After seven seasons as promiscuous pot dealer Silas Botwin on Showtime's Weeds, Hunter Parrish is atoning for his on-camera sins by playing Jesus in the first Broadway revival of Godspell, Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak's popular rock musical based on parables from the Gospel of Matthew. A long-running Off-Broadway hit that premiered in 1971, Godspell originally transferred to Broadway in 1976 and was also adapted into a 1973 film. Director Daniel Goldstein has reassembled the design team of his acclaimed 2006 Paper Mill Playhouse production for the new revival, which officially opens Nov. 7 at the Circle in the Square Theatre (adjacent to Schwartz's Wicked at the Gershwin). Parrish, 24, who made his Broadway debut in 2008 as Melchior Gabor in the final cast of Spring Awakening, details his personal relationship to Jesus and how it prepared him for such an almighty part.
By Brandon Voss
Playbill: How familiar were you with Godspell before you got cast in the new revival?
Hunter Parrish: Not very. I'd seen the movie a long time ago, maybe when I was in 8th or 9th grade, because it's one of my best friends' favorite movies. It's been really exciting to rediscover it and really get into it.
So you're one of the few actors who never did Godspell in high school or community theatre.
I'm one of the few people — not even actors. I swear, it seems like everybody has done the show. Every place I go, someone's done Godspell at some point. I'm getting my haircut the other day, and the guy's like, "Oh, I did that show." It's awesome, and it's so cool to hear. It's exciting to know how many people might be ready to revisit or re-experience it.
Do you feel any pressure because people have preconceived notions and expectations about the material?
Yeah, but the added pressure really comes from trying to reverse peoples' opinions that Godspell is just a religious show about Jesus that comes off as very preachy. Releasing all of that from peoples' minds is more of the battle we're facing.
Many people associate Godspell with the hippy clowns in the original production, but it's a musical that easily lends itself to a director's fresh interpretation. How would you describe Daniel Goldstein's interpretation?
Well, there are no clowns anymore — or, as Danny Goldstein says, "We're still clowns, but we don't have on the makeup and goofy shoes." It's really about finding your inner clown, and that was an important part of his direction. We as people — as Americans in particular — have learned to cover up our clown makeup, and this show is about uncovering the clown we have inside of us. Our production brings us into the modern day, which makes it more real, relevant, and relatable.
Many Weeds fans will come to see you in Godspell, which means there might be some stoners in the audience. Will they enjoy a Godspell without the hippy clowns?
Absolutely. The mindset that's sort of synonymous with pot smokers is, "Relax, man. Enjoy life, spread love, and be cool." Though we've made a departure from the flowery Godspell of the '70s, that way of thinking is still greatly weaved into the story. You can't walk away from the show and not feel happy, energized, and ready to take on the world with a new perspective.
What was your rehearsal process like?
When I first talked to Danny and Ken Davenport, our producer, they made it very clear that the show would be an ensemble and a community. From day one, when we got into the rehearsal space, we basically just goofed around — well, what we thought was goofing around. We actually ended up blocking half the show just through that improvisation, using each other and our teamwork to build relationships and find beautiful moments. It's absolutely been a piece where all 14 of us in the cast — including four swings — can express the different funny bits of who we are, and that's a rare thing.
How hands-on was Stephen Schwartz during rehearsals?
Hands-on is exactly how you would describe him, and it's been the greatest honor. I feel like with some revivals, the original creators are sometimes just counting their dollars and not really caring, but he was at our rehearsals, sharing his insight, and revamping the music with our orchestrator, Michael Holland, who is absolutely genius. He's guided us as actors so much, and it's so important to know that you're being backed by the person who created the material you're doing. He couldn't be greater of a man or more humbled by this opportunity as a composer. He wrote this show when he was 23, 24, which is about the same age that we all are in the cast, so it's been nostalgic for him as well. It's exciting to see him enjoying this moment of his life.
Considering how candid you've been in interviews about your strong Christian beliefs and values, it's fitting that you're playing Jesus. How would you describe your relationship to J.C.?
What's really funny is that one of my best friends that I grew up with — we live together now — is actually named J.C.; I almost wrote something in my Playbill bio about "my best friend J.C.," but I thought it might get confusing. [Laughs.] Yeah, I was born and raised a Christian, but it wasn't until I was 16 that I understood what that meant. And it wasn't until two years ago — and it's continually happening — that I understood that it's less about the religion of Christianity and more about the relationship you have with Jesus. For me, spirituality is really about a relationship, a friendship, with Jesus. It's all about prayer. The same way I would text my mom or a buddy, I pray to Jesus.
How has your faith influenced your interpretation of Jesus in Godspell?
The gospels are the words of Jesus, so you can understand a lot about Him and who He was from that. Godspell is adapted from the Book of Matthew, so I've been able to pull directly from my own understanding of Jesus, growing up and learning those stories. My religious background has helped with my understanding of the material, but it's also the growth I've had as a human and my relationship with Jesus that's helped guide me with the tone of how I feel he should be played in terms of the energy, the joy, the love, and the acceptance.
Has playing Jesus gone to your head?
Not yet. [Laughs] No, the coolest part about Godspell is that Jesus doesn't consider himself to be greater than. He's just a human amongst these people, trying to figure out how to walk through life. There's no pretense to the character, so I hope that rubs off on me.
Your parents must be happy that you're doing Godspell, as opposed to some of your racier past projects.
Well, it is quite a step from Weeds or Spring Awakening. I'm not getting naked on stage this time, which is a relief to my parents. Yeah, they're overjoyed. But I was grateful to do Spring Awakening, and I gained a lot from that experience.
Having been on Broadway before, are you more confident this time around?
A little bit. With Spring Awakening, I was actually able to identify with the character more, because that coming-of-age was where I was in my life. Clearly, I'm nowhere near close to understanding what it's like to be a man like Jesus, so this is more of a journey for me, and it's been a slower process for me to find the character. In that respect, I'm slightly more nervous this time.
Have you felt any major differences between being a replacement in Spring Awakening and being a part of a new production's original cast with Godspell?
It's 180 degrees, man. It's like black and white. There's more of a sense of ownership with Godspell, so I'm trying to feel it in my blood, and my heart is invested in this that much more. I loved, loved, loved and appreciated my experience with Spring Awakening, but I missed out on growing as a family with the other people I was onstage with. You need someone to pick you up if you fall, but you can't have that dynamic without trust, and you can't have trust unless you build it. Building that trust with my Godspell castmates from the beginning, our dynamic onstage is so much stronger, and that's allowed our acting and singing to fall into place more easily. Also, it's incredibly rare to work with a group of people that just fits together like a friggin' puzzle, and I'm so grateful.
What was it like to be in Spring Awakening's final cast? The closing must have been emotional.
Yeah, it was difficult. It was my first Broadway show, so I didn't really know if that was a normal thing. I just didn't really get it at the time, but I learned so much more about that situation after we closed. It was a very young cast, so everyone moving on to other things was also exciting. I made lifelong friends in that production.
Were you able to catch any other Broadway shows while you were still in Godspell rehearsals?
I actually got in town early so I could do that, but moving was sort of a disaster, so I didn't get to do as much as I wanted to. We actually have Wednesday nights off starting later in November, so I'm going to take advantage of those evenings and see as many shows as I can.
Weeds has yet to be picked up for an eighth season. How will you feel if it doesn't come back?
Dude, I will be so angry, and I think the fans who have invested their hearts into the show from the beginning will be angry too. It's frustrating, because we don't know what's happening either, but I'm cautiously optimistic that the story is not over. I think there's a little bit more to tell.
If the show does return, I hope that Silas survives the mysterious gunshot in the cliffhanger.
Thank you! I don't know exactly what that whole thing is about, but hopefully no one dies.
Playbill, October 2011 issue; extended online version.