ACT puts a new spin on its production of ‘Godspell’
Long a favorite of school and regional theater companies, “Godspell” is getting a breath of new life at ACT (A Contemporary Theatre) of Connecticut, which presents an inventive new take on the musical in its run through March 8.
Licensing rules dictate theaters buying rights to a show must perform it exactly as written but given that “Godspell” composer Stephen Schwartz, who serves as artistic adviser to ACT, has a long working relationship with ACT and its artistic director Daniel C. Levine, Schwartz approved several significant changes Levine made, including the dropping of a song, something that is seldom done. Levine also reimagined the show as set inside an abandoned church slated for demolition the following day in which a group of homeless young adults has been squatting. The show is the sophomore production of ACT’s “Presenting Stephen Schwartz” series.
Interestingly, as much of a theater buff as Levine is, he hasn’t seen a production of Godspell before. Directing this show thus posed an interesting challenge yet freed him of preconceived notions. “I chose Godspell to do because I have always been a fan of the music but it was one of those shows that somehow slipped by me,” he said. “I have never seen a production of it but I was obsessed with the music. Nobody, in my opinion, writes music better than Stephen Schwartz, especially theater music which has to tell a different emotional story than popular music.”
Levine’s idea of a falling apart church was influenced by watching news coverage of the Notre Dame fire last April. “I thought wouldn’t it be cool if they were like homeless people living there that have chosen this abandoned church to live there and then I started thinking again about the reason why Stephen wrote the show,” he said, noting this group of broken people comes together to form a community.
During the six months of pre-production, Levine and Schwartz met often to discuss the new version. Levine compared hearing about Schwartz’s original vision for the show as a master class and said Schwartz trusted him to stay true to his intent. “There were times when he would be like ‘This is a fantastic idea. I love it and one thing I would say is maybe do this but yes, go for it’ and other times he would say ‘No, that’s not the way I wrote it, leave it how it is.’ ”
Interviewed a week before opening night, Levine was excited for audiences to see the show. “I keep saying at curtain speeches that this isn’t your mother’s ‘Godspell,’” he said. “This is a brand-new version with some pretty significant changes ... so it will be interesting for our audiences that know the show to get a completely new experience with ‘Godspell’ and for those who have never seen the show, like me, I know they are just going to become an instant fan.”
For actress Monica Ramirez, “Godspell” is her third show at ACT, which she calls a “second home” and where she got her Equity union card. “I was excited [to do “Godspell”] because I know that this slot in their season is used for creating new works with Stephen Schwartz, and I thought that was an opportunity I could not pass up,” she said. “Yes, it’s songs and material that we know well, but putting your own twist on it and using Dan’s words in collaboration with him is something that I’m very excited about.”
She is looking forward to singing “Day by Day,” the folk rock ballad key to the show’s score. In last year’s Schwartz series show at ACT, “Working,” Ramirez instead did mostly big production numbers. “This song is just so close to the heart and very honest and intimate,” she said, saying this song will sound great in this smaller venue and help audiences to understand her character. “Hopefully, I can see the people and connect with them and get them on my side.”
Also starring in the cast are Broadway’s Florrie Bagel (The Rose Tattoo) and Katie Ladner (Wicked, Sunset Boulevard) as well as Andrew Poston (Kinky Boots), Jamie Cepero (NBC’s Smash), Trent Saunders (Evita), Emma Tattenbaum-Fine (Netflix’s Explained), and more.
For more information about the show, visit actofct.org.