Overview

Review

Gallery

Godspell

Overview

In Britain we had stage censorship until 1968. The Lord Chamberlain's earliest reason for existence derived from James the First's reign when he was charged with "preventing and avoiding the great abuse of the Holy name of God in stage plays". At the same time, on both sides of the Atlantic, two teams of theatrical writers, Rice & Lloyd Webber and Tebelak & Schwartz, were independently developing ideas for biblical shows.

The departure of the Lord Chamberlain did not just make room for the light-hearted, musical treatment of religious subjects. It also brought a rush of candour in sexual and linguistic matters. Nudity and naughty words soon erupted in shows like Hair and Oh, Calcutta! Rock-religion became a popular theme, though it was occasionally difficult to ascertain whether it cloaked the view of religion, or was a sincere attempt to convey the message in terms that the younger generation would understand. Godspell usually depicts Christ and the disciples as clowns, yet despite the trappings of rock music, presents what is basically a straightforward bible story. St. Matthew's Gospel, on which Godspell is based, is possibly the best known story we have. Differently told, it captures the style of Sunday School playlets, made up, as it were, by the children themselves.

Not everybody relished the idea of thus adapting themes once considered too holy to tamper with theatrically, but there can be no harm in the missionary musical when its mission is so plainly good. Whether Godspell, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Joseph And The Technicolor Dreamcoat have sent audiences back to the Old and New Testaments, we know how well they go down on the stage.

Godspell was the first of the religious rock operas. A wholly American show, it was staged at the Cherry Lane Theatre, New York in May 1971. Six months later it was brought to London, and together with David Essex, enjoyed the presence in the cast of Jeremy Irons, Julie Covington and Marti Webb. It did, however take three years for Godspell to reach the West End. None can say if its popularity was due to its content or cast. However, it has gone on to enjoy a kind of revival which no amount of critical doubt can dislodge.