Baylor Theatre’s production of Godspell seeks to inspire community within its audience

By Katherine McClellan

The popular musical Godspell, which is subtitled “A Musical Based on the Gospel According to St. Matthew,” has returned to the Baylor Theatre stage in a form somewhat different than when it was first performed at the university some 30 years ago.

The story of Godspell

At almost 50 years old, Godspell has had a prosperous run as a musical, opening off-Broadway in 1971 and having a successful revival on Broadway in 2012. The musical’s Baylor director, Dr. Stan Denman, professor of theatre arts, chose Godspell in part due to this long history.

But the current version of the musical at Baylor is somewhat different than the one which made its campus debut back in the early 1980s. Godspell’s original 1970s off-Broadway production was a product of its time, with a very “folksong” sound in its music and orchestrations. The Baylor production is based on the musical’s 2012 Broadway revival, which substitutes updated orchestrations and a more contemporary sound.

The 2012 revival version also allows a lot of latitude with directorial interpretation.

“When you read the script,” Denman said, “it says, ‘Here’s how the original version interpreted this parable and here’s how the 2012 version interpreted this parable. As long as your interpretation looks something like this, go for it.’” And Denman is thrilled by the freedom the script allows.

Godspell isn’t really the story of Jesus –– it’s more the story of His disciples. One of the criticisms the show has faced is that it doesn’t portray the resurrection. The show walks through the parables in the Gospel of Matthew up until Jesus’s crucifixion, and then it ends.

However, Stephen Schwartz, a co-writer of the musical, defends the ending by saying, “We’re not writing the story of Jesus: we’re writing the story of the disciples.” Though the disciples were scattered at the time of Jesus’s crucifixion, the community that they had built during His life eventually brought them together.

“When Christ returned,” Denman said, “He found them in the upper room together, in community with each other awaiting His return.”

Theatrical audiences typically come together to experience something, and the sense of community observed between the disciples awaiting Jesus is just what Denman hopes Godspell audiences will experience. Denman expects to draw attention to the actors as a community, as well as foster the communion that takes place between performers and the audience.

“What we hope is that people come to see Godspell, but that they will leave as a part of Godspell,” Denman said.

The writing’s on the wall

The audience at Godspell will likely notice some sticky notes adorning the walls –– several thousand, to be exact. This unusual set design was not chosen on a whim.

Denman said he began to think, “What is it that makes a community?” He was immediately transported to the moments in his life right after 9/11. “There were sticky notes stuck in the subway with messages of ‘I love you’ and ‘Have you seen this person?’ and ‘We are praying for you.’ Each note represented someone’s life.”

To Denman, these sticky notes are a visual representation of community. The notes the audience will see stacked one on top of the other in Baylor’s Mabee Theatre resemble the bricks in a wall, creating an image like that of the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem. When the Godspell audience is met with this wall of thousands of different prayers, Denman hopes they will see the thousands of different people behind those prayers.

“We want our audiences to not only come in and see that this faith community is bigger than them: we want them to be a part of that community,” he said.

The Mabee Theatre is the Hooper-Schaefer Fine Arts Center’s “thrust stage,” meaning it thrusts out into the audience, and the audience surrounds the stage on three sides. Denman has used the structure of this space to the set’s advantage in Godspell. Each member of the audience is asked upon arrival by the actors and ushers if they have a prayer request, encouraging the audience’s participation in this community of prayer. The sticky notes are added to the walls surrounding the audience and stage, encapsulating everyone in the theatre within a cloud of community.

Faith-based theatre

Denman is excited to be putting on Godspell because it helps remind everyone of Baylor University’s basis in the Christian faith.

Despite the fact that the majority of the plays and musicals that Baylor Theatre has performed during its long history could be considered secular works, Denman said that the theatre department’s belief is that one of the challenges for artists of faith is the ability to work within the wider, largely secular theatrical community. He said Baylor therefore encourages its actors to take standard theatrical works and look at them through a Christian lens. In practice, the department seeks to find faith-affirming or cautionary messages in mainstream works, including major Pulitzer prize- or Tony award-winning productions.

“I tell my students that if their faith, if their belief system, is worth anything in a contemporary world, they should be able to apply that faith to any question or any topic,” Denman said, adding that ownership of one’s faith has long been a significant part of the Baylor theatre program’s mission.

But now, with Godspell, Denman said there’s no need to look deeply to find Christian themes. The faith message in Godspell is front and center, and it inspired Denman to decide that “maybe it’s time again for us to do an overtly Jesus play.”

Remaining performances of Godspell will be Oct. 2-5 and Oct. 9-12 at 7:30 p.m., and Oct. 7 and 14 at 2 p.m. The show is performed in the Mabee Theatre of the Hooper-Schaefer Fine Arts Building on the Baylor campus. For ticket prices and information, visit the Baylor Theatre ticket office or call (254) 710-1865.

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