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Stagestruck in Muskoka
By John McTavish
Back in 1977, I was the minister of Bracebridge United Church. That fall, our congregation mounted a five-night run of the Broadway musical Godspell.
The young people in the church and community were happy to audition for roles but no one wanted the role of Jesus. Girls weren’t playing the part in those days, and the guys shied away from the role on account of all the lines that had to be memorized. Besides, the guys soon realized that Jesus’s disciples had the best comic moments in the show.
Our director, Ted Duff, suggested that I take the lead role. I was a mediocre singer and worse dancer, but a decent enough actor. In any case, I accepted the challenge.
A representative of the Bracebridge Examiner came to our opening night performance and took a picture of me in action, wearing of course Godspell’s traditional Jesus outfit: blue and yellow Superman shirt, red clown-like stripped pants along with my Afro haircut.
I really did look more like an actor than a lowly minister. Still, I had my ministerial duties to perform during the week. In fact, after the opening night performance, my wife informed me that a young woman in a nearby town, whom I had known from our high school days in Toronto, had fallen victim to postpartum depression and died by her own hand. Her husband had just called asking me to take the funeral.
Of course, I agreed, and in fact visited the husband that night.
The funeral was held on Friday, two days later. I remember coming home from the afternoon service feeling sad and completely exhausted. Fortunately, I had a chance to lie down for an hour or so before the evening performance.
“Oh no, you can’t lie down yet,” my wife said. “There are a couple kids over at the church waiting to speak to you. They want to close the show down.”
“They want to – what?”
“Close the show down. They think the picture in the paper showing Jesus in a clown outfit proves that Godspell is sacrilegious.”
“Good Lord,” I said. Yet I knew I had to talk to these kids. However ridiculous their criticism, they could easily do a lot of damage. Hide some of our props. Fiddle with the sound equipment. Who knows what kind of angry mischief they might get into.
So I went over to the church and met the two boys, and ended up explaining that by dressing Jesus up in clown-like stripped pants and a Superman shirt, Godspell is not engaging in anything that could be described as sacrilegious. It’s just a way of bringing out Jesus’ charismatic child-like spirit in a stage production.
I actually seemed to be making some progress, at least with one of the kids. But the other boy wasn’t so sure. “All right,” he finally said. “We’ll let you do the show.”
I liked that: We’ll let you do the show.
Then he added: “But only if you put Jesus in a bathrobe.”
“I’m afraid that’s not my decision to make,” I calmly explained. “But I’ll see what the director thinks of it.”
This seemed to mollify them and they soon left the church, allowing me to go home and get a little rest before the performance that night.
However, on the following night, just before our final Saturday performance, the two young soldiers for the Lord returned, marching up and down the sidewalk before show time, carrying placards that read:
“Jesus Christ – Saviour, Lord, King, but not Clown.”
This was okay. In fact, it gave us all a good laugh.
The following week, the Examiner ran a cartoon by Cathy Nicholson that showed picketers brandishing signs during one of our performances of Godspell. The signs read: “No! No! That’s Not the Way It Was.” And “No Way Close!” And “No! No!”
The caption underneath read, “But isn’t good news still good news, no matter how it’s told?”
Our sentiments exactly.
John McTavish was the minister of Bracebridge United Church from 1975 to 1982. He lives today in Huntsville. The old clown outfit is hiding in a trunk in his basement.