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Perspective: Christian musicals with miraculous staying power

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Perspective: Christian musicals with miraculous staying power

Post  Admin on Sun Dec 11, 2011 7:45 am

By Larry Stempel, Special to the Los Angeles Times

December 11, 2011
Before "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" first hit off-Broadway and Broadway, respectively, 40 years ago — the first like an ember that caught fire, the other like an explosion — who but the most prescient or devout would have laid odds on any musical that ended with a crucifixion?

But both shows have been entertaining audiences ever since. And there's no sign of either of them wearing thin. A revival of "Godspell" opened on Broadway this fall; and a revival of "Superstar," born at Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival and now playing at the La Jolla Playhouse, is slated for Broadway next spring. One can't help wonder what it is about these works that enabled them to beat the odds when they were new and that has enticed a new generation now to try to reproduce their success.

While often paired by commentators since their 1971 premieres, the two musicals were independent creations and remain distinct kinds of entertainment. "Godspell" works as a feel-good show, an antic revue with sketches largely drawn from Gospel parables and songs from the Episcopal hymnal. "Superstar" takes shape as an angst-ridden biblical drama that happens to be all-sung.

Still, they have much in common. Both mark the first professional outings of twentysomething songwriters whose theater work would loom large in later years: Stephen Schwartz ("Pippin," "Wicked") wrote most of "Godspell's" music and some lyrics; the British team of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber ("Evita," "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat") created the "Superstar" score.

Both shows, too, embraced rock and related idioms of the music industry at a time when, despite the Broadway success of "Hair" three years earlier, such music was still widely regarded as antithetical to a Broadway sound: the media duly tagged "Godspell" a "rock musical" and "Superstar" a "rock opera."

In focusing on Jesus' humanity, both shows took his story no further than the Crucifixion: "Godspell" just hinted at the Resurrection; "Superstar" ignored it. Theologically compromised yet religiously engaging, the two shows thus succeeded in a common enterprise with troubling implications: placing the central story of the Gospels center stage in the commercial musical theater.

Some conservative Christian groups objected. To enact the word of God in a commercial house rather than a sacred one was to profane it. More to the point, by not addressing the divinity of Jesus, the two shows used the Bible, sincerely in their way perhaps, but for their own ends. Their Christ was clearly not the one one learned about in Sunday School.

Theater conservatives objected as well. Avoiding overt religious content in musicals so as not to limit audience appeal had long been a Broadway article of faith. "The Sound of Music" and "Fiddler on the Roof" may have tested the waters, but shows that failed to suppress important religious references in the material they converted into musicals rarely became hits. In "Carousel," for example, Julie mourns her lover to the strains of "You'll Never Walk Alone;" in "Liliom," the play on which the musical is based, she reads from the Beatitudes of St. Matthew. Similarly, in "Guys and Dolls," the line "call it dumb, call it clever" in the title song is as close as an audience gets to the heart of the show as revealed in its literary source, the Damon Runyon story in which a love-struck gambler makes his case directly by citing St. Paul: "Let him become a fool, that he may be wise."

What helped create a climate conducive for religion to come out of the musical theater closet was the convergence in the 1960s of two cultural trends: the liberalizing spirit within Christendom in the wake of Vatican II, and the anti-Establishment fervor of the youth counterculture in the U.S. Some of the "under-30 generation" at the time turned to sex, drugs, and social activism as outlets for their disaffection. Others of a more spiritual bent turned from the institutions of mainstream Christianity to simpler, more open, even popular forms of worship. Catholics celebrated folk masses. Evangelical Protestants joined the "Jesus movement."

And a theater student with leanings toward the Episcopal ministry, John-Michael Tebelak, reacted to a joyless Easter Vigil service he attended in 1970 and created a purposefully joyful show, he said, "to weave God's spell over the audience." His "Godspell" recast Christ as a hippie clown and eventually the show found its way to Broadway. "Superstar" made Christ accessible in its own right by making him, as the show put it, "cool." They were symptoms of the age.

Can any musical created in response to such a time still speak to us today when what was once so fresh, indeed subversive, has become the very thing it sought to subvert? ("Godspell's" songs are sung today in church; "Superstar" has become the prototype for a slew of quasi-religious epigones, "Les Miserables" not least among them.)

There's much riding on the faith that both these musicals can. But that faith doesn't seem to extend to their religious origins. "I can't think of a better time in history when this country and its 'parties' could use a little reminder," says Ken Davenport, producer of the current "Godspell" revival. It is Washington's political gridlock, what he calls the "increasingly shrill and unyielding partisanship," that he has in mind.

As he sees it, "Godspell" tells "the story of a group of people who, at the beginning of the show, can't communicate, as if they are speaking different languages.... And then, through the course of the show and thanks to the leadership of one individual, they learn how to talk to one another and how to get along," Davenport says. Not much about Tebelak or the Bible here at all. Is one to assume he feels theatergoers today have become so comfortable with the idea of religion in the public sphere that it can now be taken for granted? Or is it rather that they are so nervous about the idea he'd rather not mention it?

Des McAnuff, director of the "Superstar" revival, also shifts the focus from religion to politics in talking about his production, though he stands on firmer ground. "Although it takes its inspiration from the New Testament, this isn't simply a musicalization of the Bible story. It's actually quite a penetrating look at the dilemmas that arise when a spiritual leader becomes a political force and arouses uneasiness not just in his enemies but also in his friends."

In a sense, the difficulty of distinguishing between spiritual and political leadership is what "Superstar" was always about. That makes the show a canny choice for this primary season, when the religious views of certain presidential hopefuls have aroused uneasiness in several quarters — Newt Gingrich for what he has said in the past; Mitt Romney for what he hasn't.

In this light the revivals of "Godspell" and "Jesus Christ Superstar" this season have two important tasks: making successes of these works once again, and making them speak to our time as wisely, or as tellingly, as "The Book of Mormon."

Larry Stempel, a professor of music at Fordham University, is the author of "Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater," winner of the 2011 Kurt Weill Book Prize.

SOURCE http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/news/la-ca-superstar-godspell-20111211,0,1551179.story
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