The war of words continues for Godspell, the long-running Off Broadway revival of Stephen Schwartz's biblical pop musical. Its co producer, director and publicist, Richard Haase, is up-in-arms over two issues: the New York media's scant coverage of the show, which has already racked up a six-month run yet has not been reviewed by the major dailies; and reports that a second, updated version of Godspell, based on similar ideas, is being readied for a commercial tour.
Written in 1971, Godspell took its cue from the Gospel according to St. Matthew, recasting the parables in Hair inspired, pop music form. Since it's now 25 years after the show's premiere, Schwartz and director Haase have "rethought and rearranged" 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? -- and inspires all of the participants to strive to "see Thee more clearly, follow Thee more nearly, love Thee more dearly ."
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, is Adrienne Unae.
Said Haase (July 7), "We are the only open-ended run, 400 seat show not reviewed in NYC history. We have yet to be reviewed by a major paper. We've been in constant touch with the major publications, yet with the exception of the NY Post's Chip Deffaa, they still haven't sent people. The papers owe the people a public explanation of this exclusionary treatment." Things apparently haven't changed since early June, when Haase told Playbill On-Line, "We've gotten a lot of features but they won't send the critics. It's economic racism; there's no legal separation between parts of New York above and below 100th St. It is my subjective belief, and the belief of my partners, that there are forces in society that do not want an economic competitor on 125th St. We have NAACP backing us on this with a letter writing campaign. So finally we have the NY Post coming down. Peter Marks, the Times critic saw it back in February, but the review never ran. He talked to my partner, Ron Brown, and Peter's comments were extremely positive, albeit with certain reservations. He thought the adaptation was a wonderful idea, and he applauded our bringing theatre to Harlem. If he'd said that in print, instead of just to us, we'd have had the impetus to move a lot quicker. Anyway, he promised to come back and re-review it. I never heard back from him.
"The point is, you cannot have exclusionary tactics. And I'm going to fight that every legal way possible. This is racism. I am a committed civil rights leftist, and we'll take it to the limit. We're not hoping it comes to this, you understand; we just want the situation rectified."
For his part, critic Marks told Playbill On-Line (July 9), "I don't want to get into a public thing with Haase. I would love to go back up and see [Godspell] again and will try to. I did see the show, but we don't review everything we see. There's really less here than meets the eye."
Asked why he hasn't been back to the show in the months since its opening, Marks said, "Well the season was very busy, and I've been very busy even after things died down." Asked if Haase has been in contact with him, Marks said, "[Haase] called me a couple of months ago, in May, I think. But that's all. I don't know if my editor has been receiving material from him."
Howard Kissel, chief critic of the NY Daily News, told Playbill On-Line (July 9) that he hadn't seen Godspell, but the paper did do a large feature on it. "Not everything needs to be reviewed," said Kissel, "and the paper is doing fewer and fewer reviews. Still, we did not ignore it."
Concurrent with this controversy, Haase is also livid at the growing rumor that Stone/Nederlander is developing its own "black Godspell," which would incorporate staging elements and ideas from the version at the New Victoria. "We have grave concerns," said Haase, "about plagiarism and the stealing of SSDC property. This is a unique production. Not only the blackness but the rap, the hip-hop, and setting it the end of this century instead of the 1970s. Of course, I don't own the rights to Godspell, but I own my version of the property as director. Stephen's agent, Shirley Bernstein, alerted me to what's going on, and she says they're going to make a monetary offer for the rights, but no one makes an offer on what I own already. I don't have to barter. I've heard Ms. Nederlander is going ahead after having seen our Godspell; we can only expect the worst. We've been in touch with the black Muslims, the NAACP, the SSDC will back our rights to the hilt. If our suspicions prove to be true, their production is due for 98-99. And if they think they'll rip us off, they'll have a holy war on their hands."
In response, Amy Nederlander told Playbill On-Line (July 9), "Yes, we are exploring doing an R&B adaptation of Godspell. Nothing is concrete yet; no producion dates. I did see [Haase'] version, but I have no interest in being at odds with this man. I wish him the best. There have been black adaptations of The Wiz, Hello, Dolly! and others. Haase' may have got there first, but I'm not using his music. There are many different alternatives out there. I am not gonna steal any of his ideas. No one's stealing anything, they would be two completely different productions. And I am working very closely with Stephen Schwartz."
Schwartz told Playbill On-Line (July 28), "I've been in the process of talking to the producers about taking a tour out. They don't have the rights yet, so it may be premature to talk about, but I expect that to happen. I see no reason why that shouldn't occur, I assume next season. It may be updated, but there certainly won't be new songs."
Schwartz's agent, Shirley Bernstein, told Playbill On-Line (July 9), "We gave Mr. Haase the rights for a Harlem production. What they have is a very firm contract -- and very limited. Limited to Harlem. They can move from one church to another if they wish. He can go to a bigger place -- in Harlem."
"I went to see the show, so did Amy, separately," continued Bernstein, "and we came out thinking there was an idea there. But Godspell has been done in different ways all over the world. It broke the color bar in South Africa more than ten years ago. A few years ago there were no mixed audiences, let alone mixed casts, and they were willing to break the bar. Meanwhile the show is done all over Europe -- everywhere. If you could copyright each of those director's works, you'd be in some mess. On top of that, any ideas Amy and her partner want to use from the Harlem production, they are quite ready to compensate for. The Harlem producers will get a royalty, and credit, and maybe even a little piece of the net. If our show succeeds, we'll all do well. We'd certainly compensate them. Amy is a very morally straight girl, she would never dream of doing anything without proper compensation."
In response, Haase told Playbill On-Line, "The contract is for Harlem, and anything else is, of course, pending Stephen's approval. But I know that our production has the genuine spark, the genuine Christian sentiment of the black community. The production is dark, and I'm afraid the other one will start to sugar-coat the story just like other failed Godspells tried to do over the years."
Godspell has been running Off Broadway since Nov. 22. This first all-black professional production of the Stephen Schwartz Biblical pop musical officially opened Feb. 6 and is still trying to make its big commercial move.
Said director Haase (May 29), "We have three options now with the show, and they all involve Ben Vereen, Jermaine Jackson and Ruth Brown. Jackson and Brown are, schedules permitting, committed to the show. We're in talks with Ben Vereen, who was interested ten seconds after we told him about it, but it's still a question of finding an agreeable price. It would be tremendous to have him, since he played Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar."
July 7, Haase said the Vereen talks were still on, and that Linda Hopkins was also interested in the project. "Jermaine Jackson is ready to go, as is Ruth Brown. We're trying to move ASAP and are still taking inquiries from interested investors. In four-to-six weeks we're optimistic about funding.
Haase, again from late May: "Sometime between Sept. 1997 and March 1998 we want to move the show commercially," said Haase. "We can do a $2.3 million production with one star [Jackson or Vereen] or a $3.2 million mounting with two stars, in a Harlem Theatre. The other option is a $4.4 million production on Broadway. Now there are beautiful theatres up in Harlem being restored, with 2,500-3,000 seats, and our audiences have been running 50 percent white, 50 percent black, so it's doable as a crossover show. Stephen wants to keep it up in Harlem, especially because he feels trepidatious about doing Broadway again. He's a brilliant composer, legendary, but the critics have sometimes excoriated him. And this production has passion and drama, but it isn't perfect. We have imperfect notes, rough moments, the choreography ain't perfect, my blocking's a little primitive -- we don't have that acrylic slickness and polish. There's a rawness you'll find the way you might find in certain points of Rent. Hey, we're currently working on $70,000 and chutzpah. But there's nothing money won't cure, and downtown theatregoers who don't have $75 a ticket can pay our prices."
Then again, even though it may cost more money, a Broadway move may be easier to finance. "It's Broadway, and investors who'd be skittish about putting money into a show in Harlem would certainly be more comfortable."
Producers Brown, Haase and Jimmy Glover are also considering plans for a Los Angeles mounting at a theatre owned by Marla "The Jeffersons" Gibbs, who, 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."
Added Haase said, "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 orchestration utilizes two keyboards, a bass, a twelve string guitar configuration and drums.
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.
For tickets and information on Godspell at the 350-seat Victoria Theatre (right next to the Apollo), call (212) 769-8183.