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Some Reviews and News Articles:

Clergymen seem to like Godspell
The Globe and Mail, pg. 14
Friday, May 26, 1972

Christ was crucified standing on a Coca-Cola crate last night, and most of the 200 clergymen in the Royal Alexandra theatre seemed to love it.

The ministers, priests and their friends had been invited to a special, pre-preview performance of the rock musical, Godspell, based on the Gospel according to St. Matthew. They gave the cast a standing ovation and came away praising the play, though Anglican priest, A. D. Brown commented that "it might have been thought of as blasphemy 20 years ago."

Mr. Brown and others emphasized the joy in the show. "It's brought back the biblical lightness that had been lost; Godspell is gonna go a long way," said Rev. John Hunter, a United Church minister from Aurora.

Bishop Joseph Nieminski, of the Polish National Catholic Church, found it "enlightening and entertaining. It's a completely new approach. It does make an impression," he said, adding that he thought it was indeed a Christian work.

Gerald Loweth, Anglican priest and executive secretary of the Urban Church Board thought the play, "fun and, in part, terribly poignant and tender. It really came through with a sense of imagery, and depicted sadness in the midst of fun."

Several Roman Catholic priests and one nun were markedly less enthusiastic. They took great pains, however, to suppress negative feelings and did not want to be identified.

Happiness brews at Godspell preview
Herbert Whittaker
Globe and Mail, pg. 28
May 27, 1972

Things are certainly starting to happen over at the Royal Alexandra, where the Toronto version of Godspell is into previews. No place for a critic, you will say, but this musical based on the Gospel According to St. Matthew is the kind of show that makes the editor eager.

Deep religious convictions and anticipation of another newsy item like Hair, led me into an unofficial seat to check out the progress of the local performers in John-Michael Tiebreak's already international hit. My considered opinion: it should certainly be ready for the June 1 opening, and it's pretty darn great now.

You have to believe the effect already. There in the fourth or fifth row was Ed Mirvish himself, clad in white but without halo (Dear Mrs. Post: Does on wear ones halo to the theatre?). He is deeply concerned that a group of six nuns in the front of on of the boxes would not be able to see.

So what happens? A messenger is sent from God to show the sisters to the back of the box where they can see perfectly. And who should come right over to deliver a line directly to the box? Victor Garber as the Clown Jesus, singing: "all your wrongs shall be redressed" right to them!

I don't know whether Godspell is going to get to Garber the way that Cecil B. Deville's old film, The King of Kings, is said to have got to H. B. Warner, its Christus. But it is bound to have a beneficial effect on the young Torontonian's character that he's spreading so much happiness even in preview time. Wait until the regular sinners show up!

Garber, who won the best notices as the only local member of another theatre games musical, Touch-Kiss, at the Playhouse season a season or so back, is a natural for the role, if one can say that anybody is a natural for that particular role. He has a Rosseti face under the clown makeup, and grows his own halo. But there's no impersonation involved, and it is actually helpful that Garber is big and almost chunky in his striped overalls, rather than wan and emaciated as a Christ figure.

"We're naturally holding off judgment until the official opening, but it's no crime to say that St. Matthew gets a fair showing as the man with a message, less so as an author. Most of what the old tax-collector said so long ago has been rephrased into mod talk, the kind of talk that kids use but everybody understands.

You might even have heard that Tebelak has picked a playground setting for his transcription of the gospel, and that his young actors wear ragbag attire and act like fugitives from a kindergarten. They all take turns in acting out the various parables, beatitudes, etc. with only Garber remaining constant.

This kind of arrangement, for instance, allows Gerry Salsberg to start the show off as John the Baptist and end it as Judas Iscariot. Everybody gets to play everything, from a white sheep to a Pharisee.

At the moment, Godspell is going through the usual things that plague a big package that has to be put together with a new crew and a new company.

But mostly these are matters of new sound equipment and the timing of lighting. For the most part the Toronto company of Godspell seems to be well in command of the million little things that Tebelak dreamed up for them. In a word, it bodes well for St. Matthew on King Street.

Group protests Godspell
The Globe and Mail, pg. 6
June 2, 1972

John-Michael Tebelak (left) of Godspell is greeted by Terry Sheppard who was with a group of young people know as the Catacombs, demonstrating outside the Royal Alexandra Theatre last night. Displaying a large banner reading "He is RISEN like he said," the group which meets at St. Paul's Anglican Church on Thursdays was protesting against the exclusion of the resurrection from the play. After the opening night performance the cast mingled with the demonstrators. Review is on Page 15.

(Note: Tebelak is in the bottom-left quadrant of the picture; he is the gentleman leaning forward, not the fellow holding flowers in his upraised arm. See below.)

Godspell a deluge of dazzlements
Herbert Whittaker
The Globe and Mail, pg. 15
June 2, 1972

The big banner outside the Royal Alexandra Theatre proclaimed He Has Come Like He Said, while inside the first-night audience for Godspell was still on its feet with applause. Let's hear it for Jesus seemed to be the big word.

The Catacomb People, who had crawled out from under to protest/celebrate the opening of John-Michael Tebelak's recreation of the Gospel according to St. Matthew, thrust literature onto windshields on King Street which bid drivers: "To break the spell of Godspell read the Book of Matthew and discover history they were afraid to put on the stage."

But most of those emerging, judging from their response, must have been satisfied to take the Godspell John-Michael's way. From its solemn opening ("My name is known") through all the fun and games on to the final resurrection and joyous processional down the aisle with the figure of the show's Clown Jesus, Victor Garber, the message had been old, but the language had been old, but the language and the gestures, refreshingly new.

If a man of the cloth finds it impossible to accept either the clown figure of the contemporary wording, he has his rights, for he has come to appreciate the Bible as Literature. But he cannot deny that the Bible as Massage is here reaching out to a lot of scholars who may have failed Eng. Lit. this term.

Tebelak's transposition, greatly supported by Stephan Schwartz's Galtian music and dead-on lyrics, is deceptively simple. On the surface, it offers a bunch of local youngsters making out like kindergarten kids in a playground, making up the stories from Old Matthew as they go along.

(Sometimes they are a little too much like TV kindergarten kids, but then a frenzy of clowning restores them to humanity.)

But before the bread and wine party onstage brings the lengthy first act to its conclusion, we have begun to recognize the extravagance of invention this show lays on the familiar lessons and old chronicle. One easily forgives the Toronto cast its precocity when one recognizes the variety and skill of its undertaking.

Howard L. Sponseller Jr., who has supervised the entire direction of this edition of Godspell, has laid devices on the Torontonians which must be the sum total of all the international productions to date. So much mime, charades, vaudeville routines, the Game, animal impersonations, burlesque acts, body puns and a lot of ventriloquism have been brought into play that you might have to see this Godspell several times before you felt you had absorbed all its dazzle.

Behind the musical moves the man Matthew, who would probably not grasp one iota of its vocabulary, but whose cautious reasoning could be still heard by all. "I am not come to abolish the law," says Godspell, but listen to the Word of the Lord!

"I want to get washed with the stuff," explains Jesus, making himself known to John the Baptist, and from there on the Word of the Lord blasts loud and clear above the babble of the World and its giants: Socrates, Luther, Thomas Aquinas and Buckminster Fuller.

The parables and beatitudes come tumbling head over ears so fast that we barely field them. The energy of the performers seem almost diabolical, the frenzy of their enthusiasm unquenchable. They are in danger of wearing us down to our knees. Then the mood changes.

From all the riot and fun, we hush up to see the Tebelak version of the Passion. Judas slams out of the theatre, but returns to do what he must do, while the other disciples leap rhythmically in the shadow. thus Judas demonstrates the walls that block his failing resolve. The kiss is welcomed. Clown Jesus is strung with red ribbons to the mesh fence, standing on his Coca Cola box.

From that down-point in Matthew's gospel it is a quick swoop up and down through the audience. One feels that the cast is celebrating the performance of Victor Garber as well as the Resurrection. It has been a mainstay of the evening. Singing, cavorting, admonishing the other kids, driving the message home with humour and simplicity. Garber is as impressive as he is ingratiating.

His support is strong. Little blond Valda Aviks and big, black Rudy Webb have the best voices, but they are also every bit as expressive as the rest. Black-bearded Gerry Salsberg contribute some of the most vivid impersonations, but so do slight, funny Martin Short and mustachio'd Eugene Levy. Jayne Eastwood, the show's floozie, beaming Andrea Martin. Aril Chown and Gilda Radner are all equally outgoing and versatile. Pick your favourites, and you'll change your mind again many times.

Susan Tsu's gypsy ragbag wardrobe helps greatly and so do the musicians and technicians who hover around and over the players, who execute John-Michael's high intentions and sing Schwartz's swinging score with glee and what must be recognized as truly high spirits.

Godspell displays synthetic soul, computer heart
Urjo Kareda
The Toronto Star, p. 30
June 2, 1972


Star photo by Ron Bull

UNUSUAL features for the musical Godspell at the Royal Alexandra theatre is the bread and "wine" party at intermission. The wine is really grape juice, but nonetheless the audience streams on stage to be served by members of the cast. The show is a putdown of conventional notions of piety and reverence, says Star critic Urjo Kareda. It sees the Gospel according to St. Matthew as a carnival show performed by young, wistful clowns. Victor Garber plays Jesus.

Godspell, an irksome attempt to turn the Gospel according to St. Matthew into the biggest little show on heaven and earth, opened at the Royal Alexandra Theatre last night with all due sideshows, including press agents in sweatshirts printed with the show's title, and rival Jesus groups in the street serenading the audience as it left the theatre.

In general, the hoopla was more amusing than the hosanna. For all its wide-eyed even wild-eyed intensity, Godspell itself-conceived by John-Michael Tebelak, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz-is elementally phony. It has a synthetic soul and a computer heart.

It must immediately be made clear that the show is irritating not on a religious or theological level but on simple artistic merit.

There is no reason at all why biblical material shouldn't be adapted with freedom and imagination. It is hardly a recent phenomenon, and Godspell is neither more profane that most medieval mystery drama nor more vulgar than Cecil B. De Mille's most outlandish biblical movie epic.

Godspell's whimsy is to see the Gospel as a carnival show performed by young, fey, wistful clowns. The tradition of the clown, of course, carries with it a familiar blend of pathos and humor, a combination which must be tenderly nurtured or it can turn-as anybody who has suffered through Anthony Newley musical can report-into the most garish, grating, oafish vaudeville strutting. It is indeed the imaginative emptiness and glibness of Godspell which is so dispiriting.

Very strange things happen. For instance, the show is (rightly) a put-down of conventional notions of piety and reverence, but the quality of that put-down begins to assume a false piety, amounting to outright smugness of its own. Its sanctimonious airs are not at all becoming and keep the show, ultimately, from being in any way moving. It utterly lacks the only quality - simplicity - which might have redeemed it.

Godspell remains remote in terms of a point of human contact. The clown as a symbol for the lost children of the universe has become an insipid cliché. Moreover, this production's clowns, most of whom perform rather badly, have been pushed incessantly into the realm of the grotesque until they become a non-stop, noisy nuisance, beyond the reach of sympathy or affection. Their behaviour isn't entrancingly child-like, only raucously childish.

The production (Howard L. Sponseller's copy of Tebelak's original) is crazily over-directed, while the performers (10 Toronto-based actors) remain achingly self-conscious. There doesn't appear to be a moment which hasn't been minutely pre-programmed and choreographed, which leaves the exhausted-looking actors without a hope for the kind of spontaneity or improvisation which might animate and surprise.

Even the basic Story Theatre techniques for narrating some of the parables are clumsily over-busy. (A valuable comparison would be Ron Singer's God Is Alive and Well and Living in Heaven, done for Young People's Theatre, which had all the charm, humor and directness which this show lacks.)

Godspell's performers are always bringing in allusions and images from the pop media world around us - lines from Monty Python, imitations of Ed Sullivan, Shirley Temple, Cary Grant and virtually the whole cast of Laugh-In, and musical one-liners. But the constant barrage of outside references, rather than opening up the material, simply builds a kind of defensive, protective shield around it.

Even though it was difficult to separate the songs from their context. I thought that Stephen Schwartz' music was almost always better than what had been done to it. Though not of much melodic interest, the songs have an uncanny sense of structure and development which promises much for future theatrical scores Paul Shaffer conducted a polished musical performance, and the singing, if you closed your eyes, was often affecting.

On one or two occasions, the hysteria died down a bit to allow the enjoyment of a basic showbiz form, like a good soft-shoe duet for Victor Garber (Jesus) and Gerry Salsberg (Judas) or a parody torch song sung in fearless Mae West manner by Jayne Eastwood, or a gentler blues (By My Side) sung by Valda Aviks, or the rousing gospel of the finale.

Garber, an intelligent performer, suffered most as Jesus from the consuming fey holiness, but at least he didn't have the over-awareness of his own talent which tripped up almost everybody else.

But maybe the broad, mugging behaviour was inevitable. With an audience who brings down the house when a performer crosses his eyes or roars with approval at the dimmest Ed Sullivan imitation who can be bothered to want to be creative?

George Anthony
The Toronto Sun
June 2, 1972

(short quote only)

"An extravagant musical performed by an exceptionally brilliant cast"

Pat Murray
(quote from ad)

"All Toronto is in love with Godspell"

This religion 'rocks' with laughter
This miracle is called Godspell
Jim Clemens - Entertainment
The Hamilton Spectator, pages 52 and 53
June 2, 1972

GODSPELL, a religious rock musical at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto. Conceived by John-Michael Tebelak ; musical and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz; costumes by Susan Tsu; produced by Edgar Lansbury, Stuart Duncan and Joseph Beruh. Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes with one intermission.

Cast: Valda Aviks, Aril Chown, Jayne Eastwood, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Rudy Webb, with Gerry Salsberg as Judas and Victor Garber as Jesus.

The play will continue tonight at the Royal Alexandra and Tuesday through Sunday for an indefinite period. The curtain time is 8:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 p.m. Evening tickets range from $4 to $10.

A small miracle called Godspell opened in Toronto last night.

It's a youthful, energetic celebration of life, laughter, religion and theatre that lifts your mind to heights of all four. It is fast, furiously funny and touchingly sincere in its interpretation of the Gospel of St. Matthew.

Godspell is a rock musical and a religious comedy, a combination that invokes shivers of despair when you think about what it could mean -- and delight when you see what it does mean.

It means Christ in a clown costume, Judas in a multi-colored coat that looks as if it was borrowed from a doorman for a hippie hangout and disciples dressed in loud, outlandish rags.

It means puns on parables, slapstick humor surrounding Christ and his words, burlesque routines and bits borrowed from old films used to broaden the meaning of religion.

It means Christ doing a soft-shoe dance with Judas, quipping jokes and mugging for the entertainment -- and benefit -- of the apostles.



The only thing blasphemous about Godspell is the way some people feel threatened, too insecure in their own beliefs, to accept a novel and joyful expression of love for religion.

Certainly Godspell (the word is the archaic form of gospel) is crammed with comedy. Parables are turned into razzle-dazzle show bits full of puns and pizzazz. Christ and his followers, nine of them including Judas, do almost anything for a laugh. Almost anything.

They do not make gags about God. They do not laugh at the intention of the parables or the universal ideas they were meant to illustrate. They make the parables fun; but they don't make fun of the parables.

If you're still not sure, consider this chorus from one of the songs:

     Day by day, O dear Lord,
     Three things I pray;
     To see thee more clearly,
     Love thee more dearly,
     Follow thee more nearly
     Day by day.

Blasphemous? Or beautiful?

Godspell opens with the apostles jammed in the centre of the stage, surrounded on three sides by a wire-mesh playground fence, the only set except for the bare, wooden platforms the band is on. They are all identified by names on their sweatshirts: Socrates, Buckminster Fuller, Martin Luther, Thomas Aquinas, Sartre, Gibbon, Nietzsche -- people who have added their voices to the tower of babble that has grown out of Christianity.

Then Jesus is on stage in his undershorts. He has a heart painted on his forehead and clown make-up on his face. And green and white striped socks on his feet. The cast sings one of the show's best song, Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.

Then pandemonium.

Jesus slips into this neon-bright trousers with the red carnation on the suspenders and the cast returns in fluorescent rags and gags and hilarious bits of comedy start bouncing across the stage, zapping into the audience and tumbling over the idea that religion must be an austere, slightly uncomfortable discipline.

Instead of turning his cheek, Judas starts to retaliate for a slap -- then he slips into a soft shoe dance when Jesus looks at him and shakes his head. In the parable of the good Samaritan, the girl who plays the priest walks across the stage making the sign of the cross and saying, "Under the B, 14."

To lighten the dark moment after Judas predicts his betrayal, Christ tells his disciples he reads feet.

"I do," he says. "Some people read palms and tea leaves. I read feet."

"Look," he says as he lifts an actor's running shoes, "It says Rejoice."

The disciple, Marty Short, one of two Hamiltonians in the cast, looks down and says, "It says P.S. Flyers."

It reads far less lively and funny than it is. It seems childish when in reality it's child-like -- uncomplicated, awestruck and trusting.

Jesus announces the intermission by inviting the audience to the stage to share small glasses of grape juices -- or to go outside and enjoy the fresh air if they wish. The cast doesn't wait for the audience to return to start the show again. It begins quietly and keeps on while the people make their way to their seats.

The second half is disturbingly, deliberately so. There's less humor and what there is, is forced. The crucifixion is coming and neither the audience nor the cast wants it too. Christ is too nice a person, too happy, too full of life and goodwill to stretch on a cross.

But it comes as it inevitably must. And just as inevitably, it is a let-down, one of the play's weakest parts.

It's difficult to single out members of the cast. With the exception of Christ and Judas they all have several unnamed parts. And with the inclusion of Christ and Judas they are all good.

Jesus is played by Victor Garber, a former member of The Sugar Shoppe rock group. He has a bland, gentle face, still puffed with baby fat, that gives him a completely meek look. Judas is played (and very well) by Gerry Salsberg. The ball of wiry hair around his head and his wispy beard makes him ominous even when he is mugging.

The Hamiltonians, Marty Short and Eugene Levy, are as good as the best in the cast. It is the first professional play for both of them, though they've worked together in productions at McMaster University. They had the lead parts in The Odd Couple a few years back and Levy directed Short in Benjy, a musical produced early this year.

Short's big song, We Beseech Thee, is near the end of the show. When he finished last night, he had the look film directors try to capture in movies about young stars breaking into the theatre. He is still thinking about a career, as a social worker, he has his BA from McMaster in social work, but last night's thundering applause might change that.

Levy, who looks like a well-fed Frank Zappa, stole scenes from others with a flip of his eyebrows or a downward tag of his bushy moustache. He doesn't have as much to do as some of the others -- but he is still one of the most memorable.

Godspell was written by John-Michael Tebelak and first opened -- to rave reviews -- off-Broadway. Since then, the show has opened in four other cities, including Paris and London. It has no set stay at the Royal Alex; it will run for as long as it is popular -- which should be a good long time.

It is one of the best youth musicals now playing. In many ways -- in fact in most ways -- it is far superior to either Hair or Jesus Christ Superstar.

It is bound to start some controversy because of its religious content. It will shock some people, horrify others and disgust still others because it "contaminates" religion with comedy.

Yet, surely, there is as much religion -- as much of God, however you see him in a hearty laugh as there is in a flower or a child or a church.

Comic Hamilton Pair Godspell luminaries
Jim Clemens - Entertainment
The Hamilton Spectator
June 3, 1972

TORONTO - The rehearsal hall jangled with discordant sounds: shrieks and songs, giggles, hoots, questions and instructions - backgrounded by tinny, tired plunks on the piano.

"Okay," one of the sounds said, "I want everyone to come around here and we'll go over this morning's rehearsal."

The director of Godspell, Toronto's newest and most promising show, (it opened to rave reviews Thursday) squatted on the floor in front of the ramp of red seats and waited for everyone to sit down. He looked like Tweedle-Dum with long hair and a tangled moustache.

He stabbed at an inexpensive tape recorder and listened to his notes. The 10 actors in the cast listened with him.

He found what he wanted and said: "Gene, do something to fill out the intermission thing. Do bits. Fill it out. If it's too long I'll cut out the last half-hour of it."

Gene -- Eugene Levy - nodded and asked about the handkerchief bit. The director, Howard Sponseller, looked bored. Levy said he'd find something else.

Then Sponseller, a member of the original off-Broadway Godspell cast, turned to Martin Short.

"Marty, you've got to watch the stage lines," he said. "You went too far again. If you do that at the Alex, you'll fall off the stage."

Short promised not to fall off the stage.

Both Levy and Short are Hamiltonians in their first professional play. They've worked together before in productions a McMaster University - they had the leads in The Odd Couple a few years back and Levy directed Short in Benjy, a musical, early this year.

But shows in the university's cramped, inadequate Robinson Memorial Theatre are a long way from Toronto's lush Royal Alexandra Theatre with a top ticket price of $10 and audiences in tuxedos instead of your friends in T-shirts and jeans.

Levy had never even been in the Royal Alex before. Short was there once.

"It's really nothing," Short sighed, "After all, I've been in this business for almost two months now."

Levy has been in it longer - but not much. He had small parts in a Canadian film called Foxy Lady and the lead in another movie, a yet-to-be released horror-comedy called Cannibal Women.

They hadn't heard of Godspell when they auditioned for the show.

"Butch (Levy) thought it was called Godspeed. I thought it was another kind of Hair thing, where you had to have a 22 inch waist and shoot heroin before every performance or you weren't really part of the cast," Short said.

"I walked into the audition and everyone was doing yoga - I wanted to go home."

Bur they stayed. The 500 people out for the audition dwindled to less than 100, less than 80 - and Levy and Short stayed. The 30 competitors were slashed to less than 20.

"It wasn't until about 4 p.m. that we looked around and there were nine guys left and we knew they were going to pick five and two understudies. All of a sudden, we realized we had a chance," Short said.

But they still didn't know what they had a chance at: a religious rock musical-comedy that has had more than 200 performances in New York and has opened in four other cities around the world.

It's a comedy about Christ, a lightly child-like look at the Gospel (Godspell is the archaic spelling of Gospel) according to St. Matthew. It's played in clown costumes and Christ does a soft-shoe routine with Judas at one point.

"It's really hard to explain," Levy said. "The concept is Christ as a clown."

Short interrupted: "The attraction of the play is that Christ is made out as a very warm, funny, loving type of guy."

Levy took over: "He's a human being. He had to be to attract a following like he did."

Back to Short: "It's not irreverent at all. Unlike Jesus Christ Superstar, which is heavy throughout, this is fun and it's a family show with Holly, Dolly dances and lots of fun songs.

"Then at the end, when Christ is being crucified, it's more of a shock because this fun, fun guy is being crucified. It's more dramatic."

The reviews in both New York and Toronto have been generally good. Ministers have booked the show to replace regular Sunday services at their churches. Rev. I. D. Williams of Toronto's Bedford Park United Church told the cast he enjoyed it.

"And I feel it will be especially good for lay people who haven't seen the humour in the Scriptures," he said after a preview performance for the clergy.

The show, written by John Michael Tebelak with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, retells parables from St. Matthew's in a boisterous, clowning way.

"I guess Marty and I are more or less the comedians of the show," Levy said. He paused to let Short have his turn.

"There's no specific role that you take ..."

"I have the part of Herb - Herb is just the name of the guy who did it in New York. When I got the part I thought Herb was in the Bible somewhere. I knew I wasn't familiar with a Herb in the Bible so I scanned the New Testament to see if I could find him."

"Then they told me," Levy said.

Short broke up, then broke in: "I guess we're supposed to be the apostles, but the only person who has a name really is Vic Garber who plays Jesus."

Levy has an apartment in Toronto. Short is still commuting from his brother's home in Ancaster. When he can't make it home he stays with Levy, who talked him into acting for a living.

"Actually Marty is just sky-rocketing. He really is," Levy said.

Short finished his BA in social work at McMaster this year. He was going to work at Stelco and save through the summer to try acting in Toronto. But he dropped some pictures into agency offices and a few weeks later got his first professional job - he's the talking Chargex card in a television commercial.

"Haven't you seen it," he asked. "It's an interview with a Chargex card inside a woman's purse. It's one of the biggies - I don't know if Brando started that way or not but ..."

Then Godspell, the possibility of a recording contract for both of them with RCA and talk of forming a comedy act after Godspell is over - at least six months away because their contracts are for that long.

"The way they advertise it doesn't really do it justice," Levy said as the rest of the cast got ready for another run through of the play.

"They say it's a religious rock musical and people say, 'oh no! We're not ready for another religious rock musical." Well, it's not like that at all. It's one of the funniest things I've ever been in."

Short clambered out of his chair and started for the white tape that marked the stage in the rehearsal hall.

"When I first heard it, I thought it was going to be the poor man's Jesus Christ Superstar, but you just cannot compare the two except for the subject matter," he said.

He was getting ready to do one of his big scenes.

In the middle of a parable he leaps across the stage and slams into a pratfall.

It beats being a talking Chargex card.

Godspell from a box seat
Four Christians and a rabbi react to the clownish musical about Jesus
Gilbert Roxburgh
The Globe and Mail, pg. 14
June 3, 1972

Godspell, the modern musical adaptation of Matthew's Gospel, has been pursued ever since its New York opening by criticisms about the absence of Jesus' triumphant Resurrection at the end of the show.

Godspell, which opened this week at the Royal Alexandra Theatre, closes with the dead body of Jesus being carried up the aisle to the back of the theatre.

At the show's official opening night in Toronto, groups of young people outside the theatre carried signs, waved banners and distributed religious tracts, asserting that "What you saw was only part of the story."

Godspell portrays Jesus Christ as a singing, dancing clown. Using bustling stage movement, jokes and sight gags, and a variety of contemporary musical styles, Godspell shows Jesus surrounded by disciples dressed in gypsy-like, raggle-taggle clothes, as he teaches his friends by means of parables, and moves inexorably to his death.

John Michael Tebalak, who conceived and wrote Godspell and directed the original production, said his goal is "to revitalize the people's interest in religion and bring more celebration into religion."

Many viewers see the final curtain call, when all the characters reappeared onstage, as an affirmation of Christ's victory over death and evil.

Diverse Backgrounds
Among those viewing the Toronto production this week were five representatives of diverse religious backgrounds.

Rev. DeCourcy H. Rayner, editor of the Presbyterian Record, said, "I went prepared to be critical, but after the initial shock of seeing biblical characters portrayed as present-day clowns, I entered into the spirit of the production.

"It has a great meaning for the present generation.

"About the crucifixion and Resurrection -- I felt the procession offstage represented the triumph of the Resurrection. You feel the story ends with a note of joy.

"I was favorably impressed, and hope that many young people see this production."

Rev. Des McCalmont, television supervisor for the United Church, is also executive producer for Religious Television Associates, joint broadcasting production agency for the Anglican, Roman Catholic, and United Churches.

New Insights
"I was very excited," he said. "The Toronto production is better than the New York one in some ways. I really loved it.

"The facetious treatment of the parables, with jokes, fun reactions from the disciples gives new insights into the Gospel.

"But for some it was hard to take. One couple in our row were obviously upset when they saw it. They didn't crack a smile or clap. They were obviously unhappy.

"After Godspell you're quiet, because it leaves you thoughtful about your faith. Yet it inspires conversation later about the things that really delighted you."

The only non-Christian interviewed was Rabbi Stephen D. Franklin, assistant rabbi at Holy Blossom Temple.

"The brilliant power of the performance, with its Shakespearean irony of truth proceeding from the words and deeds of clowns, forces even a non-Christian to sympathetic response," Rabbi Franklin said.

"I can feel the value of the message, and feel all the emotions, even though it was intended for Christians.

"As a Jew, I noted--in spite of anti-synagogue, anti-rabbi statements forced on the production by the Gospel itself--the embellishment of Jesus' Jewishness, as when he gave the blessing in Hebrew over the meal--and the attempt to soften vindictiveness by portraying opposition to him as inevitable."

Rabbi Franklin was asked what he thought of the young people ranged outside the theatre with placards and tracts on opening night, protesting the exclusion of the Resurrection.

"How can you fault people who say 'God Bless'?" he answered. "However, I have trouble identifying with fundamentalists myself. I am a liberal rabbi."

Rev. Ronald Watts, general secretary of the Baptist Church, Ontario and Quebec Convention, had mixed feelings.

"The strong part was the handling of the parables, dramatized in a human, interesting, convincing way. I was very pleased with the spirit of celebration, a rejoicing in the faith.

"Its weakness," Mr. Watts went on to say, "was its presentation of Christ. The presentation of the Crucifixion and Resurrection was lacking, though they would argue they weren't trying to present theology."

"It was delightful. I rolled out of my seat three or four times." exclaimed Michael O'Meara, director of communications for the Anglican Church of Canada.

Beautiful lines
"There were beautiful lines, and I like hokey showbiz, like the soft shoe routine.

"I saw the first dress rehearsal. Only thing I thought was about after the Crucifixion, carrying Jesus out.

"I expected them to come down the aisle and show the Resurrection onstage. It may have been treated in the curtain call. I think so, but I had to work at it.

"It brought a lot of joy into the Gospel of Matthew, without diluting the message. The clown show was great idea. It speaks to our society in a way the churches do not."

The original Toronto cast performs "Bless the Lord"
From Left to right: Rudy Webb, Valda Aviks, Victor Garber,
Aril Chown, Andrea Martin, Gilda Radner

Click Here For More Articles About The Show Found In The Toronto Star

This page last updated:
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
© 2004-2012, Brian Gedcke



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