“We are on the cusp of a developing a new form”: An Interview With Godspell director Michael Strassen and star Jodie Steele
Stars of the West End are coming together to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Godspell for a special online performance. With a timely message of hope, this acclaimed musical by composer Stephen Schwartz explores the parables leading up to the Passion of Christ. Filmed in the casts homes and edited with striking visuals, Godspell is a socially distanced theatre event which should not be missed this summer! We spoke to director Michael Strassen and singer Jodie Steele to find out more.
How would you describe Godspell to those who are unfamiliar with the musical?
Michael Strassen: A beautiful study of the human condition and how we can move through adversity to a better future through understanding, sacrifice and community. The music is sublime!
Jodie Steele: A collection of incredible pieces of music; each song as a stand-alone hit that you’ll be humming for weeks after. The score, sewn together beautifully, tells the story of Jesus and his followers.
Who do you play in Godspell and how would you describe your character?
JS: In this special, unique creation of Godspell, nobody plays a particular singular character. I get to sing the penultimate number in the piece, which is sung by the character Jesus.
What made you want to take part in Godspell for this 50th anniversary?
JS: Everything! The score, the creative team, Michael Strassen – genius! Anything that Stephen Schwartz creates is a masterpiece musically. The cast! And the fact that it’s a 50-year celebration of this infamous show!
Do you think that being religious would make members of the audience enjoy Godspell more or is the musical equally entertaining for anyone?
MS: I think its message is universal: it’s about being good to others and working together. This message is not exclusive to Christianity; in fact, I believe it’s at the core of every human being when we are stripped down to our base impulse.
JS: Equally entertaining. I’m not particularly religious and I adore the show and score. I could listen to the cast recording on repeat daily! Whether you believe in the story of Jesus or not, try to disagree that it’s not an infectious story to be told…
What is the core message of Godspell, and why do you think that message is important in 2020?
MS: For me it is love; there is nothing else in life at the end of the day. If you sit eye to eye with any human being for 20 minutes in silence you will feel your “stuff” stop and feel it. The tick of the universe.
JS: For me, it’s that you can always make wrong things better – not necessarily right, but better. With everything that’s going on currently, that should hugely resonate with everyone. We are all in this together, and though we can’t fix this issue in the world right now, we can work together to make it better.
How does Godspell compare to other musicals you have directed?
MS: It is a community-based event on stage, very inclusive to the audience; each song ticks a box of human experience from joy to grief. It really wears its heart on its sleeve. The book is the oldest and the audience knows what happens in the end.
How has Godspell been modernised for a 2020 audience?
MS: I think the audience has been modernised ironically; our whole context of looking at it has been changed by recent world events. The story of sacrifice is eternal, and I think we have it in our DNA. I would not change a note of the show or a single word. The band will certainly have a “now” vibe.
JS: Well, firstly, you can’t get much more modern then streaming it online – the dream of technology! I had a Zoom session with Micheal and his vision for this version of Godspell sounds magically unusual and is sure to bring a tear to the eye! It’s about finding a connection between the current situation in the world and the beautiful, original sentiment of Godspell.
Can you tell us a bit more about the animations: what should we expect from them? How was the idea born to include them in the filming?
MS: It’s a very simple idea based around a timeline and a heartbeat to tie it together: a line of integrity and love that joins us all. This isn’t a cartoon, it just has an idea to tie it together. Think heart monitor and the last four months.
What has been the most challenging part of bringing this production together, and how does it feel different from rehearsing and working on live performances?
MS: Rehearsing online cuts out so much of the micro clues you get person to person, so language is more important. I once thought of it like remote surgery. I work tonally with my actors a lot on their voices to get their emotion to connect, so the sound is also an issue – I have had to adjust and make them take risks. The biggest jolt is that this isn’t theatre or film or TV, and lives in three distinct spaces for the actor: where they are, the middle space beyond the camera that the audience must imagine and direct into camera. It is a strange new arena the audience know well through watching, talking to and through, typing into and asking for information. It is a delicate space and if you get it wrong the audience won’t know where to sit or how to respond. I think we are on the cusp of a developing a new form; it’s crude and developing but interaction and the fourth wall feel fluid. Fail to understand this at your peril!
JS: I miss being in the room with people and creating altogether. But in a way, we have been brought together thanks to Zoom! It’s been a learning experience and a challenge in lots of positive ways. It’s a different way of delivering performances, but I’m proud we are adapting and still delivering for our industry. Recording a performance in your living room, with no reaction from an audience or rehearsal room peers can make you second guess yourself over and over, but I’m learning to trust the process.
What do you see for the future of the arts once the crisis will be over: more merging of online media or a completely different trend?
MS: I do believe crisis not only creates more babies, but it also creates more art and thinking. I thrive in crisis and always have. I don’t see this as a fight but a difficult birth of a new area of the industry. I think a lot of the “noise” will stop in the industry and only true innovation will grow in the new marketplace. Trends are the luxury of stability.
JS: I think it may be a bit of a struggle for a couple of years, and then, being positive, I think our industry will see a massive boom, with new work and hungry performers, creatives, writers, producers… every line of work based around performing arts will want to step up their game. We have all felt so lost, and are just waiting to get started at full force again. I personally don’t see there being any reason for it eventually not only being back to normal, but better.
Would you like to share a moment from this lockdown period that has made you feel more connected with the theatre world, despite the distance and online connections?
MS: A brilliant actor friend, Lucy Williamson, posting a Smule video of Loving You, from Passion, from her kitchen floor on the other side of the planet in Australia. It reminded me what I am aiming at and in fact where true art grows from, that fusion. Also seeing how others coped, especially alone. I was in daily touch with several people. It has been an interesting time for ego, self, love, truth for the industry. The one thing I have learned is that I am dedicated. I lost two people over the pandemic. Wear your masks.
JS: Godspell has actually made me feel connected with the industry again. I never thought I’d say this but, I’ve missed notes! It’s been a breath of fresh air to work on something continuously and receive feedback. That’s how we learn and progress as artists and this project has given that back to me. I feel part of a very passionate team who are all working to achieve a beautiful piece of work for people to sit back and watch at home – giving them a little bit of light in the darkness.
Godspell is available to stream from 27th August until 29th August 2020. For further information or to book visit the company’s website here.