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May 17: Scared Straight... to Jesus

Godspell Opens on Broadway (1971)


It was on this date, May 17, 1971, that the musical Godspell opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre, off-Broadway in New York. It later moved to the Promenade on Broadway at 76th Street, where it ran for 2,651 performances. Godspell features the parables and lessons of the Gospel according to Matthew, rather than the life of Jesus. The stageplay was made into a film in 1973, featuring Victor Garber as Jesus. The music and lyrics were written by Stephen Schwartz, who won an Oscar for writing "Colors of the Wind," for the 1995 Disney film, Pocahontas.

Wearing suspenders over a Superman t-shirt, Jesus speaks fluent King James English, tells his clown-clad followers stories as moral lessons. The musical includes one song from the score that became a pop hit: "Day By Day." The music doesn't tax the vocal skills of the singers or the lyrics the intellectual skills of the listener. The lessons in Godspell, are mostly secular; the parables are of the simple-minded 1970s variety: a gentle Jesus preaches virtuous behavior, adoration of God, doing good works, promoting justice and mercy, and rejecting materialism — without the inherent irony that, if you reject materialism, you pretty much guarantee you'll never have anything material to reject!

None of these things, except for loving God, requires a belief in the supernatural. However, we know that hell awaits the unbeliever because the song, "Learn Your Lessons Well," threatens

You better pay attention,
Build your comprehension,
There's gonna be a quiz at your ascension.
Not to mention any threat of hell,
But if you're smart you'll learn your lessons well!

This song is so important, it's repeated after the intermission. Jesus recites the Beatitudes ("Blessed are the meek" and so on), then, in his song "All For The Best," he assures his followers that if life is rotten, things are better after death — a philosophy that pretty much assures that life will never improve before death:

Don't forget that when you get to
Heaven you'll be blessed.
Yes, it's all for the best.

...but only for believers. The song "Turn Back O Man" encourages us to forswear our foolish ways because the end is near: there's no mention here of making the world a better place, which would be more generally beneficial and less selfish. In fact, the song "All Good Gifts" claims that the Earth's bounty is "sent from Heaven above," but never really explains how this can be if we do all the work here on earth. Jesus repeats a perverted notion of justice when a woman is accused of adultery: "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her" — which isn't actually from Matthew but from John 8:7. But if everybody is presumed guilty, how can anyone get justice?

As in the Matthew story, Jesus is betrayed by Judas, who is reviled to this day, even though there would be no Christianity without him! And, in a bizarre twist for any Christian, Godspell ends with the crucifixion — there has to be a better word because he dies on a barbed-wire fence — but there is no mention of a resurrection! (There is none in Jesus Christ Superstar, either, but that production was more fun.) The title is a play on the word gospel or "good news," and the musical Godspell has been good news at the box office, and in subsequent "revivals"... ever since its opening on Broadway, on this date in 1971.

Originally published May 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

Our Fearless Leader.

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“I'm an Atheist,” says Angier. “I don't believe in God, Gods, Godlets or any sort of higher power beyond the universe itself.... I'm convinced that the world as we see it was shaped by … evolution through natural selection.”

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