I thought I heard, recently, that there was going to be a new national tour of this classic old 70s musical –perhaps I dreamt it, or if I did hear it, I might have now missed it –still, just the rumour got me a bit excited! Though of course, nothing can possibly match the first time…
And the first time I saw ‘Godspell’ (a Tuesday night in the New Theatre, Cardiff –I’m guessing 1976) I was so blown away by it that I went back nearly every other night that same week, (I even sneaked in during the interval in the Saturday matinee where my wife to be – who coulda thunk back then – was watching it with her one-day-to-be-bridesmaid), to see it again and again. Mr Obsessive, even then. Even today, i’m not exactly sure what Stephen Schwarz had intended as the effect of his musical (apart from money in the bank, obviously), but the impact upon me was pretty momentous –despite what it might be easy to see as crass, irreverent, flippant, gimmicky-hippie interpretations of gospel narrative, ironically I found that, with searing freshness it brought to life not only the narratives and teachings of Matthew’s gospel, but even, in some weird way, the person of Christ himself. I can remember writing a (very bad, cringingly prosaic) poem about this, called ‘The Man’, the idea being that the musical had somehow helped to flesh out his reality for me in a new and unexpected way.
The other impacting effect of the musical is akin to hearing gospel narrative all in one sitting –as I experienced most powerfully in one Edinburgh festival seeing Alec McCowan performing/reciting ‘The Gospel According To Saint Mark’ –it’s the shock, the unusual experience of seeing the arc of Jesus’ ministry from its beginning, the calling of the disciples, through to the end – betrayal, crucifixion (and of course, mysteriously, gloriously, what follows!)
These two songs are kind of book ends in that respect. ‘All Good Gifts’ is sung, initially, by one of the disciples in the excitement of the early days of following the master, and intersects passages from the sermon on the mount. It is, of course, that old chestnut of favourite harvest hymns, ‘We Plough The Fields And Scatter…’ – originally 18th century German, and translated into English in the 19th century (and mercifully cut down from its original 17 verses) –and given here a great new stirring melody. As soon as I could, I taught it to our congregation for our own harvest celebrations! In the context of the musical, the disciples are still bubbly, anticipatory and confident. In the third verse they join in glorious harmony while the soloist improvises soulful responses of gratitude –“I really wanna thank you Lord…” etc.
Within an hour or so of dramatic action, and in theatrical terms in the second half of the production, the mood has slipped to a more realistic awareness of conflict, threat, impending suffering. ‘On the Willows’ seems a strange insertion –an old testament psalm of exile in a minor key, sung ‘out of action’ by (at least every time that I have seen it) the musicians themselves rather than the actors, while on stage, there is a stylised re-enactment of the Last Supper with, most affectingly, Jesus embracing each disciple with some unique gesture reminiscent of their own story or actions from earlier in the narrative.
The mournful psalm captures just the right tone for the occasion –‘but how can we sing/Sing the Lord’s song/In a foreign land?…’ It’s Psalm 137,isn’t it, and it’s inspired lots of interpretations and versions -there’s the ’round’ that Don Maclean used to do; there’s a Leonard Cohen song based on it; my old house-mate Tim wrote a great song based on it, I think. (yes, Tim?) And..should we mention Boney M? But this version is lovely – all acousticky like an early Paul Simon song, all minor chords and sweet sad harmonies.The song symbolises the end of more naive idealistic rejoicings; or at least it signals significant grief-times, sobering times when those kind of songs must give way to more plaintive dirges. Perhaps a repetitious cycle of experience most communities of believers must necessarily encounter, if they are also to know ‘reviving’ experiences and rediscoveries of resurrection joy and hope.
The movie version was…worth avoiding, but theatrical performances of it still give me a buzz, and yes I still find the music , admittedly ‘of its time’ but despite that, compelling- for me, these two songs especially; I am glad to have become acquainted with it. It’s now – for good or bad – a part of my internal musical fabric. [smiley face signifying acknowledgement of pretentious phrase]