Godspell is a musical—a stage production featuring songs—originally written in 1970. The book is by John-Michael Tebelak with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. The dialogue and songs are loosely based on parables and quotations from the New Testament. Strictly speaking, Godspell is not a presentation of the life of Jesus or of His teachings. Rather, it’s a piece of entertainment that uses the Bible as a source of inspiration. Godspell is not nearly as overt in its interpretation of Jesus as other shows, such as Jesus Christ Superstar.
Whether one considers the musical “biblically accurate” depends entirely on what kind of “accuracy” is in mind. Lyrics and spoken lines from the script of Godspell are taken from the New Testament, mostly from the Gospel of Matthew. Parables and statements from the Sermon on the Mount form most of the show’s material. In that sense, the words and teachings presented on stage are actually taken from the Bible.
However, as presented in Godspell, the parables, statements, and songs connect very loosely. It would be fair to say the plot in Godspell is thin, at best. The show opens with an allusion to squabbling philosophers and to John the Baptist. Jesus appears and calls together a group. The rest of the show features songs and skits relating various parables and New Testament teachings. In the end, Jesus is betrayed and killed, and the show ends with the now-disbanded group carrying Him offstage. There is no depiction of a resurrection in Godspell.
Godspell is set in the streets of New York City in the early ʼ70s. The script calls for costuming that may be disconcerting to some, as Jesus and His band of followers are street clowns and dress outlandishly. Tebelak chose to have the story performed by clowns in order to bring a measure of energy and joy to the entire production. Indeed, Godspell pervades the stage with a kinetic, enthusiastic spirit. Some Christians who see Godspell will appreciate the art behind the costuming; others will see the depiction of Jesus as a street clown as artistic license carried too far.
The structure of Godspell is artistic and loosely framed and, as such, appeals to prospective directors. Productions have employed a wide variety of interpretations. Some present the story as originally intended, as a gathering of clowns, others as hippies, others as children or as children’s toys come to life. Some stage the story as though these are actual biblical characters. Some frame the show as a dream or hallucination.
That same looseness means the show is extraordinarily open to audience interpretation. More importantly, the show can be given a drastically different feel depending on how it is staged. The words in Godspell are from the Bible, and its themes are inspired by the Bible, but individual productions might or might not be compatible with Scripture. For instance, changing certain props, costumes, or sounds in a scene, or having the actors read lines in a certain way, can change the meaning of a scene or song, even if the words are not changed. This is common to all stage plays; virtually every script has lines that actors can present in varied ways to varied effects. What one actor might deliver as a statement of fact another actor might present as irony.
The heavy reliance on Scripture means a production of Godspell stands a better chance of exhibiting a high view of the Bible than other musicals. The crucial difference between Godspell and other theatrical productions, however, is that same point: the source material. A production upending the intent of a human author would be one thing. Twisting the meaning of the Bible, even in a stage play, is something else entirely. Since the script of Godspell is sourced from the Bible, attempts to warp the message would not be merely disrespectful; they’d be blasphemous.
Ultimately, Godspell is more flexible and open to interpretation than most other musicals. As a result, whether the show honors the message and meaning of its source material has everything to do with the choices of the producer, director, and cast. In the sense that truly matters, the biblical accuracy of Godspell is dependent on the cast and crew involved in producing the show.