I think it was the middle of Lent, as I was preparing for Holy Week, when Jill, a parish staff member, approached me.
“Ken! Holy Trinity School Drama Club is doing Godspell for their spring musical, and I had a brainstorm: Could YOU lead a band for the show?”
Godspell! I had not thought of that show for years. Godspell! Stephen Schwartz’s off-Broadway musical hit based on the Gospel of St. Matthew that was the perfect antidote to the mocking-yet-arresting Jesus Christ Superstar. Godspell! The early-1970s cultural touchstone that melded Jesus’ parables with the song-and-dance tradition of the Great White Way. Godspell! Where hippies met Jesus Freaks and inspired the catechetical trend known as Clown Ministry.
All these thoughts raced through my head as Jill inquired about my involvement. I asked her when the performances were scheduled. She said, “May 31 and June 1.” I checked my calendar and saw that I was leaving for Ghana, Africa* early on Sunday, June 2. Every sensible bone in my body was screaming: “SAY NO!”
But it was Godspell! “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” “God Save the People.” “All Good Gifts.” And the iconic “Day by Day.”
My response could only be a deep and resonating “YES!”
Please understand that I cut my musical teeth on Godspell. I was never involved in the production of the play, but my college did put on a performance of Schwartz’s other grand musical, Pippin. I was that show’s musical director, and with no songbook yet available, I figured out the arrangements simply by listening to the Broadway soundtrack record.
However, we did sing many of the songs from Godspell at Mass. “Prepare Ye” was a great Advent hymn. “All Good Gifts” was the perfect Offertory Hymn. “By My Side” and “On the Willows” were terrific for Lent. And, of course, “Day by Day” was our popular Sending Forth Song.
Liturgists today may scoff at the very idea of singing Broadway show tunes at Mass, but we have to consider the times. In the early 1970s, we were starving for new contemporary material to sing at liturgy. The upbeat Folk Mass songs of the 1960s were tired and worn. The St. Louis Jesuits had not yet been published. But when my generation turned on the radio in 1972, we heard Jesus music: “My Sweet Lord,” “Put Your Hand in the Hand,” and “Day by Day.” Godspell had over twelve rockin’ songs based on the gospels. How could we not sing them at liturgy during a time of thin repertory?
Flash forward to May 2013, when Godspell Jr rehearsals began at my parish. The 6th, 7th and 8th graders in the cast have absolutely no idea of the cultural context of this musical. They don’t know about Flower Power, or the Jesus Movement, or the Second Vatican Council. For these young people of today, Godspell is a creative way to present the parables of Jesus, with a fun script and endearing songs that still have the power to bore into one’s soul. These kids are having the time of their lives with Godspell!
I was unprepared for how emotional I became during these rehearsals. I struggle with catching myself from being overcome by tears as I play “Day by Day” and watch these young teens sing and dance so enthusiastically. Why this reaction?
I think part of the reaction is nostalgia. Hearing, watching, and playing this music is reawakening in me memories of friends and liturgies and good times that I have not thought about since my college days. I try not to live in the past but, as the song says, those were the days, my friend!
Secondly, these young people are experiencing Godspell from a fresh perspective, untouched by the cultural references of my generation. The preaching of Jesus on the Kingdom of God is coming alive to them in an exciting new way. And Schwartz’s catchy songs will now be burned into their collective subconscious for the rest of their lives.
Yes, it’s all for the best!
Holy Trinity Drama Club proudly presents:
Friday, May 31, 7:00 pm
Saturday, June 2, 7:00 pm
Holy Trinity Catholic Church
13715 SW Walker Road
Beaverton, OR 97005
More info about Godspell Jr from the Stephen Schwartz website.
*More about my upcoming trip to Ghana in the next blog!