GODSPELL was produced as a play in 1971 and as a film in 1973. I have never seen the play, but since “Day by Day” is one of my favorite songs, I decided to rent the film and see the story behind the music. The story is based on the Gospel of Matthew. If you’re unfamiliar with GODSPELL, but plan to watch the film, be prepared. This is not your typical orthodox presentation of the Gospel–far from it; but it is the Gospel, nonetheless.
The story takes in New York City. “John the Baptist” (played by David Haskell, who also plays “Judas”) is a magician. Sounding the shofar and shouting “prepare ye the way of the Lord,” he walks through the city appearing supernaturally to eight ordinary people, including a waitress, a taxi driver, a parking attendant, a college student, a window shopper, and a ballet dancer. All of them leave their jobs and/or activities to follow John the Baptist to the Bethesda Fountain where he baptizes them–and Jesus (played by Victor Garber).
Replacing their city clothes with colorful, hippie-like garb, Jesus’ rag-tag followers listen closely as he teaches them about the importance of the Law of Moses and the commandments from the Sermon on the Mount. Much of the film is devoted to the parables. As Jesus tells the parables, the cast acts them out through a clownish but clever combination of mime and vaudeville.
The most engaging parable is the Prodigal Son. The cast not only uses mime and vaudeville to illustrate the parable, they also use clips from silent films–mostly slapstick. Silent film fans will have fun sorting out which clip belongs to which film. While the film clips are playing on screen, “Jerry” (played by Jerry Sroka) gives a hilarious impersonation of a cowboy.
Despite the comical way in which some of the parables are presented , the doctrines of heaven, hell, and the divinity of Christ and his role as the Messiah are not compromised. The most sobering parable is that of the sheep and goats, which stresses that only the true followers of Jesus–the ones with whom he has a relationship–will inherit eternal life.
Jesus and his followers are filled with joy and frivolity as they parade through empty streets, stop at landmarks (such as Times Square), and sing on rooftops. In light of 9/11, it is jarring to see the cast singing “All the Best” on top of one of the Twin Towers.
The 10 member cast is made up of five men and five women, most of whom sing a solo. “Day by Day” (sung by Robin Lamont) is not the only song that highlights the intimate relationship the group enjoys with Jesus. Lynne Thigpen gives a hearty rendition of “Bless the Lord,” and young, innocent Merrell Jackson praises God with “All Good Gifts” (James 1: 17).
Joanne Jonas singing “Turn Back, O Man” is a show stopper. The words added to the hymn are sassy and suggestive. Her style, resembling Mae West‘s, is supposed to taken entirely as a joke. While one or two lines may raise some eyebrows (including mine), the solo showcases Jonas’ incredible talent.
The story takes a somber turn when Jesus encounters the authorities. The Pharisees try to bait him, but Jesus sees through their schemes and hypocrisy. After this, Judas conspires to betray him.
My favorite scene is the Last Supper. Never mind that it takes place in a junk yard with disciples drinking out of a paper cup. The jewel in the crown is Jesus saying the blessing over the bread and wine in Hebrew.
Near the end of the film, Jesus entreats each of his followers to look in the mirror. One of them proclaims, “I look like you!” And that’s the point of the sequence. By following his teaching, Jesus followers have taken on his character, and they will take the Gospel to the world.
The original play was the brainchild of John-Michael Tebelak, who wrote GODSPELL for his master’s thesis at Carnegie-Mellon University in 1971. He co-wrote the film version with David Green. Stephen Schwartz composed the music.
Click here to watch Robin Lamont sing “Day by Day.” Its appeal is timeless.