Directed by David Greene, Columbia Pictures
Starring Victor Garber, Katie Hanley. Lynne Thigpen, David Haskell
A modern day musical retelling of the Gospel of Matthew.
So I can’t remember the first time I ever saw the movie Godspell, but I’ve seen several versions of the musical over the years. I think I saw the movie when I was in college, and just sort of fell in love with the goofiness and the innocence of it. And I have to admit, the soundtrack is straight up catchy. Christian music artist Michael W Smith shared once about how he “wore out” his copy of the Godspell record, and that it “spoke to him in a way that he could understand.” I think my favorite songs are “Save the People”, “By My Side”, “All Good Gifts”, and of course, “Day by Day”.
Fun fact: Victor Garber, probably best known for as cold blooded assassin and superspy Jack Bristow on the TV show Alias, has his first film role in Godspell as Jesus and it’s INSANE. He’s not only a total 180 from Jack Bristow, he’s also almost unrecognizable with a gigantic white man’s afro and a tender, gentle demeanor. Also, in 1972 there was a Canadian production of Godspell that had an absolutely LEGEND…wait for it…DARY cast, featuring Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Gilda Radner, Andrea Martin, and Paul Shaffer, all who would go on to comedic fame in movies and shows like Saturday Night Live, Second City TV, Schitt’s Creek, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, and The Only Murders in the Building.
And for those of you who are thinking, what the heck is a “Godspell” anyway? The Oxford English dictionary states that the English word “gospel” is derived from the Anglo-Saxon godspell (“good story”). So let’s get the story started!
Spoilers For Godspell Below!
The film starts out on a busy day in New York City, where several people hear the sound of a shofar and leave their jobs to follow its call. They are “baptized” in the Bethesda Fountain and embrace their new lives as disciples of Jesus, who is also baptized in the fountain. With childlike innocence and a sense of mischievous fun, Jesus and his disciples act out several of the parables in music and dance numbers at different locations in an empty New York City (including a still-under-construction World Trade Center). Things take a downward turn when Jesus is accused by a monstrous “Pharisee” created out of junk, and sadly tells his beloved disciples that he must leave them soon. They share a “Last Supper” of juice and cookies, where He tenderly gives them personalized expressions of His love for them. Judas arrives and betrays Jesus, who is bound to a fence at the wrists and dies as his disciples sing sadly. They take his body and carry it through the streets of New York City, vowing to preach His words to the world.
So What Did God Show Me?
-In the beginning of the movie, each of the disciples are shown going through their lives, but it’s made clear that each is obviously unsatisfied and longing for something more, as shown by their response to John the Baptist popping up around them and the sound of the shofar. They leave everything behind, their jobs, their responsibilities, their possessions, to follow the call and the hope of something more. This is the epitome of what Jesus offers us, that something more that we all desire in our heart of hearts! Jesus calls to all of us, offering us life, and life more abundant, not just after we die but here, NOW. How freeing it is to answer that call and embrace new life!
-Uniqueness is celebrated, and each disciple is encouraged to be themselves, and let their dress and actions represent this. There is no holding back, and they break free of their previous worldly identities to express themselves freely, through their clothes, their arts, and their words. Each disciple has their own personal relationship with Jesus, as shown by their different face paint and “secret handshake” physical expression of love (like a fist bump, a cheek graze, a nose kiss). This is so precious, because it showcases how God created each of us to be nothing other than what we are, and that He encourages us to embrace our own selves, what brings us joy and how to express it to the world that needs to hear it! There has never been nor will there ever be anyone exactly like you, so take that unique you and show it to the world in a way that’s never been seen before!
-I love how they start off in the junkyard, using the castoffs from society, and turn it into their personal playground/clubhouse. They share what they find with each other, and just have fun playing with each other, being silly, and enjoying each other’s company. Creativity runs rampant here!
I felt this scene (as well as being a heavy theme in the movie) seems to be saying that God invites us to come to Him like little children, and unless we become like little children, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew 18:1-5 – About that time the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Who is greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven?” Jesus called a little child to him and put the child among them. Then he said, “I tell you the truth, unless you turn from your sins and become like little children, you will never get into the Kingdom of Heaven. So anyone who becomes as humble as this little child is the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven. And anyone who welcomes a little child like this on my behalf is welcoming me.”
-Jesus painting each of the disciples’s faces reminds me of how God has put His divine mark on all of us, and how it’s unique and special to us.
-I love the interaction that the disciples and Jesus have with each other. It just expresses so much how much they enjoy each other. They’re able to be goofy, loving, supportive, and encouraging while they tell each parable story. There’s even a few times of arguing, but it never descends into cruelty or vengeance. There is so much loving-kindness, camaraderie, and feeling of community. This is truly a beautiful example of what it means to be a part of the family of God, as well as His “family of families”, the Church community.
-When Jesus rebukes it’s always gently and with firmness, but not harshness (except to the “Pharisee”). He shows pride and delight in the different ways his disciples share his Word and corrects them in such a way that none take it personally, but are grateful for the correction. No one is ever made to feel stupid because they didn’t understand something.
-My friend Matt Barron reminded me of a detail I had forgotten, and I’m so glad he did because it’s so beautiful! This movie is one of the few times we see Jesus express compassion to Judas for the very heavy task that had been set upon him. The Bible doesn’t delve very deeply into Judas’ motives, and perhaps we will never know until eternity what Judas was thinking and feeling when he decided to betray Jesus to his accusers. But what we can know is that Judas was a trusted disciple of Christ, and he was dearly loved by Jesus. And without Judas, the crucifixion, Jesus’s sacrifice, and His triumph over death for all eternity would not have happened. God used Judas as a critical part of His plan to bring salvation to all.
-Even at the end, when Jesus has been taken from them, the disciples still have hope and vow to take Jesus’ words and ways to the world. While I agree it still would’ve been cooler with a resurrection scene, this scene could almost be be taken from after Jesus ascended into heaven, and commanded His disciples to go out to all the world and spread His Word. Like it says at the end of Matthew, “Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” And that’s just what they’re going to do – watch “God Save the People” and build a “Beautiful City”, “Day by Day”.
Many Christian dislike Godspell and its rock opera partner, Jesus Christ Superstar, mainly because both movies have a glaring lack of resurrection scenes at their conclusions. (Although I have seen several play versions that added one in). To that, I reference a quote by Stephen Schwartz, the composer of the musical: “Over the years, there has been comment from some about the lack of an apparent Resurrection in the show. Some choose to view the curtain call, in which JESUS appears, as symbolic of the resurrection; others point to the moment when the cast raise JESUS above their heads. While either view is valid, both miss the point. GODSPELL is about the formation of a community which carries on JESUS’ teachings after he has gone. In other words, it is the effect JESUS has on the OTHERS which is the story of the show, not whether or not he himself is resurrected. Therefore, it is very important at the end of the show that it be clear that the OTHERS have come through the violence and pain of the crucifixion sequence and leave with a joyful determination to carry on the ideas and feelings they have learned during the course of the show.”
It’s true, Godspell takes some liberties with the Bible, but I don’t believe that’s the point of the musical. What I do find fascinating is that both musicals were released during a time in the 1970s when the Jesus Revolution was sweeping not just America, but the world, and both helped break down the walls between rock and roll and Christianity. The fact that secular composers like Stephen Schwartz and Andrew Lloyd Webber got inspired enough to write musicals that reflected the life of Jesus speaks volumes. The fact that these two musicals are still going strong fifty years later speaks even more. What’s important about these musicals is not whether they follow the Bible to the letter, what’s important is that they show Jesus to people who might not normally be familiar with Him in an appealing and unthreatening way, and, I hope, make them curious to know more about the real thing.
What would your Godspell disciple expression be? I personally see myself in patchwork jeans, a peasant blouse with an embroidered velvet vest, a knitted slouch hat, and of course, high top Converse All Stars, personally decorated by me 🙂 What would you wear? What would your “secret handshake” with Jesus look like? Share in the comments below!
Links I Like
- https://www.godspell.com/ – The official Godspell webpage
- http://piercedtotheheart.org/2012/godspell-after – An extremely in depth blog post about what the author took away from his own Godspell viewing. He has WAY more insights than me and they’re GREAT!
- https://www.cmu.edu/news/stories/archives/2021/july/godspell-turns-50.html – Carnegie Mellon College, where the Godspell musical was birthed, celebrated 50 years of Godspell in 2021
- https://www.playbill.com/article/victor-garber-eugene-levy-uzo-aduba-andrea-martin-more-share-godspell-memories-to-celebrate-musicals-50th-anniversary – the 1972 Canadian cast reminisces at Godspell’s 50th anniversary
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rxTB1zXnGZ8&list=WL&index=28&t=4s – video on the 1972 Canadian production of Godspell
- https://www.thestar.com/entertainment/stage/2022/05/29/from-martin-short-jayne-eastwood-and-paul-shaffer-to-victor-garber-the-stars-of-1972s-godspell-share-their-memories.html – more stars from Godspell productions share their memories
- https://archive.nytimes.com/artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/11/07/learn-your-lessons-well-the-alumni-of-godspell/ – several famous people who were involved in productions of Godspell when they were just getting started