Music and Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz
Director: Michael Strassen
First performed in 1971, Godspell returns for its 50th Anniversary Concert. Filmed under lockdown, this production may look a little different, but its message of hope and revival remains unchanged.
With music and lyrics from Stephen Schwartz (whose work includes Wicked, Pippin and The Prince of Egypt), Godspell is a densely-layered musical, structured as a series of parables, based on the Gospel of Matthew. A musical written against the backdrop of war and political unrest, here the story of Christ is transplanted into the centre of the coronavirus pandemic. A global event calls for global action, and Godspell makes a compelling case for rediscovering not only a sense of self, but community. Pulling together isn’t old-school, it’s the way forward.
Although it has its roots in biblical text, Godspell also moves with the times. Created for the 1973 film, the song Beautiful City features here on the concert playlist. Re-written again in 1993 after the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, this is a musical that feels sharply contemporary.
Featuring a cast of dreams, director Michael Strassen marshals the talent across Zoom calls, home-made videos and location filming. We meet Stephen Schwartz in his apartment, after a heady aerial shot through New York City. The filming on location is rich and glossy; the opening number – Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord– sung beautifully by Jenny Fitzpatrick, is bright and full of energy. Filmed in a forest, the greens are vibrant and tactile – the leaves still hanging onto summer. While we are in stasis, Nature is in full bloom – it’s a clever metaphor, which Strassen uses to great effect. In-between the songs we have black and white stills – NHS staff, political activists – sobering reminders of what we have gone through, and what may be to come.
With a cast featuring some of theatre’s best known names – including Darren Day who reprises his role of Jesus from the 1993 cast recording – Godspell works surprisingly well in an online format. Individual performers are given a chance to shine, while newcomers to the musical still get enough of an idea of how the production would work on stage.
As with its contemporary, Hair, this musical bridges the gap between the sound of popular music and the world of the Broadway stage. We move from the Carole King-inspired Day by Day, a soulful duet full of unashamed optimism (great performances from Natalie Green and Ronald Brian), to an introspective ballad from Sam Tutty, fresh from his lead role in Dear Evan Hansen. Supported by students of Italia Conti, Tutty sings with conviction. It is a stylish interpretation, and one of the highlights of the concert.
We have every musical style accounted for, and it’s a concert that defies you not to find a song you love. It offers us the smoky tones of X Factor finalist Danyl Johnson (a power voice equally at home in musical theatre); and on the subject of temptation, we have Ruthie Henshall singing Turn Back O Man. Henshall gets our attention by serenading us from her bathtub. Covered in bubbles, Henshall saucily eyes us – it’s clear that no-one’s having more fun than Ruthie herself.
The concert saves the best for last, with Beautiful City. Sung by Jodie Steele, this song resonates most clearly with our Covid era. The lyrics urge us to move forward, but with our eyes wide open. Steele, on the brink of tears throughout, lets us feel everything with her. It’s an extraordinary moment as Godspell reaches out to us. Change is inevitable, and upheaval too, but they don’t have to be the whole story. As Beautiful City comes to a close, we are left with a sense of potential. Godspell is a musical full of possibilities, not least the chance that life – very soon – could get better.
Available here until 29 August 2020