Godspell, the internationally-produced Stephen Schwartz biblical pop musical, is set to begin previews Nov. 22 at Harlem's Victoria Theatre -- marking the show's very first all-black production. Indeed, the powers above must be looking out for the show, since a fire Nov. 21 in a neighboring store stopped just a few feet from the door of the theatre. Aside from a faint smoke smell, there was no damage.
Assuming the production works as well as the NYC fire department, producers Ron Brown, Jimmy Glover and Richard Haase are hoping to set up touring companies of the show and eventually move it to a commercial Off-Broadway or even, perhaps, Broadway theatre.
Written in 1971, Godspell took its cue from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, recasting the parables in Hair-inspired, pop music form. (The irony is that a newly revised version of Hair will be opening in Connecticut around the very same time--See Playbill On-Line story.) Since it's now 25 years after the show's premiere, Stephen Schwartz and director Richard Haase are "rethinking and rearranging" the score. "Musical numbers...reflect not only the current wave of popular black music formats (hip-hop, rap, R&B) but the score's strong gospel influences." Schwartz has also incorporated his song, "Beautiful City," from the "Godspell" film, into the stage version.
As for the text -- which now takes place in 21st Century Harlem -- changes include opening the show in a church basement where parishioners rehearse for the annual community variety show. Soon a ragged homeless man wanders in -- guess who -- who inspires all of the participants to strive for "The Rapture Of Jesus Christ."
Michael Leonard James plays Jesus, Sarafina's N'Tombkhona (pronounced tom-kwoh'-nah) is Mary, Golden Glove boxing champion Ray Champion is Judas. Other cast members are Marla Neal, Natasha Yvette Williams, Randi Harmon, Warrick Harmon, Erik Dumesane, Bishop Willie Gholson, and Walter Coppage. Replacing LaVern Baker, who bowed out due to illness, will be Adrienne Unae. Director Richard Haase told Playbill On-Line, "We need the community to come out in force for the show; it's very grass-roots. The whole thing is budgeted at 25-35 thousand dollars, but it's an open-ended run, and with revival-mania sweeping the theatre today, we hope to have a lot of companies doing the show."
"Ive been singing these songs since I was a kid," Haase said. "And the script is virtually the same, maybe a little more linear. Hey, as a director, I started on classics like Ibsen, Strindberg, Genet.. This is easy!"
The show is still tinkering with its orchestration, which currently has two keyboards, a bass, and a twelve-string guitar configuration. "And we're auditioning drummers," said Haase.
Aside from the famous "Day By Day," noted Godspell tunes include "Prepare Ye," "Save The People" and "By My Side." Composer/lyricist Schwartz also wrote the shows Pippin, The Magic Show, and the lyrics for Rags. "Stephen has always wanted to see the show done this way," said production spokesperson Bruce Lynn. Schwartz, who, according to Lynn, is currently refusing to give interviews to print media, has given his blessing to the new staging and will attend the production Nov. 24. Currently working on several projects for Disney, Schwartz's latest musical, Snapshots, which incorporates old songs from many of his shows into a new story, has been making the regional rounds. For more information on that production, please see Playbill On-Line's story, Stephen Schwartz Develops Snapshots in VA.
Shows that have undergone revisions to incorporate an all-black cast include Broadway mountings of Hello, Dolly! and Guys And Dolls.
For tickets and information on Godspell at the 350-seat Victoria Theatre (right next to the Apollo), call (212) 769-8183.
-- By David Lefkowitz