Encore Theatre casting its own 'Godspell'
Encore Theatre co-founder (and Broadway performer) Dan Cooney, who’s directing the company’s new production of “Godspell,” knew that the free-form musical would be a challenge, and the script did little to alleviate his fears.
“When you open the book, (composer) Stephen Schwartz says, ‘This is an extremely difficult play to direct, and this is why,’” said Cooney. “ So it’s humpty dumpty, here’s your 10 people, go. It’s not like (in ‘Oklahoma!’), Curly enters stage left, he sings to Aunt Eller, and we get Laurie off-stage. In essence, (with ‘Godspell) you’re directing 9 or 10 little plays within the play, and trying to tie them all together to make sense.”
“Godspell,” which premiered Off-Broadway in 1971, features a modern cast of characters, but draws its material from the ancient gospel of Matthew. Presented as a series of musical parables, “Godspell” depicts Jesus recruiting followers and teaching them lessons, as well as, in act two, Judas’ betrayal and Jesus’ crucifixion.
There’s currently a big-time Broadway revival of “Godspell,” but the common thread of agreement among many critics, and Cooney, is that the production tries to replace structure and sense with frenetic energy.
“I couldn’t follow any of it,” said Cooney (who recently appeared in “Bonnie and Clyde: The Musical” on Broadway). “The parables were completely lost. People were jumping around doing all these silly voices, and I’m not able to follow this simple parable. That’s when I went, ‘Oh, my goodness. We have some work to do.’”“Godspell” can be, and has been, set anywhere—from a junkyard to a circus to a McDonald’s—and performers often do impressions of famous figures while giving voice to the stories.
Cooney decided to set his “Godspell” in an old, broken down vaudeville theater, and is experimenting with incorporating scenes reminiscent of Shakespeare and a ballet, as well as comedy figures spanning from W. C. Fields to Lucille Ball.
“(’Godspell’) was put together in that ‘70s style of theater,” said Cooney. “I don’t know what you’d call the style. It’s just weird. You make it up as you go along, and it can change from show to show. We’ve been working at just keeping it focused on the simple story.”
This complete freedom for a director, and his/her performers, to insert several of their own ideas into the show may well be the reason that the musical is the obsession of many theater artists.
“It’s only fun for a particular kind of actor,” Cooney said. “Somebody who is willing to jump out there and make an absolute fool of himself and not be concerned about it. So it’s a lot of fun for somebody who’s very brave and comes out of that world of impulse training and improv training. But for your more classically trained actor, it’s a bit of a nightmare. ‘I need a script and a point of view. How do I feel about the situation? How do I feel about you?’ That just doesn’t work in this play.”
Cooney admits that he’s never seen a production that’s really satisfied him, given the “Hair”-like loose blueprint for the show.
“It’s been a challenge, trying to bring this back to something that looks a bit more like a musical than 12 zany, weird parables and 12 songs,” said Cooney. “ That’s what we’re going for. An ebb and flow that can be followed.”