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Godspell is a musical rendition of the Christian Gospel — primarily the book of Matthew but also some selections from Luke and one from John — with a contemporary soundtrack and aesthetic. It was created by John-Michael Tebelak, who wrote it as his master's thesis at Carnegie Mellon University, but after its (successful) debut, its producers hired an up-and-coming composer named Stephen Schwartz to rework the music. It was Schwartz' second break-out success (after Pippin, which he worked on alongside Bob Fosse), winning him two Grammys and paving the way for further successes, such as some of the DreamWorks cartoons, the movie Enchanted, and the musical Wicked.

The musical mostly uses lyrics from pre-existing Episcopal hymns, but with completely new melodies composed by Schwartz (plus one song from a fellow student of Tebelak and member of the original cast); it also showcases many of the more famous parables from the Gospels. The story is told in a light-hearted, almost vaudevillean style; indeed, in the original stage production and The Movie version, the characters dressed up as clowns, symbolizing their conversion. From a production standpoint, it can be run with a very small cast (four or five musicians and ten actors), and the stage direction are quite vague: each production is advised to come up with their own settings, costumes and contexts for the show, and ad libbing and audience participation is encouraged. Long story short: this is an easy production for theatres of any size, quality and shape to take and make their own (which is part of why it's been financially successful). Finally, it isn't particularly preachy, which helps keep it accessible to all audiences.

It was released the year after the other 70's-rock-musical-about-Jesus Jesus Christ Superstar, and definitely benefited from the resultant hype; furthermore, it lacked the Darker and Edgier quality that put a lot of Christians off the Lloyd Webber offering. (If anything, Godspell is Lighter and Softer than the way the Bible is preached in many churches!) One of its songs, "Day By Day", was released as a single and achieved some success that way; it's toured about a gazillion times; there are a number of cast recordings out; and there was a movie version in 1973.

The most recent Broadway revival ran from October 13, 2011, to June 24, 2012, and starred Hunter Parrish, Lindsay Mendez, Uzo Aduba, Anna Maria Perez de Taglé, and more.

Godspell provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Adaptation Distillation: In the film version, Learn Your Lessons Well and We Beseech Thee are cut as numbers, but remain in some form. The first song appears as a skiff act (with the cast yelling "Amen" after its done), while the latter is featured briefly as a piano instrumental.
  • Big Applesauce: The movie version is set there.
  • Bishonen: In the film, Jesus and Jeffrey both qualify. The latter even has his own fansite.
  • Book Ends: The face painting and face paint removal.
  • Breaking the Fourth Wall: The song Light of the World at the end of Act I could be interpreted as an example of this.
  • BSOD Song: "Alas for You". Jesus is not a happy camper.
  • Call to Adventure: In the film, John's horn and Prepare Ye drag the cast from their mundane lives to become Disciples.
  • Creator Cameo: Stephen Schwartz (who wrote the score), is the man drinking coffee in the diner at the beginning of the movie.
  • Dark Reprise: "All for the Best"
  • Filk: Inverted. Most filk songs set new lyrics to someone else's melody; Schwartz took lyrics from a hymnal and wrote new music.
  • Gospel Revival Number: A lot. "Day By Day", "Bless the Lord", "Light of the World", "Beautiful City", and "We Beseech Thee" all go gospel.
  • Hippie Jesus: Godspell is practically defined by having Jesus and his followers in hippie-ish/clownish clothing.
  • Irrelevant Act Opener:
    • The Act 1 opener, "Tower of Babble", is The Cast Showoff by contrasting the beliefs of various theologians, only to cut through the chaos with the introduction of Jesus. While it's a decent intro, a lot of productions get along fine without it.
      • "Tower of Babble" isn't an Irrelevant Act Opener, it's meant to show what the community is like before Jesus. People don't always understand its importance because it wasn't in the movie or on the original cast recording because they were trying to give it some pop potential. It's a shame so many people cut it.
    • Depending on the production, the reprise of "Learn Your Lessons Well" can also be this — if you don't have the rights to "Beautiful City" and you need another solo for one of your cast members.
  • The Lancer: Judas. Sometimes his actor also gets the John The Baptist bits to increase his screen time.
    • He's supposed to be a composite of the two, it's written in the script that they are meant to be the same character. It's what makes the betrayal so powerful; that it's carried out by Jesus's right hand man. It's not just extra screen time, it's an integral part of the character.
  • Lyrical Dissonance: An arguably intentional example; the lyrics to the song 'Turn Back, O Man' are about how people ought to turn back on their sins ("forswear thy foolish ways") and open their way towards God[1]. However, the actual music makes it sounds like a sexy seduction song, and often the one singing it will go into the audience and sweet-talk its audience members — in fact, the actress who performed the number in both the original stage production and the film deliberately modeled her performance on Mae West.
  • Massive Multiplayer Ensemble Number: You need at least eight voice parts/people to do "Tower of Babble", and they're all singing at once.
    • The finale of "Long Live God/Prepare Ye/Day by Day".
  • Motor Mouth: Thomas Aquinas in the "Prologue/Tower of Babble" and both John/Judas and Jesus in "All for the Best".
  • Mr. Fanservice: John/Judas in the film, and how.
  • Mushroom Samba: The movie has some aspects of this (as one would expect from anything created during the 70s).
  • New Age Retro Hippies: Some productions, and you can bet they're proud of it! (Not quite as retro at the time, but...)
  • Original Cast Precedent: A lot of productions follow certain guidelines: the cast is made of five women, three men, a Judas and a Jesus; Jesus wears a Superman t-shirt; whoever sings "Turn Back, O Man" wears red; and Judas has kind of a ringmaster look.
    • The disciples didn't have names in the original stage play, so the actors went by their own names. As a result, the names of the first cast became the characters' official names in the play. For those curious: Sonia ("Turn Back, O Man"), Peggy ("By My Side"), Robin ("Day by Day"), Joanne ("Bless The Lord"), Jeffrey ("We Beseech Thee"), Gilmer ("Learn Your Lessons Well"), Herb ("Light of the World"), Lamar ("All Good Gifts").
      • Often, the actors playing these parts won't go by these names, but by their own names in a continuation of the tradition (with lines altered accordingly).
  • Passion Play
  • Patter Song: "Tower of Babble" and "All for the Best".
  • The Reason You Suck Song: "Alas For You".
  • Scooby-Dooby Doors: In the movie (and obviously could be done on stage too).
  • Shown Their Work: Jesus speaks the Passover Seder prayer in Hebrew. Most Christians forget that Jesus was a rabbi and The Last Supper was a Passover Seder.
  • Sketch Comedy: The bulk of the show, apart from the musical numbers.
  • Slapstick Knows No Gender: The slapstick fight.
  • The Song Before the Storm: Subverted with "On the Willows". Light and sweet, before the heartbreak of the crucifixion.
    • The music, at least. The lyrics are from Psalm 137, about the Babylonian captivity of the Jews.
    • The production after All for the Best becomes increasingly more serious. Alas for You marks the end of all buffoonery in the production, and takes a markedly darker tone.
  • Triumphant Reprise: "Prepare Ye/Day by Day".
  • Unexplained Accent: Many, many, many. Perhaps the most offbeat is that Abraham speaks with a heavy Brooklyn accent — and it's written into the script.
  • Wham! Line: "Then the man they called Judas Iscariot went to the chief priests, and said "What will you give me to betray Him to you?" They paid him thirty pieces of silver — and from that moment, he began to look out for an opportunity to betray Him." (Matthew 26:14-16, KJV) The line signifies the transition from John to Judas in the musical.
    • In the film, the final line of the speech is accented with a percussive sound not unlike Dramatic Thunder.
  • Who Names Their Kid "Dude"?: Gilmer. In the film, she's the auburn-haired girl with the tiger puppet (and the actress who originated the role on stage).
  • Writing Around Trademarks: In the film, Jesus can't wear a Superman insignia, so instead he wears a shirt with a stylized "S" that suggests it instead.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: All the songs, and maybe the entire play.
  • You Have Got to Be Kidding Me!: Uttered by the Pharisee (played by Robin) when the tax collector is preferred by God.
  1. though, of course, it is actually sung to Jesus