The Playgoer: Scholars Corner: The Gospel at Colonus, II

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Sunday, September 05, 2010

Scholars Corner: The Gospel at Colonus, II

by Matt Roberson

Between 1981 and 83, Gospel was produced for audiences in various stages of development along a route of small theatres and performing arts centers, described at the time as "avant-garde institutions." This tour took the show to Europe, where Gospel was presented, albeit still in a small form, at the Edinburgh International Festival.  There, it was seen by a critic from Britain named James Fenton, who enjoyed the show so much that he began working to get Breuer and company a featured profile on The South Bank Show, an arts program on BBC.  This profile, according to Breuer, was the support needed to move Gospel forward.  Following South Bank, this odd combination of black gospel and Greek poetry was added to the 1983 Next Wave Festival, which in turn led to the additions of the Blind Boys of Alabama and Morgan Freeman to the cast for that production.

The response to the work was almost unbelievable.  The audience demand was such that following the closing of the fest, Gospel was brought back for two more additional weeks of performance.  In the papers, the the critics couldn't have sung higher praises.  The Voice's Michael Feingold, in his review of Gospel, wrote, "it does something so basic to theatre, and so foreign to the culture and thought of our century, that putting it into words is a shock: Gospel at Colonus makes you feel good about being human."

The next five years found the show touring the US as well as appearing in a couple European festivals. In Atlanta, Gospel broke box office records at The Alliance. There was also an original cast album, of which Steely Dan's Donald Fagan is credited as a producer (talk about mixing the wine with the holy water).  In 1985, PBS aired a production from Philadelphia as part of its Great Performances series (the DVD is available today, and captures the energy of the show well).  Finally, in 1988, Gospel returned to New York for a Broadway run at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. 

Though I'm still trying to figure out why, if it's even possible, the response to Gospel on Broadway had none of the awe and magnetism of 1983.  The production closed after only two months, and garnered tepid reviews.  Even Mel Gussow, who raved about the show in 1983, felt something had been lost by 1988.  Most notably was the review of Frank Rich, who prior to this had developed a poisonous relationship with Lee Breuer and his work.  Rich was positive about the singing, but separated it from the overall play, calling Breuer's efforts "glib intellectualism."  Breuer responded by telling an interviewer with Bomb Magazine that Rich was the reason the director was never able to make money in his profession.  But Rich's loaded assessment aside, the hard truth is that Gospel was no longer the beloved piece of art it had been five years prior, at least not amongst Broadway audiences and theatre writers.

The Gospel at Colonus continues to be performed, with at least some of the original cast intact.  This year, the work played at Minnesota's Ordway Center and, after almost thirty years, at the Edinburgh International Festival.  I can only dream that this resurgence will lead to a New York performance in the coming years, though with a big, expensive cast of 60+, I'm not hopeful.  I guess, as they say, it's in the hands of the gods now.


sbs said...

I caught it during the recent run in Edinburgh - totally stunning, barring the inexplicable addition of some atrocious video/projection design. That aside, it holds up well; a joyous, powerful piece of theater.

matt said...

a review of that one i read said the same thing. i'm in the process of setting up an interview with Alison Yerxa, who has designed the work since the beginning. It will certainly come up.

then again, one my favorite aspects about this show is how it constantly changes and evolves. thanks for sharing.

Edward Einhorn said...

I saw The Gospel in Colonus when it was revived at the Apollo Theater about five years ago. Having absolutely loved Dollhouse and Peter and Wendy, I expected great things. I must say, I was disappointed.

But it is very well possible that it lost something. Breuer tends to fiddle with his shows, sometimes with unfortunate effect. The first production of Dollhouse was one of the most powerful pieces of theater I have ever seen. The recent revival at St. Ann's was deeply, deeply flawed. I thought I was alone is that assessment, until I talked with two other people who had exactly the same reaction. Unfortunately, the play had changed so much it lost its original magic.

George Hunka said...

I saw that same Apollo Theatre production, Edward -- after having seen the show during its BAM run in 1983 and its touring production in Philadelphia about a year or two later. I agree that the Apollo revival lacked the excitement of the first two productions (as did the PBS telecast of the show, which did not reflect the thrill of the live performance itself).

Because it worked at the Zellerbach in Philadelphia and at BAM, and not at the Apollo (this last did not seem too different from the original production to me), I wonder how much venue itself contributes to the success of the show. Both BAM and the Zellerbach presented the production on a thrust stage, unlike the Apollo revival (and unlike the Broadway production). Moved into the audience, the play generated a greater intimacy which a proscenium production would lack.