Gateway takes the classic musical Godspell into the community.
There’s more than one Jesus in the upper room tonight.
Actually, several guys are auditioning for the role of Jesus in Godspell. It’s late, and we’re upstairs in the Southlake Campus performing arts studio (yes, we actually have one of those). Director Erik Snodgrass and several other judges sit behind a long table—American Idol style—while the actors do their best to be like Jesus. Some project their voices and exaggerate their movements, while others try to focus on hitting their notes and remembering their lines.
Getting everything just right is more difficult than it looks, even though the musical is a well-known classic. Opening off Broadway in 1971, it’s been revived on and off Broadway many times over the decades, most recently in the critically acclaimed 2012 Broadway revival. The show follows Jesus and His disciples through a series of stories and parables recorded in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. However, rather than being set in ancient Israel, the original 1971 version uniquely depicted Jesus and His followers as hippie clowns. For this updated version of the show, Gateway has chosen to set the musical in a modern-day coffee shop, complete with a barista Jesus and a live house band, while keeping the original script completely intact.
As the auditions continue late into the night, Erik takes note of every detail and directs the actors with the assertive confidence of a veteran director. The truth is, Godspell isn’t his first rodeo. Last year, he directed Truthical, Gateway’s wildly popular Christmas production, and before that, he’s had extensive stage acting experience all over the country. His unique background is well-suited for his role with Gateway Performing Arts. In addition to his years of theater experience, he has a theology degree as well as a master’s degree in theater from Regent University. Despite these credentials, he’s most comfortable on the stage.
“I was never interested in pursuing an acting career in film or television,” says Erik. “To me, there is something special about interacting with a live audience.”
This production of Godspell is highly driven by audience engagement. It’s the first musical Gateway Performing Arts is taking outside the church walls—to the MCL Grand Theater in Lewisville—so reaching the audience is one of the primary goals. “Since the musical is set in a coffee shop, we’re going to have baristas making coffee on the set during intermission,” says Erik. “People will actually be able to come up on stage and order coffee from the baristas. They’ll experience Godspell with all five of their senses.”
It’s a unique approach to a production that is anything but typical. “We haven’t had a lot of shows put on by churches,” says Jim Wear, the arts center manager for the MCL Grand. “There is a strong appetite in this community for uplifting, positive entertainment experiences. People are very receptive to the message.”
And rather than bringing the theater-loving community to Gateway (which has been successful in the past), we’re changing things up this time by bringing the message to them. “This is a good opportunity for Gateway to connect with the community,” says Erik. “We definitely want every Gateway member to buy a ticket, but I’d love it if they would also think about who they could invite to the show and buy tickets for them too.” Of course, the theater only holds 300 people, so Gateway members will need to act fast to get tickets to any of the ten performances.
Having this show at a community theater is potentially just the first of other Gateway shows to be held outside the church. Gateway Performing Arts is growing, and their hope is to develop more actors and put on even more shows throughout the year. That’s why they are also offering several StageDoor classes in acting, singing, dancing, and writing.
As for now, Erik is focused on Godspell and excited about reaching the community in a new way. He says, “I hope people leave saying, ‘I have to tell everyone about this!’”
Godspell is a contemporary retelling of the Gospels According to Matthew and Luke. The version of the show Gateway Performing Arts is putting on this summer is based on the 2012 Broadway revival, which includes completely updated arrangements of all the classic songs from the original Tony-nominated musical written by Stephen Schwartz (composer of numerous hit musicals and films including Wicked, The Prince of Egypt, Pocahontas, Pippin, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Enchanted).
The title of the show comes from the Old Saxon spelling of the word “gospel,” meaning “good story.” Set in a modern-day coffeehouse, the story follows Jesus as He calls individuals from diverse backgrounds to follow Him and teaches them various lessons via modern methods of storytelling, including celebrity impressions, current pop culture references, songs, dances, and lots of comedy and fun. The show features various musical styles, including rock ‘n’ roll, pop, R&B, ragtime, and rap. The cast also occasionally plays their own instruments and uses props such as ladders, newspapers, and more to further enhance their storytelling. The result is an overall tone that’s fresh, playful, and improvised, yet also moving and meaningful.
Godspell was at the MCL Grand Theater in Lewisville July 3–5 & 8–12, 2015.