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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