1971 musical takes comedic approach to biblical parables

The trippiest, most colourful take on the story of Jesus is coming to Ottawa March 8–17 at Centrepointe Theatre.

Godspell is a 1971 musical based on the Bible’s Gospel of Matthew, but this time, Jesus is the leader of a clown troupe who re-enact his parables in contemporary New York City.

“It’s telling a lot of the parables that Jesus told and promoting a strong sense of love and community,” said Troy Arsenian, a fifth-year theatre student at the University of Ottawa, and a member of the production.

According to Arsenian, who has previously performed with the 9th Hour Theatre Company, the setting is up to interpretation. This version at the Centrepointe is set in Ottawa in 2018, in a church basement. The costuming in this show is also not as outlandish as the original production, or the 1973 film version.

The music of Godspell is a major selling point, with a mix of traditional musical theatre, vaudeville, gospel music, and 70s-style pop and rock. The popular music makes the play more accessible for people who might find the idea of a ‘clown Jesus’ musical a bit too strange.

“It’s not very common to have very religious musicals,” Arsenian said. “But what sets Godspell apart is really the music. The original production, when they made their cast album, they marketed it as a pop album, and some of the songs made it to the top of the charts, like “Day by Day,” “All for the Best,” these are songs that everyone who grew up in the 70s and 80s know.”

The play is divided roughly into two parts—the first part is a collection of parables interspersed with musical numbers, while the second is a more linear tale dealing with Jesus’ crucifixion.

Arsenian explained that the play isn’t explicitly Christian; rather, religion is used as a vehicle to get across messages of community and camaraderie.

“It’s not preachy,” Arsenian said. “It’s not trying to pull people in to Christianity, it’s just using the story of Jesus to emphasize that people need to just love each other and care for each other.”

A pun on the etymology of gospel is also important in this version of the musical. “Gospel” comes from the Old English for “good news,” and the newspaper plays a big role in this production.

“The concept of news is everywhere (in the play),” Arsenian said. “We use headlines before the parables and after the songs. It’s headlines that are supposed to contrast what the parables are saying.”

If the rocking songs and newsy angle haven’t sold you yet, then perhaps what will is the rarity of the performance itself. It isn’t done too frequently, Arsenian said, and when it is performed, it’s usually at the high school level.

“It’s a great show and you probably won’t have another opportunity for a long while to see it.”

Godspell is running March. 8–17 at Centrepointe Theatre. Tickets for students are $25.