New Godspell Updates Show to 21st Century Harlem

News   New Godspell Updates Show to 21st Century Harlem
 
Godspell, the internationally-produced Stephen Schwartz biblical pop musical, opened its latest New York revival Feb. 6. The show began previews Nov. 22 at Harlem's Victoria Theatre -- marking its very first all-black professional 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, leaving no damage.
Ray Champion as Judas.

Ray Champion as Judas.

Photo by Photo by Patti Ouderkirk.

Godspell, the internationally-produced Stephen Schwartz biblical pop musical, opened its latest New York revival Feb. 6. The show began previews Nov. 22 at Harlem's Victoria Theatre -- marking its very first all-black professional 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, leaving no damage.

Recently, composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz looked in on the show, reportedly liked what he saw, but recommended several changes. Co-producer/director Richard Haase was quoted as saying, "His suggestions were on the mark; we needed the extra time to rehearse and incorporate the revisions." That's why the show rescheduled its opening from early January to Feb. 6.

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. Plans are underway for a Los Angeles mounting at a theatre owned by Marla "The Jeffersons" Gibbs, says Godspell spokesperson Bruce Lynn, may act in the show. "Her theatre is in a rough, gang-infested neighborhood, so this would be a really nice show to bring bring in."

As for the New York production, "we're still plowing ahead," Lynn told Playbill On-Line the day after the opening. "The producers are in meetings with banks and a huge corporation, so hopefully, we'll have a new infusion of cash and even a TV commercial."

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."

"I've 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 spokesperson Lynn. 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.

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