Filichia Features: Godspell Goes to the Circus

Filichia Features: Godspell Goes to the Circus

They swear they had the idea before Diane Paulus announced what she was doing.

So imagine the agony felt by Joshua Dean and Ben Franklin (yup, that’s his real name) when they read in 2011 that Paulus, the artistic director of American Repertory Theater, was planning a production of Pippin  -- Stephen Schwartz’s second hit -- with a circus theme.

Dean and Franklin had for years been talking about doing Godspell – Stephen Schwartz’s first hit – set in a circus. “It’d be reimagined and relevant but also respectful,” said Franklin.

Well, much better late than never. This May, Dean and Franklin saw Arkansas Repertory Theatre present their circus-centric Godspell.

Dean and Franklin certainly know the territory; the former is the artistic director and the latter the co-managing director of an outfit which they endearingly call 2 Ring Circus. The New York-based actors saw their big dream come true in Little Rock.

From the outset, Dean and Franklin didn’t plan to change the script. Still, they felt that they needed Stephen Schwartz to approve their adding circus acts to the show.

Within two weeks, Schwartz did.

(Remember, friends, if you have a new interpretation of a musical, don’t be afraid to ask the authors. All they can say is no – and they just might say yes.)

To stage it, Dean and Franklin called one of their favorite directors: Donna (A Chorus Line) Drake, with whom they had worked at the fondly remembered Seaside Music Theater in Daytona Beach, Florida. She loved the idea.

Godspell has been famous for not specifically naming its characters, but instead has traditionally used the first names of the actors assigned to the parts. So Stephen Nathan and David Haskell, who respectively originated the roles of Jesus and Judas, were identified as Stephen and David in the 1971 program.

Here instead the 13 performers were identified by their circus roles: Dean as White Clown and Franklin as Hula Hooper shared the stage with Tall Clown, Dog Clown, Bearded Lady, Aerialist, et al.

Check out photos on Arkansas Repertory Theatre's Facebook Page. 

The 2 Ring Circus lads also had another concept. Said Franklin, “Everyone tries to update Godspell; we wanted to update and yet keep it as the period piece that it is.”

So they set it in 1968 – “the year,” said Dean, “that Ringling Brothers, Barnum & Bailey were doing so well that they moved from big tents to bigger arenas.”

“And small circuses died,” added Franklin. “They were shutting doors left and right because they seemed puny in comparison.”

That wasn’t all. Said Dean, “1968 was the year of terrible racial unrest with riots and the assassination of Martin Luther King.”

“We even thought about setting our Godspell in Memphis,” said Franklin. “But we didn’t want people to think we meant Jesus to be Dr. King, especially because we envisioned an actor of color in that role.”

And they got an excellent one in Hakim Rashad McMillan.

“So,” continued Franklin, “we decided that Birmingham, Alabama – another city where racial tensions ran high that year – would be where ‘The John Judas Traveling Circus’ is facing foreclosure and auction.”

Only a miracle could save it – and who’s more in the miracle business than Jesus Christ? Trouble is, the authorities are after him. In fact, the Arkansas Rep lobby was plastered with “Wanted” posters with McMillan’s picture and vital statistics.

So the piercing sound of police sirens would occasionally interrupt the various scenes, parables, songs and circus acts. Officers of the law would eventually apprehend Jesus, put him on trial as well as to death.

Those who castigate standard-issue circuses for their incarceration and treatment of lions and tigers and bears would be pleased by 2 Ring Circus: no animals were harmed in the making of Godspell, for humans played them. Lani Corson, the Animal Trainer, cracked her whip in time to the music of “O, Bless the Lord, My Soul” and actually cut a flower out of an “animal’s” mouth on the song's button.

“By the way,” Dean said, “on the day we started rehearsals, “Ringling Brothers closed their doors forever.”

Conventional sexiness was abandoned during “Turn Back, O Man.” Although it’s usually sung by someone who could pass for Mary Magdalene, here Bearded Lady --- with enough whiskers to equip The Cowardly Lion -- delivered it snazzily. (Thank you, Aymee Garcia.)

Drake’s excellent production was peppered with the wonderful and whimsical circus props: oversized boxing gloves, a stage-filling wheel, balls and cigar boxes that were expertly juggled. There were high-wire and trapeze acts, but below them during “We Beseech Thee,” Franklin worked a hula hoop down to his the ankles and back up to his waist before adding another and yet another. (That gave a whole new meaning to the term “three-ring circus.”)

Eventually Franklin had 19 hoops all around him, making him resemble a giant human Slinky.

Matthew 26:40 tells us that on Holy Thursday while Jesus prayed, the apostles fell asleep. Those who attended this Godspell did not.

“We wanted an audience to be delighted, dazzled, touched and maybe even transformed,” said Franklin. I can attest that 2 Ring Circus achieved that aim. To quote another smash hit from the ‘70s: “Oh, what a circus! Oh, what a show!”

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You may e-mail Peter at Check out his weekly column each Monday at and Tuesday at His book, The Great Parade: Broadway’s Astonishing, Never-To-Be Forgotten 1963-1964 Season is now available at