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Building the "Beautiful City"

I grew up with the show “Godspell.” I don’t remember when I first heard the music, but I remember first seeing the musical performed at Miami University during my sophomore year in 1973. Although I don’t recall a lot of details, I remember that seeing and hearing this show performed live was a moving experience.

Twenty-seven years later, on April 16, 2000, I took my wife Carol and daughters Liz and Margaret to see it at an off-Broadway production performed by the Third Eye Repertory at a tiny theatre on West 34th Street next to the Empire State Building. Once again, it was a very moving experience—viewed this time through the eyes of a corporate attorney, husband, and father.

Fast forward another twenty-two years to July 14, 2022, Carol and I went with our friends Janet and Bob Machovec to see a performance by the Kent State University School of Theatre and Dance at Porthouse Theatre near Blossom Music Center. This time, I witnessed this show through the eyes and ears of a retired pastor.

I have changed in the forty-nine years since I first saw the show performed in the Heritage Room at Miami U. I have grown older, a bit slower, and (I hope) a bit wiser.

The world in which "Godspell" has been sung and presented has constantly changed, as well. Sometimes “all for the best,” but not always. There have been wars: Vietnam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan, Ukraine. There have been political controversies: impeachment proceedings against three presidents, not to mention the currently pending January 6thinvestigation. There have been epidemics and pandemics: AIDS, SARS, COVID. There have been social protests and unrest, sometimes with tragic results: Kent State, Charlottesville, the attack on the U. S. Capitol, to name a few. There have been changes in technology: from coin-operated phones to flip phones to iPhones; from TV networks to IT networks, from mainframe computers operated by a few to laptops operated by everyone. From vinyl records to MP3s. From neighborhood gatherings to online social media. Through it all, many of us have prayed, “God, save the people!”

Side by side with all of these changes, the show has changed, as well. Since that first performance at Miami U., the show was revised to begin with a “Tower of Babble” of people talking on their cell phones before throwing them into a pile on the stage floor. Current-day songs and gags have been added.

Fortunately, original songs that have been near and dear to my heart have been preserved. “Prepare Ye” was still able to make my eyes mist up. “Day by Day” is always near and dear to my heart. The Finale was breathtaking. The audience fell absolutely silent for what seemed like an eternity after Jesus breathed his last. And the celebratory “Long Live God” and the “Prepare Ye” reprise stirred us all to the promise of new life.

But the song that I have been thinking about most since seeing the show last week was a song written by Stephen Schwartz that I had forgotten. Jesus (played in the Porthouse Theater production by Ben Piché) offers this song as a quietly reflective meditation immediately before the Seder and Crucifixion scenes. He asks this haunting question:

Out of the ruins and rubble

Out of the smoke

Out of our night of struggle

Can we see a ray of hope?

Jesus then answers the question, but not with celebration (that comes later). The answer comes more as an affirmation that indeed, there is:

One pale thin ray reaching for the day we can build a beautiful city.[1]

I heard in this song an affirmation of the “Way of the Lord” that was proclaimed by John the Baptist, that was lived out by Jesus in healing the sick and feeding the hungry, that was taught by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and (most importantly) with an affirmation of the love, compassion, and sacrifice that took Jesus to a cross.

People usually don’t go to the theater to hear a sermon, and apparently Godspell’s creators didn’t intend to “write a church service, but only had a stage musical in mind.”[2] That may be true. But last week I witnessed a sermon in song and dance. In response to the plea “God Save the People,” I witnessed a sermon of hope that reminded me that there is a better way for us to live, that we are invited to work for the beautiful city that Jesus calls the “Kingdom of God.” Preparing “the way of the Lord” is not only for John the Baptist and others who proclaim the good news in words, but for all who long to see that “beautiful city.”

As the song reminds us,

When your trust is all but shattered

When your faith is all but killed

You can give up, bitter and battered

Or you can slowly start to build

A beautiful city.

Forty-nine years later, this “one pale thin ray” of hope still is enough to make my eyes mist up.


[1] The lyrics to this song by Stephen Schwartz are printed in the liner notes to the New Broadway Cast Recording. Copyright © 1973 (Renewed), 1973, 1993, 2012 Grey Dog Music and S&J Legacy Productions LLC.

[2] See Carol de Giere, The Godspell Experience: Inside a Transformative Musical, Kindle ed. (Bethel, CT: Scene 1 Publishing, 2014), 151.

Photo Credit: Photo of playbill distributed at Kent State University School of Theatre and Dance's production of "Godspell" at Porthouse Theatre on July 14, 2022. Photo by Tom Frost.

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