The Magic of Godspell

Georgia Southern University’s Theatre and Performance program will perform Broadway musical “Godspell” at the Performing Arts Center (PAC) on the Statesboro campus from Feb. 27 to March 1.

Lisa L. Abbott, professor in theater at GS and the director of “Godspell,” said the original plan was to perform “Jesus Christ Superstar.” However, not enough people auditioned, so the department decided on “Godspell,” as it had similar themes and called for a smaller cast. In addition, Abbott and the music director already knew “Godspell.”

Abbott said she’s usually working on a show six months to a year in advance–so this was a much shorter time frame, as rehearsals started in October 2019 for the show to open in late February 2020. However, Abbott knew the musical well enough that she was able to play catch up.

In “Godspell,” Jesus Christ recruits followers and teaches them various lessons through musical parables from “The Gospel According to Matthew.” Toward the second act, Jesus is betrayed by Judas and eventually crucified. Read more about the story here.

The theatre department will be performing the 2011 revised version of the hit musical. Abbott said the music is actually far more complicated than the original in terms of harmonies.

Abbott said they are doing the musical fairly traditionally. The musical will be set in a vacant lot in the middle of a city.

Photos credit to Abbey Hokezema

The musical began as a project by drama students at Carnegie Mellon University before opening Off-Broadway in 1971 and becoming a long-running success in the theatre world. Stephen Schwartz, a Grammy-Award- and Tony-Award-winning composer, composed the music for “Godspell.” Schwartz also worked on “Pippin” and “Wicked” and multiple Disney classics including “Pocahontas” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

Abbott discussed what makes this musical special.

“I think one of the things about this musical is no matter what faith you come into it from, it creates a community for the cast because of the way they have to work together and a crew,” Abbott said. “A community for the audience that’s invited into that space with the cast.”

Abbott said that the play is not about the divinity of Christ but about his teachings.

“And all of the teachings center on love one another, respect one another and care for one another, be kind to one another,” Abbott said.

Abbott said that the cast and the company as a whole all come from very different faith paths–from very devout Christians to atheists to people who identify as Jewish.

“So it’s not about the message, the Christian message, of the show,” Abbott said. “It’s more about the overall message of love for each other. That’s what makes the show so powerful. And I think we live in a really divisive time right now. And having an opportunity to spend an evening being reminded that it’s important to be loving and accepting of other people is worth your time.”

Abbott said that “Godspell” was not chosen in response to last semester’s book burning event. But she also said that one of the things theatre is all about is what it means to be human, so theatre always is going to reflect back what’s happening in the society in which it’s performed. 

“It always seems like ‘Wow, so we’re doing this, and look at how that speaks to this thing that happened,’ ” said Abbott. “And sometimes it’s intentional, and sometimes, like this one, [it] just happened.”

Abbott said that, for the cast, it’s really bonding because they’re all on stage the whole time and giving each other focus back and forth–a kind of ensemble Abbott said is really wonderful to work in.

There are only two named characters–Jesus and John the Baptist/Judas. (John the Baptist and Judas indicate the same character in the musical’s story.) Everyone else goes by their own personal names. This means there is no one “star.”

Jacob Whitfield as Jesus with the company. Photos credit to Abbey Hokezema

“It’s really a pure ensemble work,” Abbott said. “Everybody gets a solo. Everybody’s telling the stories.”

Something else that makes this musical special is Abbott’s favorite part: the script is a rarity in that the playwrights have given those who produce the musical permission to adapt it to their environment. 

“So we have a lot of one-liners and ad libs that are specific to Georgia Southern,” Abbott said. “I have some cast members who–who’d have thunk it–but are just brilliant at improv and have thrown out some one-liners that just killed me every time. Even there’s a parable when a rich man goes to Hades, and they’re like, ‘what is this, Freedom’s Landing?’ “

Abbott said that there are a couple of songs that just slay her every time, including “All Good Gifts” and “By My Side.”

The dances are something that challenged the actors, Abbott said. This is because there are not many dancers in the cast.

Abbott said her choreographer is a woman named Mathyn Miller, who owns a dance studio here in town, and she is really good at working with non-dancers to dance. Miller previously choreographed “Chicago” for the department a few years ago with non-dancers as well.

There will be all sorts of dance styles going, said Abbott. This range will include hip hop, soft shoe and gospel.

“It’s a good, fun evening,” Abbott said.

Godspell will open Feb. 27th at 7:30 p.m. The Sunday performance will open at 2 p.m. Student ticket prices are $10.

There will also be a scholarship night performance on Saturday the 29th, which includes dinner and a show as a way to raise money for freshmen scholarships.