Come to Jesus: Godspell invitation
This article was first published in the Daily News-Record on Feb. 9, 2023. Article and photos by Rhys McClelland.
Portraying Jesus on stage or film is an enormous challenge and responsibility for an actor of any age.
Impressively, for an upcoming Eastern Mennonite School production of 1971 musical “Godspell,” that challenge lands on some of the youngest shoulders in the company.
“[The biggest challenge is] being able to portray how I see Jesus as a person but also how other people see him,” said Zach Haldeman, 14, who plays Jesus. “Trying to have that balance between what is scripted, what people think and what I think, it’s been interesting being able to find that balance.”
On Friday, the auditorium of Eastern Mennonite School will be set to ring with the hauntingly beautiful and melodic song “Prepare Ye the Way of The Lord” as students open their spring production of Godspell.
The show will take place at the Eastern Mennonite School Auditorium, located at 801 Parkwood Drive, on Friday and Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $15 for center seats and $12 for sides and balcony — with discounts for seniors and students.
Getting to the heart of the meaning and intent behind the material is a major challenge. Since Godspell premiered in 1971 on stage, and its movie adaptation in 1973, the show has been much debated over its depictions of Jesus and its biblical lessons, with both fans and critics from a wide spectrum of backgrounds and beliefs.
Godspell is not a sermon. Regardless of a person’s beliefs, it is a powerful, fun and joyful piece of musical theater that beautifully captures the humanity and message of hope in the Gospel of St Matthew.
Any actor playing this role in Godspell must hold the show together through the stories and relationships but also through stage presence.
“It’s also a real challenge keeping the energy up and keep everything moving. It’s been pretty tough,” Haldeman said — a huge responsibility given that Jesus sits right in the center of the storytelling in this piece and the show relies on that actor’s work.
Haldeman mentioned that despite the pressure of the role, he gets to enjoy a strong cathartic release during the song “Alas for You,” which depicts Jesus’ driving out of the buyers and sellers in the temple.
“I sing as I destroy everything,” Haldeman said. “It’s tough but it’s a lot of fun.”
Godspell, which premiered in New York in 1971 and went on to enjoy great acclaim on Broadway and internationally, is based on the Gospel of Matthew and uses a kaleidoscopic mix of song and dance, improvisation, comedy, movement and even clowning to explore the parables and deliver a beautifully human story of hope, love and redemption.
This much-loved show presents a vast range of musical, physical, narrative and even theological challenges to a company regardless of its age and experience. It is clear this young cast and its adult creative team is more than ready and capable to take the challenges on.
“There isn’t really one story line,” said actor Drew Holland, age 16 — as the show is made up of “many short scenes” which can create a roller coaster ride of emotions to perform.
“With ‘The Parable of the Sower,’ we’re being all silly, then it goes right into a very sincere song,” Holland said. “[Managing the shift is] a big challenge in the show, making those [emotional transitions] feel genuine.”
Additionally, the musical Godspell requires the cast to invest time in making the show engaging for a contemporary audience which is part of its long-term appeal.
“Some of the stage directions and added lines that are written are older jokes or things that would have been normal then [1970’s] whereas now it’s not as common or normal,” Holland said.
Making cuts and changes is an important part of making a show “more palatable or relatable for today’s climate” said Ethan Pettit, stage manager.
Actor Sophie Hendricks, age 16, said “improvising” was a big challenge, “because very little is actually scripted,” Hendricks said.
This demands the company brings a great deal of understanding to the material and a real skill for creating moments, interactions and characters.
“And then…scripting the improv, you do something but then you have to keep it consistent every time you do it, but then it has to feel like improv every time you do it again,” said actor Eleanor Yoder, age 16.
And it’s not only on stage that this approach presents a challenge. In rehearsal ‘blocking’ is the process of setting the basic movement and shape of the piece on stage, so tracking and recording the physical movements of 10 or more people on stage at any given time is no easy task.
“It’s a lot of work. During rehearsals doing a run-through… I’ll be ‘on book’ tracking the dialogue and giving lines to actors that may have forgotten them,” Pettit said. “I would sit next to [the director] Miss Anderson and she’d tell me, ‘Hey I want a light cue here,’ and I’d have to write that down at the right moment in the book.”
As insightful and talented as they are, these young actors are not alone in their creation of this whirlwind of a show. Director Joy Anderson and Choreographer Bin-Shin So have skillfully guided the cast through each step of rehearsal, not only offering instruction and support but allowing the company to ‘take risks.’
After eight consecutive years of directing musicals for Eastern Mennonite School, Joy Anderson still talks about the work with such delight, compassion and a deep love for the process of guiding young performers in their creativity.
Anderson began directing the school musicals partly because her son was attending the school and was involved in the theater program.
She stepped into the role after there had been some concern that no one would take on the responsibility. Nearly a decade later, she says she has no regrets, adding “Each year has been really fun and different,” Anderson said.
Anderson has great admiration for the talent of these young actors and under her guidance, it seems this ensemble is confident, joyful and ready to share its work.
“I think part of my reasons for choosing this [Godspell] was because of the turmoil we have all been through together in recent years. I hope that whatever religious place they are in, or not, I hope that the lyrics to ‘Beautiful City’ and being the ‘Light of the World —” I hope that it will resonate,” Anderson said.
Tickets can be purchased by calling 540-236-6025 or by visiting easternmennonite.org/tickets. Tickets may also be purchased at the door the night of the show.
One thing is clear: this young company of broad faith perspectives has brought a great deal of respect, reflection and love to discussions around the musical and its content.
“They are like a family, like siblings,” Director Joy Anderson said, of the cast and crew.