What helped create a climate conducive for religion to come out of the musical theater closet was the convergence in the 1960s of two cultural trends: the liberalizing spirit within Christendom in the wake of Vatican II, and the anti-Establishment fervor of the youth counterculture in the U.S. Some of the “under-30 generation” at the time turned to sex, drugs, and social activism as outlets for their disaffection. Others of a more spiritual bent turned from the institutions of mainstream Christianity to simpler, more open, even popular forms of worship. Catholics celebrated folk masses. Evangelical Protestants joined the “Jesus movement.”
And a theater student with leanings toward the Episcopal ministry, John-Michael Tebelak, reacted to a joyless Easter Vigil service he attended in 1970 and created a purposefully joyful show, he said, “to weave God’s spell over the audience.” His “Godspell” recast Christ as a hippie clown and eventually the show found its way to Broadway. “Superstar” made Christ accessible in its own right by making him, as the show put it, “cool.” They were symptoms of the age.
Can any musical created in response to such a time still speak to us today when what was once so fresh, indeed subversive, has become the very thing it sought to subvert? (“Godspell’s” songs are sung today in church; “Superstar” has become the prototype for a slew of quasi-religious epigones, “Les Miserables” not least among them.)
There’s much riding on the faith that both these musicals can. But that faith doesn’t seem to extend to their religious origins. “I can’t think of a better time in history when this country and its ‘parties’ could use a little reminder,” says Ken Davenport, producer of the current “Godspell” revival. It is Washington’s political gridlock, what he calls the “increasingly shrill and unyielding partisanship,” that he has in mind.