Wednesday, 2 August 2017

God Dramaturgy: The University of Manchester Musical Theatre Society @ Edfringe 2017

The University of Manchester Musical Theatre Society presents

By John-Michael Tebelak

Godspell ascends to the Fringe as a festival-themed musical extravaganza that follows the Gospel of Matthew.

The Sanctuary, Paradise in Augustines (Venue 152)
George IV Bridge, Edinburgh, EH1 1EL
21st-27th August, 15:05 – 16:50 (105 minutes)
Tickets: £8, £5 concessions

Godspell is composed of various musical parables from the Gospel of Matthew and contains the hits Bless the Lord, Day by Day and Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord. This reimagining of Godspell is set in a festival tent, where bread and wine are exchanged for LSD and Jesus is a rock star. 

The eleven cast members, hand picked from Manchester’s considerable pool of musical theatre talent, take the audience on a journey of hilarity to tragedy and back again, accompanied by infectiously catchy and heartbreakingly beautiful music. Audience members leave uplifted, and with considerably more glitter than when they entered. 

What was the inspiration for this performance?

I can’t remember exactly what gave me the idea to do a version of Godspell at a festival.  I pitched the idea to the society committee during summer and I think I’d just bought a ticket to a festival and it just seemed like the perfect way of updating the original hippy/clown theme to make it relevant to audiences my age, but having Jesus as a rock star and having the band on stage dressed as a typical Indie band just seemed like such a fun way of performing a rock musical!  

It was also partly because the venue for the society is this tiny room in the top of the SU which could be transformed so easily into a festival tent with just some fairylights and glitter.

The musical is loosely based on Matthew’s gospel.  I have taken inspiration from Peter Sellars’ unique setting of Bach’s St Matthew Passion as well as Pasolini’s film.  For example, one of Seller’s most effective Chorale settings was having the singers simply hug each other, and a lot of my direction was just telling the cast to do things like ‘dance around and hug each other’ which they did very well.
Is performance still a good space for the public discussion of ideas?

Yes definitely. My setting Godspell in a festival tent, having Jesus dressed as a rock star etc. is a metaphor for modern day idols: we still worship gods as fanatically as ever, just different gods; electronic dance music is the new religious sound track.  

A lot of people dislike Godspell, and those that don’t know it are sort of taken aback when I just say ‘it’s a musical about Jesus’.  It’s not satire but quite earnest in its message, it’s very fashionable to be a complete atheist and be quite anti-religion at the moment, especially amongst students.  

There are these huge religious communities at Manchester University, for example the Christian Union, but there isn’t much conversation between people of different religions and beliefs.   In fact I don’t think our version is particularly religious with the setting, what I think it beautiful about Godspell is that it’s not preachy, but simply tells stories from the bible, and in the second half the story of the crucifixion, in a funny, light-hearted way, and I think whatever your beliefs it is worth watching because these are moral stories, and although nowadays the general consensus among a lot of students is that religion is more negative and is often linked to war and violence, this is taking a step back and looking at some of the actual teachings or goodness and morality.

On the other hand, Godspell is also about love and joy and forming a community.  You cannot help but be swept up by energy of this cast and uplifted by the infectious music.  I think that there is something special about performance which involves music in contrast to a straight play, because so much of what you take away is the emotions you feel because of the music, and this is perhaps much more raw than the themes and ideas you get in a play.  

For example instead of Judas having a long monologue about his mixed emotions about betraying Jesus you simply have the heart-breaking song ‘On the Willows’ which says it all.

How did you become interested in making performance?

I’ve performed on stage pretty much all my life, from operas and ballets to musicals, and plays, and I had never taken an interest in the behind-the-scenes side of things until I pitched Godspell as an idea to the society committee.  I am a music student but I’m a violinist rather than a singer, so the only way to really combine my love of acting and music professionally would be through directing, although this is something I’ve only really come to within the last year.  

Although I firmly went down the music rather than theatre route during A Levels and applying to University, my mum used to be a drama teacher and I spent a lot of my childhood just doing improv in her after-school classes, so I think some of that quick way of creating performance has resurfaced in me now!  The hardest thing I’ve found about directing rather than performing myself is that you get just as nervous before the shows but there’s no way of relieving the tension with the actual physical performance, so I was a bit of a wreck for the original show week.

Is there any particular approach to the making of the show?

It was mostly just messing about in rehearsals.  For most of the numbers such as the opening, and things like the last supper I would come with ideas of what exactly I wanted, but I had absolutely no idea how most of the scenes were going to be set before I turned up to rehearsals, it was a mixture of me throwing out random silly suggestions and seeing what happened and the cast suggesting things themselves. 

The book of Godspell must be one of the weirdest of all musicals. There is no actual story, the first half is just a string of parables, linked by musical numbers (one of the biggest challenges for the cast is remembering what order things go in as its pretty mad, just jumping from one random thing to the next). Its extremely bare and quite strange, and so many of the jokes in it are completely dated (just watch the 70s film version to see how weird it is) so beginning the process armed with this weird libretto was extremely daunting, and there are some very bad versions out there on YouTube.  

However the pro to this is its malleability as a show.  You can completely make it your own and I really relished this and found it quite rewarding.  Without a doubt all the funniest moments in the show are things the cast came up with themselves, and I think they all really enjoyed working on something that they had a say in and helped create.  Talking of the cast – as well as being some of the most gifted singers I have ever met some of them have extreme amounts of comic talent, and so it was an absolute pleasure to give them free reign with something as blank-canvas as Godspell. As a director, what I love about it is the lack of boring practical details you have to think about with other shows in terms of props and entrances/exits because there are almost no props and the entire cast are on stage the whole time, which makes it a joy to direct - because its just about them. We basically just had a lot of fun!  I know the cast has a huge amount of fun performing it and I think the audience can’t help but be caught up in it too!

Does the show fit with your usual productions?

Well the only other thing I’ve directed is a medley of the first and last numbers from the musical Hair, which is basically Godspell for adults, so I guess at the moment I seem to be attracted to rock musicals with a hippy vibe, a little niche maybe.  I am not really your average musical theatre fan - I am more drawn to the idea of directing opera, and I hope that I get the opportunity to do some of that next year.  Opera gives you quite a clean slate in terms of how to creatively set say something by Montiverdi from hundreds of years ago, bringing the music to life in a modern and refreshing way.

What do you hope that the audience will experience?

I hope that they will find the show funny. Previously, most of the jokes were aimed towards our peers at university, so it will be a challenge to adapt it for the different fringe audience.  I hope that the audience will be moved by the more emotive parts of the show, but most of all I hope they will be uplifted.  Godspell is one of the most joyous musicals I know and the most important thing is that the music created by the cast and (an incredibly talented and funky) band, are enjoyed by the audience. I hope they are caught in the moment and also provoked to think about the subject matter that is explored within the show.

What strategies did you consider towards shaping this audience experience?

For the show in November we used glow sticks instead of tickets and glittered people’s faces as they walked in, and surprisingly, people found this simple effect very exciting!

The costumes are entirely created by the cast themselves – I told them to just wear an extreme version of what they would wear to a festival (bum bags and all), and the set was literally 4 beer crates which we borrowed from behind the Student Union bar, and a stepladder.  I think the only thing we actually spent money on was the glitter and glow sticks. Don’t forget it is easier for a camel to get through a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven… 

The University of Manchester Musical Theatre Society (UMMTS) is thrilled to be taking their first show up to the Edinburgh Fringe this year. UMMTS is an exciting, experimental and collaborative student society that aims to create spectacle and professionalism with every show it produces. The Godspell team is made up of over twenty young, experienced theatre and music makers who have been working on this project for over ten months. After experiencing a sell-out run in November, Godspell was also nominated for four National Operatic and Dramatic Association Awards (Best Ensemble Number, Best Supporting Actress, Best Poster (w), Best Programme). 

Mark Dee (North West End) ‘This was easily the most competent, confident, complete and mature    production I have thus seen from this society…one of the most enjoyable, fresh and alive productions I have seen’ 
Rhiannon Symonds (NODA North West): ‘There was not a dry eye in the house…’

Macintosh HD:Users:marinajenkins:Desktop:20623869_10155579179035879_1890450165_n.jpgDirector - Madeleine Brooks is an experienced musical theatre performer, taking lead roles in the NODA award-winning production of Grand Hotel and most recently in A Chorus Line. She made her directing debut with Godspell in UMMTS’ sell-out run of Godspell in November 2017. 

Musical Director - Matthew Quinn directed the National Stage School of Ireland’s 2017 production of Les Misérables and played also played Valjean in the Belfast Opera House’s production. He is a UoM Music Society conductor under Mark Heron and has taken lead roles in UMMTS productions, such as Baron Von Gagern in Grand Hotel. 

Producers - Méabh Kennedy was President of UMMTS 2016/17 and has extensive experience in producing musicals, such as the NODA award-winning Songs of a New World, Godspell and The 25th Putnam County Spelling Bee. Marina Jenkins is President of the UoM Drama Society 2017/18 and whilst Godspell is her first producing role, she has experience in writing, directing, stage and technically managing plays part of the UoM Drama Society. 

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