I talked with "The Gospel at Colonus" creators Lee Breuer and Bob Telson shortly before the musical's opening at the Lunt-Fontanne. Breuer expressed concern that critics who had lauded the show in its 1983 Brooklyn Academy of Music debut might take a harsher view now that it had arrived in the commercial big time. Having saluted it in '83, I waved that concern away. However, after seeing "Gospel" for the second time, I wave some of that concern back.
Its conception is still innovative and brilliant: the great Sophoclean drama of "Oedipus at Colonus," with its theme of suffering and redemption, made immediate by weaving it into a service of the modern black Pentecostal Church. In 1983, the sheer force of that vision - realized by a cast of 64 that featured the rousing hymns and anthems of black choirs - nearly overwhelmed the senses. True, it seemed somewhat longer than it should be, but the power of Sophocles' drama driven by the sometimes-ecstatic musical segments left the viewer on a high that lasted all the way home.
The drawbacks of "Gospel" are a bit more apparent now. The 2 1/2 hour "parable on the ways of fate" is too extended. Despite inspired acting from Morgan Freeman - this man could play any classic any day - and solid performing from such as Isabell Monk as Antigone, the Rev. Earl Miller as Theseus and Jevetta Steele as Ismene, lulls occur. In a way, it's almost inevitabel: Ecstatic moments there are (the soaring anthems: "No Never" and "Lift Him Up"); yet you cannot maintain ecstasy constantly because it would cease to be ecstasy and become the norm.
Moreover, probably because of the massed singing, many of the lyrics are unintelligible, a severe loss since quite a few are Sophocles' own, albeit through the Robert Fitzgerald translation.
Withal, the power of this production cannot be denied. There is no Broadway musical - none - that attains the rarefied heights the "Gospel" does at its best. There is no Broadway musical that weds moral weight to entertainment like "Gospel." Enhanced by Alison Yerxa's apocalyptical set design, it should be seen, drawbacks and all.
Rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham, but they have made a hot gospel out of that old House of Atreus.
Gospel shows have been a Broadway rage for many years now, but "The Gospel at Colonus," which opened at the Lunt-Fontanne Theater, is a gospel show with a difference. But, for all the difference, it is still a gospel show!
Like all of its genre, this newcomer, a highbrow, high-bred newcomer at that, is theatrical without being theater. It is to the musical theater what oratorio or cantata is to opera, and despite some adroit staging and attractive decorative effects, "The Gospel at Colonus" would be as much at home in a concert hall, or Madison Square Garden, as it is on Broadway.
The concept is fascinating. The idea is to take a service in a black Pentecostal church, but instead of using a biblical parable as its basis, the Pastor utilizes the Sophocles' story of Oedipus Rex, or rather his years of exile in Colonus.
The result is an illustrated meditation on the ways of God and fate, and, very particularly, the preparation a soul might make for a happy death.
This seemingly secular tragedy used for Christian purposes introduces a curious and effective sense of universality to the theme - although the Christian message of redemption through faith might come as a surprise to Sophocles, wherever he should have found himself.
The story, with all its Hellenic convolutions, is certainly as dramatic as any in the bible.
I have never been to a Pentecostal service, but I get the impression that this is a fair, if obviously dramatized, example.
The show, which has original, but not very original, gospel music - all highly intense, and even more spirited than spiritual - by Bob Telson, has been staged by the Mabou Mines founder, Lee Breuer, and it was originally given, with great success, as part of the Brooklyn Academy of Music's avant-gardist Next Wave Festival in 1983.
It has since toured widely and been seen on public television.
It looks fascinating. The communicants are seated on bleachers in fancy finery - costumes by Ghretta Hynd - and the church is suggested by a Alison Yerxa's fantastic backcloth, which wonderfully suggests a Rubens apotheosis as seen through the eyes of Heironymous Bosch.
Against this colorful background, which finds its stage focus in a white piano, a lectern and decorated movable platform and stairs from which entrances and exits can be made, the service proceeds and unfolds.
The show's ace-in-the-hole, surprisingly enough, is not its concept but a performance. It is the presence of the Pastor, as played by the marvelous Morgan Freeman.
Whether Freeman is taking us into his confidence as a very gentle hell-fire preacher, or whether he is acting as narrator or messenger for the story of Oedipus, he grasps the whole theater audience and somehow transforms it into a congregation.
It is a marvelous portrayal, in which even his hesitations and blurrings have a startling spontaneity to them.
As the rest of the show is almost totally lacking in this quality of spontaneity - it is a very contrived naturalism that is being achieved here - Freeman holds it together in the palm of his capable hand.
The singing is unequivocally terrific. Clarence Fountain (the admirably urbane Oedipus) and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, Martin Jacox and J.J. Farley and the Soul Stirrers, are both legendary gospel groups - here offering truth behind the legend.
J.D. Steele is a bundle of firecrackers as the choir director, and his J.D. Steele Singers are another excellent group incorporated into the musical fabric.
Among the solo actors, I admired the dignity of Robert Earl Jones as a church deacon nominated to play Creon, and Kevin Davis, sinisterly powerful as the treacherous son, Polyneices. The Reverend Earl F. Miller (a genuine Pentacostal minister who advised on the proper liturgical style) proved a tower of strength as the assistant pastor who plays Theseus.
At the end of this almost ecumenical pagan-Christian celebration, I could not help noting that the pagans seemed to have the last laugh. The Hallelujas of that closing hymn sounded suspiciously Dionysiac.
Sophocles would have understood. Wherever he should have found himself.
If you need an intellectual justification for listening to thrilling gospel music, you'll find enough to fill a doctoral dissertation at ''The Gospel at Colonus,'' the musical adaptation of ''Oedipus at Colonus'' at the Lunt-Fontanne.
This is a show that never stops advertising its high-mindedness, whether in its program notes or on stage. But happily, there is the music, too, and it is so rousing, both as written by Bob Telson and performed by some of the nation's premier gospel singers, that the considerable spoken text, adapted by the director, Lee Breuer, from Sophocles, can never completely upstage it. When the Institutional Radio Choir from Brooklyn, 30-strong and festively attired, sways in its grandstand and erupts in peals of sound, even a cynic may feel that the tidal wave of music is lifting him to some higher, ecstatic plane.
Mr. Telson's score is an explosion born of fusion. If some of his songs invoke classic gospel forms, others take us to the frontiers where gospel bleeds into jazz, rock and the blithest AM-radio pop. The driving band, led by the animated composer at one of several hot keyboards, blends its organ with a synthesizer, drums, saxophones and guitars. One can feel the excitement Mr. Telson must have had mixing up instrumentation, voices and songwriting genres and how much fun he must have had tailoring the results for the legendary artists assembled: Clarence Fountain and the Five Blind Boys of Alabama, J. J. Farley and the Soul Stirrers, the J. D. Steele Singers. As Mr. Telson fuses varied sounds, so he can bring together these distinctive groups, to the point where they often seem to be engaged in a vocalizing Olympics held in gospel heaven.
The rest of ''The Gospel at Colonus'' attempts other forms of cultural fusion but with far less grace. The evening's unwieldy grand plan is announced by its setting, designed by Alison Yerxa: the singers and musicians inhabit a visually jumbled amphitheater that is part biblical paradise (a celestial mural serves as a cyclorama), part classical playhouse (a column hugs the proscenium) and part bare-bones American church. Mr. Breuer is out to demonstrate that Sophocles' valedictory tragedy, in which the blinded and destitute Oedipus reaches his final redemption after 20 years in exile, can be performed as if it were a black Pentecostal worship service.
To be sure, the idea has a superficial, Ivy League bull-session cleverness about it. In Mr. Breuer's scheme, the Greek chorus becomes a choir, Theseus becomes an assistant pastor (played by an actual pastor, the Rev. Earl F. Miller), and various parts of the play (in the Robert Fitzgerald translation) are restyled into hymns, prayers, a sermon and so on. But the execution is far from seamless and, given Mr. Breuer's experimental theater work with the Mabou Mines, surprisingly retrograde in form and static in staging. Like the most antiquated musicals, ''The Gospel at Colonus'' divides into book scenes (lengthy regurgitations of Sophocles) and musical numbers (which sometimes regurgitate the regurgitations), and one soon gets restless between song cues. Although the evening indeed resembles a church service, it does so with a pedantry that comes at a steep theatrical price.
In its effort to be faithful to both the Sophoclean and the Pentecostal, the show, like its set, doesn't so much synthesize its two sources as jam them together. It is typical of the work's duplication of effort that the role of Oedipus is assigned to Mr. Fountain, who is blind, and his Five Blind Boys - a wonderful notion - and yet is not really acted by them. The true dramatic voice of Oedipus resides in Morgan Freeman, who narrates the role while playing the church's pastor. Though there are no doubt cerebral rationales galore for this cumbersome division of labor, the practical reason is obvious: Mr. Fountain and the Five Blind Boys are not great actors, and Mr. Freeman is not a great singer. Yet the split between singers and actors in ''The Gospel at Colonus'' bogs down the inexorable flow of ''Oedipus at Colonus'' even as it robs Mr. Freeman of the chance to act the entirety of a tragic protagonist made for his gifts. Trapped in his preacher's pose, this actor is exploited mainly for his rich voice and dignified presence - a profligate waste of one of the theater's most spectacular talents.
The other nonsinging performances are ordinary, and by the time Oedipus' traitorous son, Polyneices, appears as a slangy punk in black leather and chains (a vulgar notion worthy of Andrew Lloyd Webber's biblical musicals), one wonders why Mr. Breuer is bothering with ''Oedipus at Colonus'' at all. However much of Sophocles can be shoehorned into a church service, the matching up of Christian theology with Greek mythology remains a marriage of glib intellectual convenience that distorts and dilutes both. Instead of liberating its singers, ''The Gospel at Colonus'' seems to hem them in - gratuitously requiring that Afro-American artists worship at a shrine of Western culture before they can let loose with their own, equally valid art.
This pretentiousness is not to be found either in Mr. Telson's music, which seems at one with the gospel performers rather than an attempt to colonize them, or in Mr. Breuer's lyrics, to the extent that they survive the amplification. When Jevetta Steele, as Ismene, sings a piercing ''How Shall I See You Through My Tears?'' after reuniting with her father, or when the whole congregation rouses itself into a climactic celebratory chorus of ''Lift Him Up,'' one feels a spiritual high that doesn't require the imprimatur of Sophocles for validation. While the nonmusical sequences of ''The Gospel at Colonus'' offer something less than a religious catharsis, they do provide ample time for those so inclined to meditate on their own.