One of the more peculiar outgrowths of the flower-power movement was a string of movies and stage shows drawing parallels between hippie idealism and the teachings of Jesus Christ. Arguably the most culturally significant of these projects was the 1971 Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice musical Jesus Christ Superstar, which became a 1973 film. Yet Godspell, featuring music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, arrived almost simultaneously: The stage version debuted off-Broadway in 1971, and the film adaptation was released in 1973. Unlike Superstar, which is bold and nervy, Godspell is a gentle story about Christ preaching to his apostles. Adapted directly from the Gospel of Matthew (with a few snippets from Luke’s version of events), Godspell unspools like a piece of theological performance art.
The only actors appearing onscreen are those playing Christ and the apostles (except during a brief prologue and epilogue), so even though the cast dances and sings throughout modern-day New York City, the locations seen abandoned—Manhattan becomes an elaborate metaphorical backdrop instead of a real city. When the picture begins, John the Baptist (David Haskell) summons a group of energetic young people to Central Park, where he bathes them in water from a public fountain and transforms their everyday clothes into multicolored Woodstock Nation costumes. During this ritual, Christ (Victor Garber) appears. Soon, the Messiah leads the whole gang on a far-flung walking tour of New York City, delivering sermons that the apostles act out in comedy-musical sketches.
The movie works best when it’s in full-on musical mode, since many of Schwartz’s melodies are beautiful. In fact, the original off-Broadway cast’s recording of the main theme, “Day by Day,” became a pop hit. Along with writers David Greene (who also directed) and John-Michael Tebelak (who wrote the book for the stage show), Schwartz diligently dramatizes Christ’s greatest hits: stories about the Good Samaritan and Lazarus and the prodigal son and so forth. It’s peculiar, however, that the apostles regularly slip in and out of campy vocal inflections, speaking lines in the mode of Groucho Marx, Mae West and other iconic figures. Combined with the movie’s eye-popping color palette, frenetic choreography, and restless picture editing, the silly vocal flourishes help contribute to an overdose of good vibes.
This musical is passionate and sincere, but for viewers without any religious background (myself included), Godspell is an empty spectacle. For instance, setting scenes at astonishing locations like the roof of the World Trade Center (which was still under construction during filming) pointlessly distracts from the straightforward nature of the homilies being related. Still, the music is good and sometimes great, with talented performers like Garber, Robin Lamont, Jerry Sroka, and Lynn Thigpen blasting notes up to the rafters.