“Godspell” was on TV the other night, so I recorded it and watched it for the first time. It is interesting to compare it with “Jesus Christ Superstar”, which came out around the same time, in the early 1970s.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” is essentially a musical passion narrative. It is looking at the end of the gospel narrative. Most of the gospels are structured as a tale of two halves: the teaching period in Galilee, which is very episodic (1), and the story of Jesus coming to Jerusalem, which is a much more tightly connected narrative.
This can be seen, of course, in the way in which the gospel writers move the episodic elements around. Luke, for instance, clearly groups some narratives and sayings material together under what we would call umbrella themes. Matthew puts most of the teaching material into one almost continuous block: the Sermon on the Mount (2). Mark connects the different episodes with linking tropes, such as “immediately, he went…”. The Pharisees are also the main protagonists.
But the passion narrative, the story of Jesus last days coming to Jerusalem, is much more tightly structured. Only the Gospel of John is out on a limb, moving the incident at the temple, where the moneylenders’ tables are overturned, to the start of the gospel, but it is also very different in structure. And now it is the Sadducees, the Temple priests, who are the protagonists, and the Pharisees vanish from the narrative.
Most dramatic renderings have to decide how to place elements in the stories, and general the three synoptic gospels are the structure followed, although where the raising of Lazarus story comes in – it only appears in John – it is usually added just before the entry to Jerusalem, as it is in John. But on the whole, the passion narrative is bereft of miracles, either healings or nature miracles, and while there is enacted teaching – the last supper in the Synoptics, the foot washing in John – there are no parables or sayings material.
Jesus Christ Superstar follows the passion narrative, or at any rate, a kind of harmonised version of it. And it is a very traditionally told tale. Mary Magdalene is the repentant prostitute – which in fact was a Western fiction, largely created by one Pope – it is not there in the texts. Jesus is white, with long straight hair and a beard. The disciples are all men. And the story ends with the crucifixion.
Many of the songs, and the depiction of the protagonists are either traditional, or seventies style fashion – Herod is wearing a Demis Roussos style caftan. It is a story with songs, with clever lyrics, and again following traditional but modern renderings, Mary Magdalene, is young, beautiful, and in love with Jesus – the song here is “I don’t know how to love him”.
“Godspell” is a very different production. It is largely centred on the teaching material – sayings and parables – and while it states these are in Matthew’s Gospel, actually three are from Luke’s Gospel. Jesus is a hippy-like clown character with frizzy hair, and no beard, although the clown makeup works effectively as he draws it on his followers faces, marking them out as different. It is set in contemporary New York, where the disciples are drawn from (a crowded street), although apart from the start and end, Jesus and his disciples are the only ones visible.
Confusingly in a way, the character of John the Baptist and Judas are both played by the same actor – he is the one who has a more traditional look of long hair and beard. The division of the 12 apostles is about fifty-fifty between men and women, and they have their own names, apart from Jesus and John / Judas. There is no real equivalent of Mary Magdalene. They are also from different ethnic backgrounds.
As they move around locations in New York – and one looking on the world has an extra modern resonance, being the roof of one of the Twin Towers – they sing and also enact in a variety of ways, the sayings material and parables. Much of this is like mime with added narration, and there is a lot of humour in the visual enactments.
The final act, the move towards the end, has a Last Supper scene, and Judas leaves to bring the authorities, in this case represented by flashing lights of police cars that are themselves just shadowy outlines in the dark. Jesus is tied to a wire fence, and this is the crucifixion scene, after which the disciples raise and carry his body away.
In comparison, Jesus Christ Superstar has the strength of telling a well known story, with all the clichés that we have come to expect. The character of Mary Magdalene is as much a fiction constructed from a number of different stories, not all involving a Mary, just as the Christmas stories have three wise men, shepherds, angels. Like a nativity story, it has a similar resonance, and a variety of songs in styles from rock to ballad. We know where the story is going, and the enjoyment is seeing how it is going there and enjoying the songs, and the rather large Dickensian style caricatures of Pilot, Herod, and Caiaphas etc.
Its weakness is that it comes into the story half way through. The teaching materials, the healings, the wonder working preacher is not present. We have to take it on trust that Jesus is a charismatic figure, and of course he is portrayed in a traditional manner. It ends with the crucifixion, and that is the end of its story.
Godspell concentrated largely on the sayings and parables, and again leaves out healings. We can understand that the much more legendary nature miracles are always going to be a problem. But it portrays the parables inventively, with a lot of humour (some of which has almost certainly been lost in translation and the way they are rendered) and also gets over effectively and emotively a surprising amount of sayings from Matthew’s gospel. Although the central theme is the building of a community of followers, it does tend to have a more episodic feel to it as a result. On the other hand, Jesus as a charismatic teacher is something that does come over well
The passion narrative is a very bare bones affair, with almost everything of note –Pilate, Caiaphas, Herod – cut out from the story, but it is still quite effective. The ending is apparently supposed to depict that the disciples continue having been bound together by Jesus after his death; there is a final scene in which in less hippy outfits, they return to the normal crowded, bustling world of traffic and people.
Both are products of their time, and have a lot of late 1960s motifs. Rather like Dennis Potter’s “Son of Man” (3), Superstar follows the more structured passion narrative while at the same time pointing more than Potter actually did that Jesus is just a man – Potter kept an element of agnostic ambiguity. Godspell has Jesus, after his baptism in a fountain, suddenly wearing dungarees with a Superman symbol over the chest, and doesn’t apart from that symbolism, every pose the question who Jesus is.
Superstar is better on Judas motivation. Judas is always a problem because the gospel narratives provide so little to flesh out the motivation for his betrayal. John’s gospel suggested he was in charge of the money bag, and helped himself to some, but while that implies he was dishonest, it still doesn’t really supply motive.
In Superstar, Judas is actually Jesus right hand man as it begins, but is full of doubts about the way the message is being portrayed, thinking that the Romans might misinterpret and clamp down on Jesus and all his followers as a threat. It’s an interesting contrast: Judas is often seen as a Zealot who wanted confrontation: here it is the converse. Judas also sees himself as usurped by Mary, and this also accounts for his motivation in wishing to teach Jesus a lesson. In Godspell, Judas is increasingly sounding the wrong note against the teachings, almost taking the role of a Pharisee, and his motivation remains largely a mystery.
Superstar has the high priest concerned about a Roman clampdown, Pilate concerned about threats to Rome and the Jewish mob, and so follows standard motivations. Godspell has no real reason given: the authorities – depicted in background flashing lights and a siren – just appear, and no people come to take those roles. It is much more minimalist, more like a Picasso painting with strange sharp lines and faces barely recognisable than the more realistic style of Superstar. It assumes you know the story, and the bare lines are all that is needed.
Superstar is more traditional, but Godspell does provide a fresh way of approaching the parables, and a different way of seeing the whole story in perhaps a way in which the traditional set dressings are not as important as the material. The mirror it holds up is early the 1970s, the backwash of 1960s culture and optimism.
It is difficult to know which one I would prefer, as both have strengths and weaknesses. On the whole, I think I prefer the approach of Godspell because while it is less structured, it does illustrate what liberties can be taken with the material, and how it can be transformed and fresh. Superstar doesn’t really show us anything new, and while a few of the songs are memorable, they are not as strong in their own right in the same way as, for example, most of the songs in Les Miserable are (4).
The disadvantage is that Godspell does look very much a product of the late 1960s because of the fashions and style, and it would be interesting to see if something similar could be done with our own more sombre culture, and the more fearful, darker and less optimistic times we live it.
(1) I am drawing largely on Ed Sanders "Historical Figure of Jesus" for the understanding of the different pericopes as episodic.
(2) The Diatesseron, an early harmony of the gospels, goes one better than Matthew, and adds Lucan sayings to the Sermon on the Mount.
(3) Potter has a much more nuanced and ambiguous Jesus, without any rather obvious "just a man" message which does rather bludgeon the viewer of Superstar.
(4) An exception is the ballad like "I don't know how to love him".