[Originally published in Movietone News 25, September 1973]
Without having seen Jesus Christ Superstar yet, I’m hardly in a position to state definitively how the Savior is doing with and being done by the moneychangers and popcorn vendors this Year of Our Lord. Of Godspell in particular the main thing to be said is that, while the movie of “the smash off-Broadway musical” confirms all but the direst expectations engendered by the trailer and flower-power photo spreads, it’s not quite as cloying as it threatened to be. The opening five minutes or so—the gathering of eight young urban Apostles in answer to a neo–John the Baptist’s joyous call—has been conceived and executed by director-adapter David Greene most adroitly and, more to the point, with a beguiling yet unprecious ingenuity that arouses genuine excitement and anticipation in any viewer agreeably disposed to make a leap of faith in the interest of having a good cocklewarming time. Regrettably, the saucy, freshly scrubbed faces of the troupe are soon a-daub with kindergarten cosmetics, and their playground-theater antics, however genial, shortly wear out their collective welcome through sheer sameness. They’re nice kids and all that, and a few of the updated, acted-out parables are amusing, and Greene’s direction does manage the difficult feat of remaining ingenious without tipping too frequently into frippery or flippancy.
The basic problem seems to be one of concept. This funkily androgynous Christus (Victor Garber) and his rag-tag band gambol over Central Park, the Brooklyn Bridge, and Broadway, an aerial or at least highly placed camera frequently zooming down to catch them, a collection of colorful dots, flashing momentarily between columns or steeples. Once the various members have forsaken the world for their Messiah, they are never seen in relation to other human beings again—a point Greene underscores with his penultimate shot. If the film is intended as only a dream of a Second Coming in a New Jerusalem, fair enough. But this dream is very slight, sustained only by our knowledge of and interest in the basic Christian scenario, and our milder interest in what variations Greene and John-Michael Tebelak are going to play on it. These are few, and seem fewer still once we’ve had a taste of the basic conceit. Any halfway-inquisitive observer is bound to ask why they did what they did (e.g., John the Baptist is also Judas: neat—or is it perhaps rather: so what?) or why they didn’t do what they didn’t do (where’s the Virgin Mary? untrustworthy because over-30?; and how come no Resurrection?). A modern Gospel still needs the vinegar in the reed. This one is basically just a fairy tale in more ways than one. O Death, where is thy sting?
Direction: David Greene. Screenplay: Greene and John-Michael Tebelak, after the play by Tebelak. Cinematography: Richard Heimann. Music and Lyrics: Stephen Schwartz. Choreography: Sammy Bayes. Production: Edgar Lansbury.
The Players: Victor Garber, Katie Hanley, David Haskell, Merrell Jackson, Joanne Jonas, Robin Lamont, Gilmer McCormick, Jeffrey Mylett, Jerry Sroka, Lynne Thigpen.
Copyright © 1973 by Richard T. Jameson