Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Review of "The Godspell Experience" by Carol de Giere - A Deep Look At Joy and Community As Foundation Stones for The Godspell Phenomenon

Carol de Giere has done it again with "The Godspell Experience - Inside A Transformative Musical." Much as she did with her earlier Stephen Schwartz book, "Defying Gravity," she has managed in this new work to offer a comprehensive and detailed view of the creation of "Godspell" while at the same time clearly conveying the magic of the Godspell phenomenon.

She organizes the material in a way that allows the readers to feel that we are being shown sonograms of a fetus in development through all three trimesters of gestation. She begins the chronicle of "Godspell" in 1971, with the show's roots at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, where John-Michael Tebelak pulled together fellow students to put on four performances of a proto-version of the musical. Much to his surprise, he was invited to bring the show to Cafe La MaMa in Greenwich Villlage. Some Off-Broadway producers were in the audience one evening, and decided to back the show for a run at the Cherry Lane Theatre, with the stipulation that a young composer by the name of Stephen Schwartz be engaged to write new music that would make the show more commercially viable. It did not hurt that Schwartz and Tebelak had been students together at CMU.

I was fascinated to learn the genesis of Mr. Tebelak's idea for writing a show about the teachings of Jesus based on material from the Gospels. In an interview for Dramatics Magazine in 1975, he recounts for interviewer Thomas A. Barker an experience he had one Easter that changed his life - and altered the course of musical theater history:

"I decided to attend Easter sunrise service to experience, again, the story that I had gotten from the Gospel. As I went, it began to snow, which is rather strange for Easter. When I went into the cathedral, everyone there was sitting, grumbling about the snow and the fact that they had already changed their tires. They weren't going to be able to take pictures that afternoon. Snow was upsetting their plans. As the service began, I thought it might be a little different. Instead, an old priest came out and mumbled into a microphone, and people mumbled things back, and then everyone got up and left. Instead of 'healing' the burden, or resurrecting the Christ, it seems those people had pushed Him back into the tomb. They had refused to let Him come out that day. As I was leaving the church, a policeman who had been sitting two pews in front of me during the service, stopped me and wanted to know if he could search me. Apparently he thought I was ducking into the church to escape the snowstorm. At that moment - I think because of the absurd situation - it angered me so much that I went home and realized what I wanted to do with the Gospels: I wanted to make it the simple, joyful message that I felt the first time I read them and recreate the sense of community, which I did not share when I went to that service." 

It makes perfect sense then that joy and community are two values that ooze from every pore of this musical. The author offers the fruits of her extensive and scrupulous research into the creative processes that took place in bringing the show to maturity and then expanding into a global phenomenon. There are detailed descriptions of the characters and the actors who created them. Each song is carefully analyzed as to its origins and how it fits into the arc of the show. Yet despite the granular detail that this book provides, it never loses the spirit of the show and of those who created it. I found myself singing the familiar songs as I read about them. I found myself smiling and laughing and weeping as I do each time I see a well-wrought production of the play. This book is not only a valuable description of the process of creating a work as impactful as "Godspell," it is also a celebration of the lives of those who brought this work into being using the skeleton of Scripture verses and the words of some traditional Episcopal hymns.

Ms. de Giere has assiduously provided detailed notes and bibliographical references for serious students who wish to delve more deeply into any aspect of the history of this show.This book is a MUST READ for anyone who loves musical theater, for anyone who celebrates the mystery of the creative process, and for anyone who has ever been touched by participating in "Godspell" on stage or as a member of the audience.  It would make a great holiday gift for a family member or friend who loves theater!



1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I could not agree more!