Musical Based on the Gospels Celebrates 50 Years of Hope, Love, Community

(YouTube/David Haskell-Topic)

For half a century, music-lovers, Jesus-lovers, theater nerds and more have flocked to community, regional and Broadway theaters to witness productions of Godspell: the Stephen Schwartz musical based on Jesus' ministry as told through the parables found in the Gospel of Matthew.

The witty, sentimental and evergreen musical started as an off-Broadway hit in 1971. From there it moved to the silver screen in 1973 and to Broadway in 1976.

Since its opening, the musical garnered a strong fan base, which came as a surprise to many, especially those involved in the production's early stages.

Director John-Michael Tebelak formed the retelling of Jesus' last days before His death and resurrection for his master thesis project at Carnegie Mellon University. The original cast comprised of fellow students singing lyrics from the Episcopal hymnal. Only one song, "By My Side," written by the original cast, remained when Schwartz joined the creative team as lyricist before it went to off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre on May 17, 1971. Jay Hamburger and Peggy Gordon co-wrote the piece, which Schwartz said he could not improve.

Gordon recalls the curtain call of the musical's opening off-Broadway performance: "As we were bowing, I heard thunderous applause," she says. "They were standing on their feet, and they were applauding, and they were crying. I thought to myself, I guess it's good!"

In the height of the pandemic, The Berkshire Theater Group took to the stage to share the first professional theater-mounted production of Godspell in August 2020. The Plexiglass partitions surrounding the actors and temperature checks for audience members reflected the odd circumstances under which the performance was being held, but artist, director and Berkshire Theater Group CEO Kate Maguire says the musical's message of hope and love was needed for just such a time as this.

Godspell just felt like the one," Maguire said. "All of a sudden the story of Godspell and what it's about became more important."

"Godspell revisits the idea of Jesus as a revolutionary figure," an article on the Berkshire Theater website says. Of its second Broadway revival in 2011, the article states, "The ability of Godspell to profoundly impact audiences has only grown throughout the years. What better way to address the divide amongst the population than with a musical about love, community and connection?"

Hannah Elless, a Michigan native, is one such person upon whom Godspell has had a profound impact.

She first auditioned for Godspell's 2011 revival, ultimately cast as a standby. Elless had previously accepted a role in the cast of the national tour of Mamma Mia!, but eventually returned to the Circle in the Square Theatre, permanently replacing Lindsey Mendez in the "Bless the Lord" track. Elless joined the Godspell cast for her Broadway debut alongside Disney channel star Corbin Bleu playing Jesus.

Elless' journey to Broadway would be characterized by the world's standards as a Cinderella story, but she knows it's a God story. In a Charisma exclusive interview, the performer shared how the audition and subsequent casting could have only been orchestrated by God. "There's something really vulnerable about stepping into the shoes of a character who's singing Scripture when that's what you believe in your heart," she says of her audition.

Though previously unfamiliar with the show, the personal relationship she held with Godspell's content forever crafted a special place for it in her heart.

"It's the kind of show that brings healing, life and joy, and reminds us that we need each other—which is always wonderful and something we need right now," she says, reflecting on the 50th anniversary. "It's a show that celebrates community."

When asked how she would encourage the next generation of performers with a passion to perform in a show with content like Godspell, Elless answered with joy: "It comes back to a simple truth: pursuing excellence. Pursuing excellence in your field and in your faith. Those two things will honor each other. They can go hand in hand."

Despite the challenges that arise in often seemingly diametrically opposed cultures, Elless affirms that God and the workplace can not only intertwine, but are designed to do so.

"God honors excellence. We're not here to achieve fame or wealth or success; we're here to be living the life that God wants us to live and telling the stories He has for us to tell," she says. "Being an artist and a Christian is not only possible but ideal. We're all a reflection of God's character, and God is an artist."

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