With little fanfare but a lot of heart, 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 gearing up to make its big commercial move.
Said director Richard 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."
"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."
Director Haase blasts the NY media, however, for its inattention to his show. "We've gotten a lot of features but they won't send the critics. I think we are the only 400-seat, open run show in history NOT to be reviewed by the major papers. 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. And you know what? I have no problem approaching the militant elements of the black community, including the black Muslims, to bring about boycott of these institutions. 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." 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."
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 -- 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 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 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. 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. Certainly, 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 Victoria Theatre, leaving no damage. For tickets and information on Godspell at the 350-seat Victoria Theatre (right next to the Apollo), call (212) 769-8183.