Hundreds, if not thousands, of paper notes cover a stage backdrop and a theater walkway in Baylor University’s Mabee Theatre, where Baylor Theatre’s production of “Godspell” opens on Wednesday.
Individually, the notes carry names, short messages and prayer requests, but it’s their collective impact that carries a theme of the Baylor production: a visual representation of community that suggests what happens to the “Godspell” cast in the course of the musical.
“Godspell,” the 1971 Stephen Schwartz musical, puts a contemporary spin on the story of Jesus, casting him as a parable-telling teacher leading a group of free-spirited followers, set to a pop-rock soundtrack.
The popular musical, regularly performed at community theaters and churches alike, has drawn some evangelical criticism over the years for its peripheral treatment of the resurrection, but Baylor director Stan Denman says the theatrical piece, drawn largely from material in the Gospel of Matthew, wasn’t meant to be a literal, realistic representation. “It’s a poetic, dramatic interpretation of the followers of Jesus,” he said.
Denman admits he was a latecomer to the musical: Unimpressed by Schwartz’s songs and recordings by the original cast, he never saw a production. The 2011 Broadway revival, which updated the music, script and orchestrations, caught his ear, however, and a crop of vocally talented Baylor theater students persuaded him the raw material was there for a Baylor production.
What the director found when engaging with “Godspell’s” story was a picture of the community that coalesced around Jesus’ teaching and ministry. That made it particularly relevant for a time of social fragmentation and division, he said.
“ ‘Godspell’ has a message of community that we need to hear today,” he said. “It’s lasted this long because the source material is so powerful.”
The original cast of 10 has been expanded to 17 and actors were matched to characters whose onstage personalities mirrored or suggested their own. Outside of Jesus, played by Brody Volpe, Baylor actors use their own first names in the production, a suggestion of how Jesus’ followers might have changed in the process of following him. “They meet Jesus and they become better versions of who they are,” the director said.
Some of the contemporary jokes and references embedded in earlier productions have been updated and localized. The Donald Trump reference in the parable of the rich man in the 2011 revival was changed — two years of national politics have changed that context, Denman said — and brought closer to home.
The production doesn’t shy from the provocative, however. Jesus’ uncompromising teaching on brotherhood and forgiveness is set in the context of today’s bitter partisanship, for example, and the story of the woman taken in adultery has a different significance in a #MeToo time, Denman said.
An ensemble of two keyboards, three guitars, bass and drums supports the vocal numbers and the updated orchestrations expand the musical’s pop-rock tone with flavors of rhythm-and-blues and hip-hop.
The Baylor production, held in the smaller, more intimate Mabee Theatre, intentionally involves the audience in sing-alongs and personal participation, an extension of the musical’s message of community.
“That’s what ‘Godspell’ does. It reaches past pretense and gets at the heart of what the church and theater do. We commune. We become one,” he said. “People come to see ‘Godspell’ and they will leave being a part of ‘Godspell.’ ”
“Godspell” will have a longer run than usual, due to the smaller Mabee Theatre and community interest; two performances sold out within the first 48 hours that tickets were available. The theater’s discount for educational groups will be expanded to church and youth groups and there’s also an application guide, created for various age levels, available for church youth groups.