There’s a long, motley history of portraying Jesus on the stage and screen. The obvious first place to start is The Passion’s now-iconic portrayal courtesy of Jim Caviezal – a film we’ve definitely mentioned once or twice here already on Deep Down Things. Other notables include Willem Dafoe’s tortured, human Jesus from The Last Temptation of Christ,* the Quebecois revisionist-metaphor from Jesus of Montreal, the bizarrely-moving (and unibrowed) Italian masterpiece Il Vangelo secondo Matteo, the guy** from the almost-as-long-as-every-Lord-of-the-Rings-movie-combined Jesus of Nazareth, and a relatively shorter flick starring an actor from one incarnation of Law & Order or other.
Oh, and that other one:
When speaking of the stage most people immediately think of Jesus Christ Superstar, but there was another Broadway-grade classic released that year that’s put more butts into the seats of amateur and high-school auditoriums than the Phantom, Elphaba or ABBA combined. Rather than the meticulously-crafted and staged productions of George Bernard Shaw or Andrew Lloyd Webber, two productions of this play are rarely ever the same. Its scenes (and, at times, songs) are shuffled, re-imagined, tinkered with, omitted, repeated, re-done as vaudeville, puppet-show, extraterrestrial extravaganza, after-school special, postmodern mime-dance, inner-city drama or flower-power parade. The beginning,*** however, is usually the same: the audience settles into its seats and waits for the lights to dim, but they don’t. A shofar (traditional Jewish horn) starts to bark but then subsides into a long, drawn-out moan – but the sound doesn’t come from the stage.
From somewhere unexpected (often the audience entrance) marches a prophet in bright, clashing colours and circus-leader regalia. He blows the shofar again before taking another step or two towards the front, crying “PREPARE YE THE WAY OF THE LORD!” This very quickly becomes the chorus of the first number and, from all points of the room (maybe from the stage, back doors or the audience itself) a group of eight other cast members emerge – they find bright, colourful rags and accessories either on the floor or from the prophet’s magic box-cart and soon form a set of scraggy figures with a closer resemblance to hippies than regular churchgoers. Some throw away their ties, hats or designer shoes. One or two start jumping like they’ve only just discovered their legs. Each, in turn, has a unique mark painted on their faces by the prophet – within the surrounding, neon-shaded chaos, the tenderness as he holds each face for the brush is heart-stopping. But this isn’t Jesus: it’s John (the Baptist). Jesus infiltrates the group quietly, from the wings, and but soon dances with as much abandon as the others. When the eight to-be disciples vanish in as many directions as they came, the audience may be a tad shocked to find Jesus wearing nothing but gaudy face-paint (a heart, in the middle of his forehead), a giant ‘fro and a loose pair of plain, yellow boxer shorts – these are soon to be replaced, in the next number, by striped pants, suspenders and a Superman t-shirt.
Cue the front row of earnest, respectable matriarchs (waiting in all likelihood for another glimpse of a treasured grandkid) jointly putting down their disposable cameras, pulling sidelong glances at each other and mouthing a unified What. The. Crap.
Welcome to Godspell.
After the initial shock dies down, a kind of structure emerges. Generally, Jesus takes the role of ringleader (with the assistance of the oft-epaulleted John) to His rag-tag collective of naïve flower children. The stage is either stark (just a table and one or two benches) or positively spilling with gaudy tie-dye. The colours are calibrated somewhere between aggravating neon and “oh-sweet-Kansas-my-retinas-are-scalding.” A series of sketches proceed elaborating familiar parables, lessons and stories – all eventually cumulating in a crucifixion of sorts, often on a chain-link, mysteriously electrified fence.
I would argue not. Follow me here.
The obvious place to start is that clown getup, which is Public Enemy No. 1 when it comes to critics of the musical. The creators of the play have stressed again and again that Jesus isn’t portrayed as a clown in order to mock anyone, but as an expression of Harvard theologian Harvey Cox’s ideas published in The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy. While it’s ridiculously hard to get hold of the essay in print form, the general impression I get is that there’s a link drawn from the old (culturally) Catholic practice of the feast of fools, where there’d be a festival in which social roles were inverted to give dynamic meaning to that whole “first will be last” sentiment. From what I hear, eventual excesses during the annual carnival led to its ultimately being abandoned. There’s also the stated link between the whole “foolishness of God is greater than the wisdom of men” train of thought, which contrasts the colourful, delicate world that this Jesus occupies with His disciples with the self-serious rat-race of commercial gain. There’s also an appeal (expanded on below) to the link between seriousness and silliness which, to the writers, has a sniff of the divine.
While all this is cool (and an incredibly fertile field for reflection), I have another reason for being won over by Godspell‘s apparent naïveté: I think it’s the best portrayal of Christ humanity’s ever come up with.
The traditional go-to performances (Caviezal, Powell) focus on bringing a level of compassion, humanity, sympathy and majesty into the physical person of Christ, lending an air of awe and inspiration to the proceedings. You know exactly who Jesus is and who He isn’t – which adds up to a comforting, if predictable, expression of the God-man. But this is no tame lion here – and Godspell‘s Jesus, when done right,**** makes a gloriously flawed, ambitious attempt to embrace the largeness of God, particularly in respect to His relationship with humanity.
But let’s go back to the structure a little bit.
I lied a bit earlier – not every production starts with John’s clarion call: there’s an introduction (oft jettisoned) where the cast members playing the eight disciples double up on roles as various philosophers and religious leaders. There’s a nice cross-section of history here: Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, Leonardo da Vinci, Edward Gibbon, Friedrich Nietzsche, Jean-Paul Sartre and Buckminster Fuller are represented – all have a solo, singing their vision of humanity’s place in the world before vying all together for attention in the “Tower of Babble” sequence (lyrics here). The horn puts a stop to everything – they take off their overcoats, robes, monocles and gloves, letting their faces be painted by the approaching messenger of grace. In some productions the song is omitted and everyone is instead dressed as representatives of various social strata.
Once everyone’s collected and baptized, the fun starts. And it’s a lot of fun. Plot is secondary – Godspell isn’t here to re-tell the story of Christ (that’s Superstar’s angle), but instead to focus on the transmitting of wisdom from Jesus to His followers. Each scene is a little vignette where Jesus is trying to teach the group about the Kingdom of God, usually in the form of a parable, game, puppet show, dance or whatever He can use to reach His simple, often forgetful disciples. No Jesus has ever been as patient or as gentle as in Godspell, where He’s constantly correcting, cajoling and joking his way into the hearts of His friends.
So much depends on the director here, because each scene can be played either as a tender attempt of a God desperately trying to communicate with creation or as an episode of “hey, isn’t tie-dye Jesus simply hilarious today?” Everything veers so very close to farce. Which brings us back to the ‘scandal of the clown’ – isn’t it demeaning for Jesus, the Alpha and Omega, to be portrayed as such? To answer a question with another question: is it demeaning to think that Jesus, the purported Beginning and End of all things, would take the form of a human?
Here we come to the crux of it: people are offended by Jesus-as-clown precisely because it’s seen as taking a swipe at the dignity of God. They see the traditional, Powell-Caviezel portrayal of Jesus as better able to convey the status, wisdom and gravity of the Word Made Flesh – but, really, what’s the difference between rabbi and clown when compared to the difference between God and human? We seem to think that people, when dressed in flowing robes and garbed with a decent-sized beard (or, I dunno, some really long wig), somehow smack of dignity.
News flash: if doctrines like the Trinity are true, then in comparison we are nothing. Nothing. To even imagine that God taking the form of a human be anything in the ballpark of dignified is ridiculous beyond belief. They say that the Logos was emptied in order to be incarnated, stripped of who knows how many handy divine faculties. Imagine being asked to get rid of all five senses, your capacity for abstract thought as well as most of your body mass in order to save the souls of wayward, ungrateful amoeba. Now we’re getting closer (ish) to seeing how we compare with a supreme being. Yeah, it’s shocking – and we’ve forgotten the shock.***** Seeing God as a clown scandalizes the average Christian because s/he feels His dignity’s at stake, forgetting the fact that Jesus’ very incarnation was already an atomic-grade scandal suffered willingly just to give us a chance to get back with the program.
Or maybe seeing clown-Jesus having to explain things again and again to his flower-power followers is hard to watch because it’s our story. Take a look at the bespectacled, ridiculous, flaky collective on stage – they barely know how to tie their own shoes. They speak without thinking, commit without knowing the cost. They can’t tell the difference between a Wonderbra and an interesting hat. They are us.
No other portrayal of Christ comes closer to embodying the reality of who we are as people, because every respectable Jesus flick forgets that we’re pretty damn far from being respectable creatures. Anyone with a healthy sense of concupiscence and capacity for emotional honesty can tell you that – but our society’s cogs are oiled with the assumption that we are indeed respectable, dignified, important people. Too important, even, to watch the antics of the clown-God fiercely trying to open the Kingdom of Heaven to a cabal of dropouts.
And what dropouts they are.
For example, after the opening few parables, Robin******* is the first of the disciples to really get what He’s going for here. Her response, the surprisingly popular Billboard hit “Day by Day,” can be played as sincere or utterly, catastrophically lame. The cheesy lyrics, the outdated tune – these are all she’s got to declare her loyalty to Jesus. And the Logos accepts it without looking back.
Over the course of the first act, most of the disciples have their own solo where they, sometimes quite intimately, try to express to Jesus just what exactly they’re feeling and the degree to which they’re on board with His whole mission thing. Each song takes on the form of a different genre and style from Broadway’s (and popular music, generally) extended run – and when you have a Broadway play, the stage represents the universe and Broadway history is the history of the world. Everything is being drawn in, baptized and brought into contact with I Am.
But the even among the flower-children there is confusion. When presented with a difficult piece of dogma (how to rejoice in suffering, for example) Jesus realizes that there’s stuff that just goes way over our heads sometimes, and so tries to console with a tap-dance number (“All For the Best”) that, silly as it is, is an attempt to bring peace to these people in a language that they themselves understand. They’re not as apt to contemplate mystery and paradox, but they know how to dance – and just as God came to the Jews as a Jew, here God speaks to hippies through a musical number. And they get it, in the limited way they’re able – which obviously is far from being complete, but who among us can process the infinite? The number is also notable for being the moment where “John” begins shifting into “Judas,” who (though Jesus’ biggest supporter and wingman from the start) gets disillusioned and impatient with both Christ and His followers. Judas has no time for dancing or paradox – he wants a revolution and he wants it now. Or something like that. To be honest, I don’t even know what he wants but that’s okay – the important thing is that Judas is the only one who says to himself “wow, this is lame – I am way better than all of this.” And that is his downfall.
The musical continues through lighter songs like the dopey Lamar’s “All Good Gifts” and Joanne’s Motown rendition of “Bless the Lord,” but this problematic, melancholic strain pops up from time to time – like in the campy Sonya’s slinky number “Turn Back, Oh Man.” Actually, this one can easily be seen as a little microcosm of the musical as a whole:
Wow. Okay, yeah, so on the surface it’s pretty ridiculous: you’ve got a silly, would-be disciple playing the sexed-up lounge singer and dragging Jesus along for the ride. But its redemptive qualities (and that of Godspell) are out in spades – and, as always, it’s all shrouded in paradox.
The first thing that smacks you in the face is the contrast between the lyrics and what’s happening on the screen – the song is basically a call to repentance, but here’s Sonya shimmying around an aging mansion, purring the lines as she’s opening the curtains and whipping the covers off some antiquated furniture sets. An average person from the 70’s would be forgiven for thinking these two sentiments are opposites: isn’t ‘throwing back the blinds’ a symbol of opening yourself to radically new experiences, ones that fly in the face of repentance? And then through the whole scene, Sonya and the rest of the cast are traipsing like can-can dancers after a rather strong batch of fruity cocktails.
But paying attention to the lyrics helps us realize what’s really going on here: “Earth might be fair / And all men glad and wise / Age after age their tragic empires rise / Built while they dream / And in that dreaming weep / Would man but wake / from out his haunted sleep.” It’s a critique of the things that humanity builds for itself without God, no matter whether they’re empires, skyscrapers, sexual conquests or megacities. Which might then lead the audience to think that Sonya’s dance is all just one prank, an ironic sendup of loungey sexiness and commercial accomplishment – basically an example of the clowns facing the serious, business world and treating it all as if it were the big joke, one that only the holy fools are in on. Their jesting, in this case, is a way of deflating the hot-air balloon of modern self-seriousness: a joyous humility cracking the edges of a stoic pride.
Though it’s still even bigger than that, because there’s no sense of us-vs-them in the piece (or in the musical in general) – there’s no case of ironic superiority, no feeling of one-upmanship that all too often comes with intelligent satire. These guys are literally just fooling around – they’re not trying to accomplish anything except trying to make Jesus laugh, to thank Him for everything He’s teaching them. They don’t know how to play except in the ways the world’s taught them, and Sonya (through whatever past experience she has) can only honour her Saviour through faux-sexy shimmying. She’s not trying to be anything except herself, and she doesn’t take what she’s doing seriously – they all know it’s a joke, a kind of offering acceptable to a Jesus who sees through the world’s facade of “respectability” and comes to them in a form they’re able to understand. And come to love.
But halfway through the number, an awareness of the mission shines through. Jesus, taking a break from the subversive merriment, goes over to the window and sings half to himself, drawing a little heart in the condensation: “Earth shall be fair / And all her people one / Nor till that hour shall / God’s whole will be done / Now, even now / Once more from Earth to Sky / Peals forth in joy / Man’s old, undaunted cry / Earth shall be fair / And all her people one.” Jesus engages fully in what it means to be human among humans but never abandons His goals – this is a God who keeps silliness and seriousness in each hand, who knows that joy and determination are not opposites but two sides of the same coin. This God is large – He contains multitudes.
“C’mere Jesus, I got somthin’ to show ya!” Sonya calls a moment later, pulling them all into a grand cake-walk through the mansion that celebrates joy, humility, the call to some kind of salvation and a devotion to mission – in one small scene, the musical blows up a number of our misconceptions of what it means to be a Christian and broadens our sense of God’s willingness to come down, get His hands dirty and meet us on our level.
And this sense of double-ness, the presence of joy and heaviness together, continues through most of the second act. On a social level things are also changing, because the honeymoon period is wearing off and the clan starts breaking down. In one of the film version’s fantastic innovations, there is a robo-pharasee that pops up to challenge this upstart rabbi and His teachings – but when all the components are pulled apart, it’s revealed that the robot’s operators were his close friends the entire time. Ouch.
He goes off by Himself to recoup after the exhausting encounter, because through it all even Jesus’ patience is tried. Here He is, God, walking as a clown among clowns in order to help them come to know the Creator of all things and as soon as He turns His back they all start pulling their crap again (sound familiar?). But how they react to Jesus anger and exhaustion leads to the film version’s******** most moving moment: a song that shows the cast’s repentance AND the final straw of Judas, who decides to betray Him. Everything is working double-time, and each new joy comes with a small ache:
From there it just gets heavier – there’s just one more jolly number before we’re into the passion narrative. The musical combines the temptations in the desert with Gethsemane, with the rest of the cast forming the collective, malicious, semi-dancing Tempter. When, once the temptations are over, the cast returns to being sleepy disciples, there’s a delicious piece of ambiguity: was that just a piece of stage-magic or were the disciples aware of what they were doing the whole time? The capacity of each cast member for wide-eyed naïveté and sinister plotting is an apt and disturbing metaphor for all Christians everywhere. And the nature of the play allows each directer to choose what aspect to emphasize.
In the end, after another moving song, Jesus is dragged by Judas to the chain-link fence (ominously present through the whole play) where He and (depending on the production) the rest of the cast are electrified during the final number. Jesus, though, is the only one who dies and is taken down some time later by the meek cast, touching him as if unsure they’re even allowed anymore. They carry Him in their arms through the audience to one of the doors, singing a slow “Long Live God” before melding into a mournful “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” (now ironic for obvious reasons).
But after Jesus is slipped around a corner, the “Prepare Ye the Way’s” start gathering in volume and energy until everyone is running back to the stage, grabbing each other, grabbing anything for support, grabbing John/Judas’s old pack of stage makeup and darting out to decorate the faces of willing audience members. They’ve come through the passion and out the other side, finally ready to begin the imperfect process of sharing what the God-man shared with them. Even though the focus is now clearly on what the disciples are doing after His death, in some productions even Jesus Himself returns for the proceedings – His ‘fro and makeup: bouncy and ridiculous as ever. Through the confusion, games, mysteries, dances, death and resurrection He irrevocably remains a clown, just as Jesus irrevocably remains human.
For the metaphor to work the way it should, we have to do a couple of things. Obviously we have to be open to radically different artistic expressions of Christ, but we’ve also gotta be ready to eat a heavy-duty slice of apple pie – because embracing Jesus the clown means embracing the fact that His slow, clumsy disciples are none other than you and I. The musical invites us to come to the grips with the fact that, really, all we’ve ever had to give was two measly pennies. And we give them with the face of a child taking him/herself way too seriously – which can only ever provoke laughter in the child’s parents. And we don’t like being laughed at – we are, after all, respectable, important people with important things to do. We don’t always have the time to learn, to laugh, to make mistakes, to be loved as we are.
The implications of Godspell, when taken on its own terms, are ridiculous and powerful – as are the implications of the gospel. At the opening and close of the show they sing “prepare ye the way” and Christ comes, determined, unstoppable, his ‘fro swaying, his mascaraed eyes laughing, forgiving, ready to save the clowns we haven’t realized we’ve become. This is humbling stuff, and we will generally go to great lengths to avoid being humbled. Actually, we’ll go to great lengths to avoid thinking about all sorts of things. But as Oscar Wilde put it (like a boss): “if you must tell people the truth, make them laugh. Otherwise they’ll kill you.”
*Spoiler: said last temptation was the devil offering to let Him off of the cross, after which the film proceeds to show an alternative history in which Jesus gets down, finds some land, marries one of the non-virginal Marys and decides to work towards something resembling personal, human happiness. The film ends with the revelation that this is actually just a fantasy of Our Lord on the cross who, fully knowing the opportunity for human fulfilment, decides to reject it anyways and die. A whole other article could be devoted not just to this kind of artistic exploration of Christ, but to the near-violent proportions of the backlash coming from specific representatives of the American church.
**Robert Powell provides the lead, whose face now has the honour of being slapped across cheap devotional souvenirs the world over.
***Though not always the end.
****The key factor here.
******Though He is indeed homeboy and buddy, among other, rather intenser things.
*******All the character’s names (except Jesus and John/Judas) are the same as the actor playing them – a moving detail.
********The stage version has “By My Side” sung by the woman caught in adultery, which certainly adds a tenderness not present in the film. All the same, though, I’m still partial to the film’s take on it.
Josh Nadeau lives in Russia and, when not teaching or writing, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.