Posted April 6, 2011 by Phil Hall in Retro Cinema

Retro Cinema – Godspell


The movie camera lens is, perhaps, the cruelest magnifying glass on the planet. Not only does it call attention to deficiencies in a performance and appearance, but it also calls harsh attention to inherent weakness in source material.

This was the case in David Greene’s 1973 film adaptation of the Stephen Schwartz/John-Michael Tebelak musical Godspell In its original Off-Broadway production, the show’s twee qualities a frenetic reinterpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel in a hippie-dippie vaudeville format were overlooked thanks to the intimacy of the performance space and the rapport developed between the enthusiastic cast and the audience.

It is a shame that Godspell was not adapted as a made-for-television filmed play, which could have captured the positive aspects of its theatrical roots. Instead, it was unwisely transferred into a wider setting where its fragile personality could barely survive. Greene used shot the film on locations around New York City, with the cast singing and clowning their reinterpretations of the Biblical passages in a contemporary setting. But it was a disastrous concept: the city’s oversized structures and venues constantly dwarfed the performers while creating distractions that called attention away from their material. This was particularly enhanced by keeping the city’s streets and parks clear of all people except the cast the result, oddly, looked like a Christian musical version of “The World, the Flesh and the Devil”.

Or, at least, it looked like a Christian musical from four decades ago – it is hard to imagine 2011 audiences paying to see an interpretation of Jesus as a bushy-haired man wearing clown make-up and a shirt with a Superman logo on its chest. Godspell has the double misfortune of dating very quickly even when it opened in March 1973, film critics pointed out that its flower child-style fashions and sensibilities were becoming long-in-the-tooth. Even its hit tune, “Day by Day”, feels like a relic from a distant era rather than a timeless classic.

Mercifully, the film version did not damage the reputation of the original show. Godspell has long been a favorite of regional and community theaters, and it continues to find audiences (even with a so-called “Godspell Jr.” version for student theater groups). Hopefully, those who are unfamiliar with the work will be able to experience it first in a stage production, where the spirit of a live theatrical production helps carry the work further than it might otherwise be able to travel.

Phil Hall

Phil has written about cinema for the New York Times, New York Daily News, Hartford Courant, Wired Magazine, American Movie Classics Magazine, Tower Records Pulse! Magazine and the Organica Quarterly. He is the author of several books, including “Independent Film Distribution” and “The History of Independent Cinema.” Beyond film journalism, he is a former United Nations correspondent for Fairchild Broadcast News and a writer and editor for technology and financial publications.