nytheatre.com review by David Fuller
November 10, 2011
“We can build a Beautiful City, yes we can, yes we can…”
So go the lyrics of the aptly named song “Beautiful City,” which Stephen Schwartz wrote for the movie and which is a welcome addition to the recent incarnation on stage of Schwartz’s renowned musical Godspell, now being energetically performed on Broadway in a youthful production at Circle in the Square Theater. This exuberant, athletic interpretation is well worth seeing, especially for the glorious music and lyrics which the then youthful Schwartz fashioned four decades ago. The book still comes across as preachy, even with new interpolated contemporary idioms, but the message sounds a rock beat clarion call that we all could stand to hear now and again.
Thankfully, this is a non-clown production: the kids-in-clown-makeup concept of the original back in the early '70s is gone. Also gone are the then topical 1970s references of the original book by Jon-Michael Tebelak that pervaded his adaptation of the source material, the New Testament Gospel According to Matthew. Up until the present day, that script with the hackneyed, groovy parables was the one that was sent by the publisher to whoever ventured to mount the play. This I know, because I directed and co-produced a production in the late '90s. I remember the cast and I spent much of our rehearsal spinning the parables into vernacular that was current for the ‘90s. It was the only way to make it work and I might add it worked well for us. Similarly, changing it all to 21st century 2011 lingo works well in the current production. Director Daniel Goldstein and his talented cast have crafted a milieu that speaks to today’s audience, especially to today's youth, who were in abundance at the performance I attended and who unanimously roared their approvals at the curtain call. No one is given credit for the book updates, though one assumes it was the cast and director (just as when I directed it) who devised the new stuff through improvisations in rehearsal. Regardless, the updates are welcome.
Schwartz probably gets credit for the interpolation of “Beautiful City” into the new production (Tebelak died an untimely death in 1985 at age 35). And he gets kudos for it, because the overarching theme has thus become deeper and more meaningful. In that '70s show version, the main ideas we came away with were the fundamentally Christian ethos (though plenty of other religions have their similar tenets): love your neighbor as yourself, turn the other check, etc., etc., tempered with the really Christian “Long Live God”—“Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” which ended the show in a contrapuntal proclamation of Hope. Now, the message is made more universal and somewhat mollified from Christian singularity with a secular vision. First, “Beautiful City” holds a standout spot in the show, sung as a solo by Jesus, just before the events of the Last Supper and the inexorable climax on the cross. As such, it becomes a paean to hope for a better world through action, a world where folks can work together for the betterment of all: something akin to what a lot of those folks occupying various cities worldwide are hoping to bring about. What is more, in the new Godspell, the finale brings back this message post-crucifixion as part of an active beginning to something better. Now the cast sings “Long Live God” joined with “Prepare Ye” and then “Beautiful City” in a musical concatenation that breeds Hope and Action. It is a message not just of the passive watching of the eternal endurance of God, but that of energizing yourself to do something: “…brick by brick, heart by heart, now maybe now we start learning how we can build a Beautiful City…not a city of Angels but we can build a city of Man.”