In the early 1970s, two very different musicals about Jesus and his disciples made it to New York stages. Both used rock-flavored popular music styles and unconventional interpretations that made them controversial with some religious groups. Both ended up being among the most popular musicals of their era.
The first was "Jesus Christ Superstar," which launched the career of Andrew Lloyd Webber. The second was "Godspell," which launched the career of Stephen Schwartz.
Manatee Players are producing both shows this season. "Godspell" opens today in the Bradenton Kiwianis Studio Theatre, the smaller of the two performance spaces at the Manatee Performing Arts Center
"I think it will lend itself very well to a show like 'Godspell,'" director Corey Boyas said of the intimate studio theater. "The audience is part of the congregation. If you're in the first row, you are in the show."
Schwartz was pretty much unknown when he was hired to write a new score for "Godspell," which had begun its life as a master's thesis project for Carnegie Mellon University student John-Michael Tebelak. Schwartz went on to compose such major Broadway hits as "Pippin" and "Wicked." Tebelak never had a big theatrical success again.
There's not much of a story line to "Godspell." It's a collection of parables, mostly from the Gospel of St. Matthew, with a few from Luke. The songs have modern-sounding melodies, but the lyrics are mostly from traditional hymns.
Among the best-known numbers are "Day by Day," which became a pop hit; "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord" and "Beautiful City," which was added for the 1972 film version and is now often used in stage productions.
Manatee Payers regular Brian Chunn takes the role of Jesus, which could hardly be more different than his last starring role as Shrek.
"It's a little interesting, and I guess a little intimidating," Chunn said. "We do the passion at the end, which is pretty intense. But the show is mostly about community."
"Godspell" has Jesus assembling a group of followers. They're usually dressed in contemporary clothes. In early productions, back in the 1970s, they were usually portrayed as hippies or urban street people. For this production, Boyas is setting the action in some kind of institution. Jesus is the newest resident.
"It could be any group of random but connected people," Chunn said.
One aspect of "Godspell" that sets it apart is that most of the characters are unnamed, and the actors traditionally call each other by their own names. Boyas said he built this production on the actor's talents and personalities, starting with improve exercises instead of readings.
"One thing I like about 'Godspell' is its elasticity," Boyas said. "I think every production of 'Godspell' is its own. Every actor brings something of their own because of their issues."
Details: Oct. 30-Nov. 16, Bradenton Kiwianis Studio Theatre at the Manatee Performing Arts Center, 502 Third Ave, W., Bradenton. Show times: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets: $26. Information: 941-748-5875, manateeplayers.com.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.