Alas for you

And the hippies did cavort and frolic upon the climax of 'Day by Day'
When I was in high school, the rival school from across town put on a production of Godspell that rocked my world. I loved the music, I loved the concept behind the show, I bought the soundtrack and memorized it. When I went to college in New York, I spent my dining hall money to see the off-Broadway revival of it at least three times. I loved — and still do — how the show could be so unabashedly corny and goofy and still manage to be profound in its simplicity.

But that was a long time ago, and by the time it was actually practical to see the movie version (they didn’t have them new-fangled DVDs when I went to high school), I’d already lost interest. I finally watched the movie today, and I’m actually glad I waited for it.

To give a little perspective: the play originally premiered the month before I was born, and the movie came out when I was two years old. So by the time I saw it in high school, it was already on the south side of “quaint.” Jesus as a clown, the apostles as face-painted hippies, and the crucifixion taking place on an electric fence to show how it’s all “urban” — that must’ve seemed so daring fifteen years ago!

Now, fifteen years after that, the movie somehow manages to feel even older than a retelling actually set in Judea would seem. The cast all look like the random people from the Summer of Love footage you see in ads for Best of the 60s compilation albums. And it’s all filmed in the Sesame Street school of cinematography. At times you feel like you’re watching the Gospel of Saint Matthew as Performed by The Bloodhound Gang from “3-2-1 Contact”, with familiar faces bouncing up and jarring you out of your sense of proper time and place — Jesus is Sydney Bristow’s dad, and there’s the Chief from “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego!”

'All for the Best' from the top of the World Trade Center

But ultimately, what dates the movie isn’t its music, or the fact that so many of the cast have now passed away, or even its visuals, but its very existence. It’s not just the case that this movie wasn’t made within the past 10 years; I’d say that this movie couldn’t have been made within the past 10 years.

Obviously, there’s all the skipping and dancing and rainbows and face paint, the hippie beards and white-guy afros, and the mugging the camera and lots of “funny” voices. But what most jarringly knocks the audience back into the present is when the cast performs the vaudevillian song “All for the Best” and delivers the climax with a wacky song-and-dance number at the top of the World Trade Center, still under construction.

There’s not a lot that can knock the wind out of a revival more effectively than that. A song about the promise of greater rewards in heaven, delivered from the top of a destroyed building by a cast of people almost half of whom are now dead.

Watching the rest of the movie in that frame of mind gives it more weight than any production of the play I’d ever seen. Although I love the play, I’ve never actually been moved by it — I’ve always seen it as a celebration of the gospels, not a passion play. It’s the musical theater version of The Living Bible: a simple, effective reiteration of Christ’s teachings, presented in an entertaining and contemporary (or at least more contemporary) format.

You watch it to get happy. To be reassured that somebody 2000 years ago really did have it all figured out, and it all really is as simple as He says: Love God with all your heart and soul, and love thy neighbor as thyself. Everything else is based on that.

The crucifixion scene during the finale has traditionally been the point in the show where I start looking at my watch. Yeah, yeah, it’s all very sad, but we all know there’s a happy ending — He comes back! Speed it up and sing “Day by Day” again. But now, for the first time, I finally get what that scene is supposed to make you feel: a profound sense of loss.

And loss on several levels. The most obvious and direct one, the loss of that connection to God or a more general loss of faith. I’ve frequently heard people describe religion (or at least the Judeo-Christian side of things) in terms of “abandonment”; there’s the line in the song “Get Together” that says, “When the one who left us here returns for us at last.” It’s always just seemed like a clever turn of phrase until now, when you look around and have to wonder, does anybody really get it anymore?

When we’re in the middle of a war where both sides are claiming to be fighting in God’s name, but the side that I’m helping to pay for is supposedly the God who made pretty clear His views on killing, loving your enemy, and turning the other cheek. And it’s gone on for so long, has been so perpetuated by fear and paranoia and a desperate desire for control, and is now so lacking in objective or purpose, that even if did at one point have some sliver of moral justification, that’s long gone.

And the world hasn’t stopped for it, there’s been no clear sign of a favorable outcome, no sense of “fighting the good fight.” Instead, the world has kept on cranking, adjusting itself back to the status quo. To the point that the phrase “I had to re-think a lot of things after 9/11” has become a cliche, saying nothing more than that the speaker is oblivious and hopelessly self-important.

I hate to sound even remotely like Pat Robertson, but I’ve got to ask: if we can fuck things up this badly and still just tool along and not be smited, is He even paying attention anymore? Is having to take my shoes off at the airport the only sign of divine retribution?

No, YOU'RE going to Hell. No, YOU are!

And then of course there’s the sorry state of religion in America. Where Christianity has been twisted and distorted to such a degree that something like Godspell, which should be like mainlining pure undiluted Christian concentrate, would be rejected as absurd or downright sinful. To start with, there’s all the rainbows and the skipping and prancing around Manhattan, plus it’s musical theater — you know what that means. All that talk about love is all well and good, as long as you’re loving the right people.

And it’s got to be said: the movie makes Jesus out to be kind of a pussy. Nowadays you’ve got to see Action Jesus, who gets nails graphically driven into his body and then says, “Is that all you got?” And dispense with those pansy-ass beatitudes; what we want to see is people getting their what for after the Rapture comes, when all the bad shit goes down. Godspell may have been acceptable in the 70s, but now in 2007 it’s got entirely too much hugging. Jesus weren’t no retard, and he weren’t no homo, and he sure as hell wasn’t some damn hippie.

Here’s an idea for a short film: start in the warehouse from the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. You hear a ringing sound from one of the crates. A workman enters from offscreen. He listens at each crate for several minutes before finally finding the right one. He blows a thick layer of dust off the top, then pulls out a crowbar and pries off the lid. Inside is the Ark of the Covenant. He lifts the lid of the Ark a little bit and the ringing stops. He listens for a moment, nods his head silently, then closes the Ark again. Once he has the crate lid back in place, he leaves the warehouse. He walks down the long corridor to his desk and picks up a phone. He dials a number, waits a moment, then says: “Jesus just called. He wants His religion back.”

And then the Lord did say, 'I'll be there for you, 'cause you're there for me too.'

As long as I’m pointing fingers, how about a little condemnation of the secular world? The real reason you’d never see a movie like Godspell today is because a bunch of hippies in rainbow-colored costumes skipping through Manhattan singing songs about Jesus is as much of an anathema to the secular crowd as it would be to self-described fundamentalist Christians. Probably even moreso: the fundamentalists would call it sacrilege to portray Jesus as a clown (even though come on: a heart and clown tears? That couldn’t be more obvious or appropriate); while everybody else would object to the concept of clowns in general. And both sides would object to a baptism scene that looks like the opening credits of “Friends.”

The movie commits the unforgiveable sin: it’s completely and unapologetically earnest. Jesus Christ Superstar has always been the more popular of the two “early 70s Jesus musicals,” and I’d bet a million bucks it’s because of the tone of that play. It’s more ironic. It makes plays at depth by putting the focus on Judas and by raising the question of whether Jesus was the Messiah or “just” a great teacher. It’s the hipster version of the Passion, that gets rock stars to play the leads, while Godspell is for the musical theater set.

We’re in an environment that’s so cynical and so polarized, that even the most simple and understated expressions of faith are grounds for dismissal. I’m guilty of it too. I’ve seen so many schmaltzy or oversimplified or dogmatic examples of glurge that I get antsy at even the first sign of a capitalized “He.” And I’ve been preached at by hypocrites and pedants so many times, that I immediately turn off when hearing anyone’s interpretation of religion that’s not my own. And it’s a shame, because when it’s expressed the right way, without judgement and spin, it’s amazingly reassuring. It’s supposed to be a message of inclusion, a reminder that all of us are just trying to figure out what the point of all this is, and this is what we’ve learned so far.

Sure, there’s a lot that’s painfully corny in Godspell. (And while I’m criticizing, I should mention that when watching it now, you quickly forget that Victor Garber was in Titanic and “Alias” and just concentrate on the fact that he’s overwhelmingly creepy in the movie). But it’s necessary to make the whole thing work. Without that sense of fearlessness, that sense that if we fail, we’re going to fail spectacularly, the movie would feel detached and hopelessly dated.

As it stands, the movie is hopefully dated. You’re never allowed to forget for a second that this is an artifact of the early 70s. But the message is so pure and unencumbered by irony and cynicism, that you start to ignore the aspects that are dated, and focus on all of the stuff that’s still relevant.

Now of course, cynicism isn’t a recent invention. Reading this curmudgeonly review of the movie from the time of its release actually made me feel a little bit better. Vincent Canby said he wasn’t buying the purported innocence and naivete of the movie for one second; it wasn’t about Jesus at all, but an ironic performance about show business itself. The playwright used the Gospel of St. Matthew simply because it was in the public domain and he could avoid copyright concerns.

Which, if nothing else, proves that people have always been able to miss the point and assume that everybody’s trying to pull one over on them. And if things aren’t getting better in that regard, then at least they’re not getting worse.

5 thoughts on “Alas for you”

  1. I think a lot of people who are pro this film and play assume that everyone who doesn’t like it is either arrogant or ignorant in one way or another, and while that may or may not be true to a degree, I couldn’t tell you, I’d say in my case I couldn’t stand the play ( I haven’t seen the film yet, I doubt I will ) for the simple reason that I couldn’t stand it.

    Leaving behind the fact that I’d like to shove anything with Christian themes off a cliff into molten lava, musicals in this vain just don’t do it for me. The play managed to annoy me to no end all three times I saw it, and it made me mentally curse my friends who talked me into watching the damn thing, lol.

    That being said, I do think that the play ( I can’t say about the film ) does a better job of teaching a concept of love and happiness than, maybe, any other play of it’s kind that I’ve ever seen, and for that reason alone it’s at least worth a watch before judgement.

    And now, onto the shallow, and real reason I’m commenting. I thought I was the only one who remembered “3-2-1 Contact”! I feel a little less crazy, now, thank you, lol.

  2. Great post, Chuck. I’ve been thinking about this show a lot over the last couple of weeks for some reason– I haven’t seen it on DVD, and I’m a little wary of that. It seems like so many shows which were created for the stage really struggle when they’re flattened out and put on film. It seems that it would be hard to replicate, in a meaningful way, the experience of “Prepare the Way” being sung by a character as he wades past you through the audience on his way to the stage. That’s just powerful, and that face to face, the energy of being in the room with the voices, is what makes those shows great, to me.

    I also have to say that I LOVE the end of the show– even as a cast member, I was really, really moved “On the Willows”– but do you remember my tendency to not get into character at all on stage? 🙂 By the way, I saw Mrs. Marshall today. Weird, huh?

  3. Well, the movie is as close to a direct interpretation of the play as you’re ever going to get. It’s by the same people, with many of the original cast from the first production of the show. This review by Roger Ebert sums it up pretty well.

    And if you see Mrs. Marshall again, tell her I said hello.

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