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THEATER : PERSPECTIVE

Musicals with miraculous staying power

After 40 years, 'Jesus Christ Superstar' and 'Godspell' continue to attract devout fans.

December 11, 2011|Larry Stempel | Fordham University music professor Larry Stempel is the author of "Showtime: A History of the Broadway Musical Theater."
  • "JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR": Paul Nolan in the rock-godish title role.
"JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR": Paul Nolan in the rock-godish title… (Stratford Shakespeare…)

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; 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. What is it 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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday, December 14, 2011 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 30 words Type of Material: Correction
"Godspell": A caption in the Dec. 11 Arts & Books section with a photo of a 2000 production of the musical "Godspell" misidentified the Actors Co-op troupe as Actors Cooperative.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, December 18, 2011 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part D Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 24 words Type of Material: Correction
"Godspell": A Dec. 11 caption under a photo of a 2000 production of the musical "Godspell" misidentified the Actors Co-op troupe as Actors Cooperative.

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.

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 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 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" turned to sex, drugs, and activism as outlets for their disaffection. Others of a more spiritual bent turned to simple, 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."

Can any musical created in response to such a time 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.)

There's much riding on the faith that both these musicals can. But that faith doesn't seem to extend to their religious origins. By contrast, given the popularity of "The Book of Mormon," it would seem hard for any musical on a religious theme to succeed today without a sense of satire, or at least self-awareness.

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