Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the Off-Broadway premiere of Stephen Schwartz’s ever-popular Christian musical, Godspell. But, with the world gripped in a global pandemic, Manchester’s Hope Mill Theatre felt there was no time to wait to revive this feelgood show with its uplifting melodies and messages of hope. (There was an early pre-Schwartz version staged in 1970 so the concept is arguably 50 years old this year.) Under director Michael Strassen, some of the biggest names in musical theatre have come together with musicians and up-and-coming talent, virtually, for an online concert, recorded in their own homes. It is also raising money for charities National Aids Trust and Acting For Others as well as the shuttered Hope Mill Theatre itself.
As Schwartz himself says in a new introduction filmed at his piano, Godspell was a product of the “social strife, polarisation and uncertainty” of the late 1960s and, now as then, we all can come together in a time of crisis to build a “beautiful city”. Using a mix of folk, rock, pop, gospel and even vaudeville, it tells the timeless story of Jesus, including several of his parables, drawing liberally on hymn lyrics and quotes from the Bible. Revivals have often introduced more contemporary references – the 2011 Broadway production added allusions to mobile phones, iPads, Lindsay Lohan and even Donald Trump. For the 2020 online concert, the show has been stripped back to its songs, edited together with stunning graphics under creative editor John Walsh Brannoch. Along with still images from this year’s pandemic, as well as the 1918 Spanish Flu, it frames its biggest hit, “Day by Day”, as isolated individuals singing together through video calls on their phones. Later, the isolated singing heads link together in a prismatic lattice that sweeps across the screen like an exuberant Zoom conference call.
Some performances have a lovely simplicity, where performers are filmed singing straight to microphone, while others are more like pop videos. Highlights include a heartbreakingly beautiful solo of “All Good Gifts” by Dear Evan Hansen’s Sam Tutty, stood alone in a corner of his home, while Jenna Russell, John Barr and Sally Ann Triplett – separate but together – movingly perform “On the Willows” about loss and isolation. Alison Jiear pulls out all the stops for her lip-synced video, taking “Bless the Lord” into an actual church where, on the audience’s behalf, she is literally dancing in the aisle. For “Light of the World” and “We Beseech Thee”, Danyl Johnson and Jerome Bell respectively have found spectacular landscapes as backdrops to their videos, putting the spotlight on the glory of creation. More playfully, Ruthie Henshall saucily sings “Turn Back O Man” barely immersed in a bubble bath. As with previous productions, her performance is an amusing contrast to the song’s message telling us to give up our foolish temporal ways and turn to God.
The online concert is a string of incredible performances, including Darren Day reprising the role of Jesus from the 1993 UK studio recording along with Henshall. Other enjoyable sequences include Natalie Green and Ronald Brian’s “Day by Day”, Ria Jones’s “Learn Your Lessons Well”, Lucy Williamson and Shekinah McFarlane’s “By My Side”, and the superb “Beautiful City” sung by Jodie Steele to end the concert. However, there is a sadness to seeing a show about community, normally performed by an ensemble together on stage, forced to sing in isolation, linked only by technology, recorded rather than live. Instead of interacting with the audience, Ruthie Henshall interacts only with her rubber duck, the only person dancing in the aisles is Alison Jiear, and while I’m no great fan of audiences clapping along to songs, I missed it in “Day by Day”. But, as theatre seeks its own resurrection, for now, this is an alternative way for us to be lifted up by upbeat songs and stellar performances by emerging and established talent.