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The Church of Godspell

The Church of Godspell

The New York Times’ Mark Oppenheimer reviews the revival of the musical, Godspell:

“Godspell,” which opens Monday in its first Broadway revival, was serious business in 1971. At the time American religion was in a profound state of flux. The pews were emptying out, and children especially were disappearing from mainline Christianity. Vocations to the Catholic priesthood were cratering, and from 1963 to 1972 the number of American Catholics going to Mass declined from about three quarters to half (and kept falling). To take one startling statistic, Episcopal church school enrollment fell by a quarter from 1965 to 1971, the year “Godspell” made its debut Off Broadway. John-Michael Tebelak, who conceived and first directed the show, was himself an Episcopalian who later flirted with the priesthood before dying, at 36, in 1985. His church’s pews, even more than most, were vacant.

Young people wanted to leave the church, but not all of them wanted to abandon Christianity. Many wanted to return to a more primitive expression of their faith, and they reimagined Jesus as an accessible hippie, a cool friend rather than an object of veneration…


Since 1971 countless school, regional, and community theater productions of “Godspell” have completed the work of guitar-playing seminary dropouts, rabbinical students and mystical troubadours without portfolio. One school-gym performance after another of “Bless the Lord” and “Save the People,” among other hard-to-shake tunes, helped American religion accept contemporary music, even welcome it. It was what the kids wanted.

So the churches listened, bringing the guitars and up-tempo rockers in from the outdoors, giving them a home in the pews. The church dropouts who thrilled to “Godspell” grew up, joined up, and were happy to hear, even introduce, Christian rock. Today, Mr. Schwartz’s melodies are what evangelical Christianity sounds like. I hear up-tempo, five-piece-band rock with lyrics about Jesus, and I instinctively look for oversize video screens; hip, youthful ushers; and headset-miked preachers in jeans stalking a stage — all the trappings of the market-tested mega-church.


Once defiantly countercultural, irreverent and a source of self-criticism, “Godspell” now plays as a Broadway cousin to the evangelical mainstream. At the revival about to open at the Circle in the Square, the voices are better, and the dancing more choreographed. But it feels an awful lot like church.


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David Allen

A side note for the GLEE fans in the crowd. If you miss the cute Asian guy who was in the Dalton Academy Warblers, the reason he is not a Warbler in this 3rd season of GLEE is because he is in this Broadway revival of Godspell. His name is Telly Leung.

Bro David

C. Wingate

They are not only “Hymnal 1940 chestnuts”, the score cites the hymn numbers!

I like Godspell in its way. But it’s not a model for liturgy. Or rather, inasmuch as you take it as a model for liturgy, it is as a dramatic work that requires even more “rubric” than what we do now.

Ann Fontaine

Whenever we have the lines from Godspell in the readings — the tunes spring to my ear.

clare fischer-davies

Oh – so much more to say about Godspell! Like – how so many of the songs are settings of 1940 hymnal chestnuts like “Turn Back, O Man” and “We Plow the Fields and Scatter”. But it’s also one of those theater pieces that pretty much always works – the lamest high school production with the worst production values can still shine. There’s some kind of deep core goodness and truth in the piece that transcends what bad actors/musicians can do to it – or maybe it brings out something good and true even in bad actors! Every time I think “Really. I never need to see another Godspell…” I find that well, yes – there was something new to be discovered. I also saw it for the first time in the 1970s – at Ford’s Theater in DC – and have encountered it as a priest, performer and director many times since.


I have to confess that I’ve never seen Godspell. The closest I’ve come is when I worked in a UCC church and the youth group planned a worship that borrowed heavily from the soundtrack.

However, my current parish has a large contingent of 20-somethings who have left their evangelical mega-church upbringings because they came to believe that the faith life they had experienced was in some way hollow. they have come to our parish because of a fairly traditional service (not high church though) and because of our social justice ministry.

I think that the appeal of guitars and folk/pop music in church is largely confined to people who were the teens/20’s in the era of Godspell. They too were looking for a more genuine expression of faith. But their faith in the power of music is not one shared by many today (IMHO) and so the attendant desire to free the church with rock-n-roll is absent from today’s young people. They seem more interested in tapping into something that seems more permanent and likely to last than today’s musical idiom.

Jon White

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