the art form of Mime. You will see a lot of physical theatre and Marceuean techniques in this production. Back in the '70s American mime used a lot of clowning, so we're making it more European. But honestly, I truly love the inclusiveness of this production - the broad welcome of the show. It's for all peoples, not just Christianity, but humanity.”
Incorporating these mime techniques of physical theatre and mime has posed its own unique set of challenges for Farley and the cast. “This is new to a lot of the actors so I've had to spend an extra 10 days training the actors on mime technique,” he explains. “We've also made a choice to make this a youth production, so all the actors are high school, early college and early career age. The original production called for actors 21 and older and we've brought it down to 15 and older, which I feel brings a greater innocence to the narrative.”
According to Farley auditions brought in 23 actors for a production that has roles for 15 people, but was having difficulty casting a suitable actor for John the Baptist. “We needed a Judas that was right for the role, so wound up casting a girl who will now become Joan the Baptist, not John,” he relates. “This has added some really interesting twists because suddenly as Judas and Jesus become buddies throughout the play and anger and bitterness in Judas starts to grow as Jesus becomes more popular, you ask whether this might possibly stem from jealousy because of the fact the role is played by a girl. It adds a whole different level and intensity that is quite fun to play with. So I hope nobody takes it too seriously.”
In addition to its Pit & Balcony performances, Godspell will also be performed at First Congregational Church Sunday morning after the Saturday night performance. While Thursday night Farley hopes to invite some of the pastors and religious leaders throughout the community to do a speak-back and address the many themes of the show and the concepts it touches.
“Godspell is really about community, love, forgiveness, and hope,” concludes Farley. “Those are the big themes, along with kindness and community. It does this through parables like the Good Samaritan, the Widow and the Judge, The Prodigal Son, along with some of the beatitudes. Some of the traditional things you'd expect in Jesus parables are there and recognizable, but the difference is that with Godspell you get this very free expression on these topics.”
“The free expression of love and caring and community - and sometimes a critique of these things comes from the religious community, asking if the play is really saying enough, or sticking to the scripture. And the answer is 'no', the play paraphrases a lot; but the big themes are there, and it's the way they are explored that makes this musical vital and important.”
“You won't find a literal translation here.”
Godspell will take place at Pit & Balcony Theatre in Saginaw on October 5-7 and 12-14th. Tickets are on sale now by phoning 989-754-6587 or you can visit www.pitandbalconytehatre.com.
The production is produced by Cathleen Veverka.