BWW Interview: J. Scott Lapp And Tayler Harris of GODSPELL at Prima Theatre
In 1970, John-Michael Tebelak's master's thesis, Godspell, was first performed at Carnegie Mellon. Then in 1971, after a run at La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, Stephen Schwartz was hired to re-score the show before being produced off-Broadway. Godspell, which is primarily based on parables from the Gospel of Matthew (with a few from the Gospel of Luke and one from John), has had several revivals and numerous tours. Audiences can enjoy a unique interpretation of Godspell at Prima opening April 5th. To find out more about this upcoming production, I spoke with director J. Scott Lapp and Tayler Harris, the actor portraying Jesus.
BWW: Tell us a little about yourself
Lapp: I grew up in San Diego, CA doing theatre-youth theatre and community theatre. When I aged out of those programs, I decided to start directing and got the directing bug. I was on the national tour of Xanadu, which was my first professional gig. I've worked on a number of different projects, including The Hunchback of Notre Dame. I love traveling all over the United States and internationally doing a variety of productions.
Harris: I originally was born and raised in the Portland, Oregon area. I went to school in Vancouver, Washington, and then moved to the Carolinas for college where I graduated from Western Carolina University. I just graduated in December and moved to New York where I got an agent. They got me my first gig right away. And now here I am in Lancaster to perform the role of Jesus in Godspell.
BWW: Thinking about other shows you've been involved with-what is your favorite so far?
Lapp: Bonnie and Clyde was my first Broadway show, and it was a 4 year process from beginning to end, so that was really special. Being involved in The Hunchback of Notre Dame with Disney was also incredible. And, while it never went to Broadway, it premiered in La Jolla. The redemptive power of the story is amazing, and we did it more in Hugo Victor's style, so it was a darker production that really highlighted the deeper message of the story.
Harris: I did Sister Act at Millbrook, and it was a blast-Deloris was a dream roll for me. Then I performed Sally Bowles in Cabaret-the costumes and character were such a fun experience.
BWW: What appealed to you most about directing Godspell?
Lapp: I did Godspell around when I first started directing around age 21 or 22. We did a production of Godspell in San Diego in an amphitheater with a cast of around 40 on a mountain, which was a unique and amazing experience. I just love the message of community and how this vibrant and delightful show follows the stories of Jesus with humor and storytelling. It's more the story of Jesus teaching people how to build a community and work together because they don't know how to do that at the start of the show. And of course the music can't be beat.
BWW: When you found out you were cast in Godspell, what did you look forward to the most?
Harris: Singing "Beautiful City". When the revival cast recording came out, I remember being in school, and I when I heard it, I was blown away. It's a song I know like the back of my hand. It's so simple with the piano and has so much meaning and context. I am so thrilled that I actually get to sing it without it being part of a cabaret or miscast production. I connect to the optimistic, free-spirited character of Jesus in Godspell.
BWW: Talk to us a little about the experience of portraying Jesus as an African American woman.
Harris: Honestly, I'd say it goes beyond that. There's so much talk about faith and what people believe, and it gives us a chance to think about belief in a different way. What if God or whatever deity you believe in is a woman or even a genderless being? It is an honor and an amazing experience to have the opportunity as a woman of color to be able to do something new with a wonderful piece of art. The arts are flipping so much these days to upset the status quo and past stereotypes in order to make the arts more diverse, so we're able to see ourselves represented on stage in these roles. It's so great to have the opportunity to open the door to others who looks like me to be able to play a part like Jesus. I think it goes beyond just playing a higher power religious figure, too-it's giving a person of color the chance to see themselves represented in this traditional story. At the end of the day it's nice to see that whatever you believe in it could look like you and that all human beings have a story to tell.
BWW: What is the most challenging part of directing/acting in Godspell?
Lapp: One challenge is that we're doing it the round, so the audience is on all 4 sides. It is also set in a futuristic dystopian environment where the United States has crumbled, and the people have had to try to live and hide out in this environment. Then Jesus comes to those people...It's a darker side to the piece that gives it some more weight. Godspell can be done in such a cartoonish and clownlike way, which is fun, but the version we're doing gives it more context along with a warning about where this country could be headed. So, it's interesting to me because my problem with Godspell was always that there was no conflict in the beginning of the show and then it seems to suddenly take a turn in the second act with the betrayal and crucifixion. So, it's been fun to play with the fact that in this version the people have this difficult life to go through and they experience conflict from the beginning. It's exciting, but also challenging to re-imagine it this way.
Harris: I think it's just going to be the big emotional switch when act two hits. Jesus goes from being relatively carefree, teaching lessons to the people, but it gets very emotional very quickly. I think that'll be the challenge-to shake off act one and get into act two-as Jesus realizes that there isn't much time left to teach these people valuable lessons. I have to remember that it's time to get serious. Jesus is so eager to teach, and in his final days tries to do the best he can to teach his people. Finding that sense of urgency without it seeming like fear is an important balance.
BWW: Godspell has been performed and revived numerous times. What aspects of your production will make it stand out from the crowd?
Lapp: Along with performing it in the round and setting it in a dystopian future, we've also cast an African American woman as Jesus. This has added an amazing new layer to the story and the Jesus that we know. At the end when Judas betrays her, you have a white male betraying an African American woman, which creates complicated nuances to the story and evokes a multitude of emotions. It offers new insight into who Jesus was, and that's what I'm excited about. All of the versions I've seen have cast Jesus as a white male. So now we get to see the feminine side of Christ, which is another interesting layer for this production, as it breaks down the stereotypes and genders and gives us the freedom to tell the story the way we want to tell it.
BWW: There are so many great songs in Godspell encompassing various styles. What is your favorite song in the show and why?
Lapp: That's tough. The two that spring to mind are "God Save the People" at the top of the show. It's all about feeling the power that Jesus brings into the room-it's really electric. And "All Good Gifts is just so beautiful. We do it with some sign language, so it becomes a lyrical dance that is just stunning.
BWW: If a potential audience member is not religious, why should they come to see Godspell?
Lapp: First of all, you can't beat the music in this show. Regardless of whether you're religious or not, the music can be enjoyed by anyone. We also don't hit people over the head with religion in this production. There's a lot that can be learned from the show about community, whether religious or not, and there are many playful moments that anyone can laugh at. We poke fun at modern culture and the history of where we've come from. There are contemporary elements to the show. An audience member who simply enjoys theater will enjoy this production.
BWW: If you could see any famous actor or actress, alive or dead, play Jesus in Godspell, who would it be?
Lapp: I think Robin Williams would have been amazing in the role with his sense of energy and comedic timing. There are so many things he could have done to play with the cast that would bring a whole new level to the show.
Harris: It could go so many different ways. I would love to see Zac Efron-he has a great voice and is such a beautiful man. Actually, I Take That back...I'd love to see another woman in this role. Maybe someone like Sara Bareilles-that would be very cool.
BWW: Do you have any final thoughts you'd like to share with our readers?
Lapp: Another fun tidbit of information is that my sister is the choreographer for the show, so we are enjoying doing it together. We actually worked on Godspell together the very first time I did it, so we've come full circle.
Harris: This show is not just a tale from the Bible. It's a story of human beings coming together during a time of doom and gloom and learning how to love as a group rather than just being selfish. It's about looking out for others and reaching out a helping hand and being loving to all who come into your life because they're there for a reason. It shows us how to become a better version of ourselves as we see the disciples do in the show.
Purchase your tickets at www.primalancaster.org before it's too late!