News Column

Godspell revival

October 10, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 10--No matter how many times you go to "Godspell," you'll never see the same production twice.

"The script they give us is a raw framework," said Sarah Sendlbeck, who is directing the musical at Marblehead Little Theatre. "The cast inserts impersonations and characters."

The story for the musical comes mostly from the Gospel According to St. Matthew, and the music and lyrics were written by Stephen Schwartz, who revised an original work by John-Michael Tebelak.

But as they enact the parables Jesus is telling -- the stories that illustrate his message -- actors are encouraged to use personal responses.

"What I told my cast was, he's telling you a story, and the way to tell that story is to relate it to something you're already familiar with," Sendlbeck said.

When Jesus shares a parable about a judge, for instance, an actor may impersonate television's Judge Judy as a way to bring that figure to life.

This freedom ensures that the play, which originally appeared off Broadway in 1971, is always open to contemporary influences and fresh interpretations.

Schwartz enhanced those elements when he revised his score for a revival of "Godspell" that appeared on Broadway in 2012.

This is the version which Marblehead Little Theatre board members Jim Ernst and Bobby Kerrigan are producing in Marblehead.

"It's all the same songs, but they've updated it completely," Ernst said. "The revised version brings it up to a more Broadway quality. The whole structure of 'Godspell' is still there, but it brings a large-show quality to the whole production."

Sendlbeck, who is married to Ernst and has appeared in "Godspell" four times, said the new version has jazzier harmonies and "a rock edge to it."

"It's very similar to the 1970s version but has got a fuller score with more harmonic parts for singers," she said.

There is one scene, however, where the music has been pared back.

"The biggest difference is the prologue -- now it's a cappella," Sendlbeck said. "That's been one of the most challenging pieces of the work."

The prologue introduces the people who will become Jesus' disciples, when they are first inspired by his example and acknowledge each other as members of a group.

"It starts off as people in the world who aren't able to communicate with each other, who aren't able to deal with the world," Sendlbeck said. "They're able to find a community among themselves and understanding for one another."

Singing a cappella, with no support from musical instruments, is a fitting expression of that group dynamic, Sendlbeck said.

"It represents how music really unifies us," she said. "Having no (accompanying) music is significant. There's no connection between these people when they form a group and make music together. They each sing a solo in the prologue and also have to be background music. They have to do that eight times. You have to listen to each other."

Sendlbeck's choreography also addresses the group's developing sense of community -- and initial lack of the same.

"The most popular number is 'Day by Day,' the very first song," she said. "What I did with that, where the cast is dancing together -- since they just came together, why would they do the same thing? So, I took the 'Macarena' and the 'Electric Slide,' and pieced it together."

While Schwartz's revisions have given the play some polish, it started out as a drama school project, and Sendlbeck's choreography honors that original spirit.

"It's not '42nd Street' with big numbers," she said. "It's organic and raw and comes from the cast in the moment. I want it to look polished and clean but also make it look like it comes from them."

And while the musical is clearly based on the New Testament, it can be fully appreciated by nonbelievers.

"All the parables are from the Bible, but they have a double meaning for anyone's life," Sendlbeck said. "Whether you're a religious person or not, man or woman, gay or straight, everyone can take a message from the gospel."

Ernst said their production is as much about the sense of community the disciples develop as it is about the faith they share.

"Instead of focusing on that religious aspect, it's more about bringing the community together," he said.

That's true of the play but also of the cast that is performing.

"The great thing about 'Godspell' is, in addition to being a show, the cast and production team form a tight community," he said. "We're incorporating that community aspect into more than the production. Me, the director and three cast members went over to Lifebridge to cook dinner."

They also held a fundraiser for Lifebridge and, more recently, a can drive, Sendlbeck said.

"We're preaching all this things in this production," she said. "Why don't we practice what we preach?"

If you go What: "Godspell: The 2012 Revival" When: Oct. 11 to 27, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m. "Godspell Cast of 2030," featuring performers 8 to 14, before shows on second and third Fridays Where: Marblehead Little Theatre, 12 School St., Marblehead Information: Tickets $23 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, $15 for students on Sundays. Available at the door or www.mltlive.com. For information call 781-631-9697.

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(c)2013 The Salem News (Beverly, Mass.)

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