In Part 1 of a series of interviews with the cast of Godspell at Olney Theatre Center, meet Jordan Coughtry.
Joel: Please introduce yourself and tell our readers where they may have seen you in the past year on local stages?
Hi, I’m Jordan Coughtry. You actually haven’t seen me on any local stages in the past year because this is my first time in the area! Well, I spent a remarkable year doing non-union work at the Shakespeare Theatre Company, but that was lo these many years ago. So I’m very happy to get to know a bit of the theater community here, and happy to be at Olney Theatre Center. It’s proving to be quite a special place.
Why did you want to be part of Godspell at Olney Theatre Center?
I wanted to be in a musical. I truck with Shakespeare and the classics primarily, and while music has always been an important part of my life, the opportunity to do a musical just doesn’t come up. Ever. So the chance to work on one came along (it terrified me, which is a good sign) and I jumped at it.
I’ve known Jason King Jones (our director) for a while now, and I’ve gotten to work with him a nice handful of times. I believe in his intelligence, compassion, humor and commitment as a director and as a man, so if he’s working on something, I know I wanna get on board. Then I got to meet Chris Youstra (our music director) and things really started going downhill. Kidding!! I’m kidding. He’s fantastic! – open and honest and sharp and supportive and so freaking funny. I knew the play would be in great hands, and so would I.
One of my mom and dad’s favorite pre-marriage stories is from high school. Their graduation present was a day-trip to New York City by themselves to see Jesus Christ Superstar. They had just enough money for bus-fare, matinee tickets, dinner, and bus-fare back. They went, saw the show, and were on their way to dinner in the West Village when they heard this music coming out of a door on Commerce St. They were drawn in, spent their dinner money, and saw the Off-Broadway production of Godspell. It blew them away. The woman who sang “Turn Back, O Man” actually came into the audience and sat on my dad’s lap – a moment he still talks about. They went home, a few months later the songs started being played on the radio, and they said, “Hey, that’s that great show we saw!”
2014 was a particularly difficult and painful year for me and my family. It really cracked my foundation, and banished things like belief and faith. So I deeply wanted to breathe the joyful, high-minded, whole-hearted, music-tinged air of Godspell for a while.
Why is this musical so relevant today and what does it have to say to audiences of all ages?
Godspell will always be relevant. It’s about what it means to be good, and makes you ask yourself how deep into goodness you are willing to go. It takes things a step further, too, to the level of standing up to false authority and hypocrisy in the name of that goodness. It’s based on the Gospel of St. Matthew, but it wears it’s dogma very gently, which lets the heartbeat of the message ring out free and clear. Jesus’ parables are told through songs, stories and games. It’s so much fun, and it stirs your moral center at the same time.
Who do you play in the show and what songs do you sing? If you have a solo tells us what it is and what the song means to the character and to you.
I play Jesus in the show. It’s hard to say, sometimes, what’s a solo and what’s not in this because we all support each other in the songs as we do in every aspect of the show. This piece is really about the whole group, and I don’t feel like I do anything alone. But we each carry some songs more than others, and I sing a few that have quite distinct meanings.
The first is “Save The People,” which is a strange song in that it’s the way Jesus introduces himself to this community of strangers, but he does it by speaking directly to God. So they witness him appealing to God on the behalf of the common man, and that inspires them to do the same. I love it because separates our worth from our wealth and our value from our celebrity – we are all the children of God and that is enough. In the song, we make a clear demand of God, in no uncertain terms, to save us. It’s such an uplifting, unifying and empowering part of the show. Also, it has the line, “Flowers of Thy heart, O God, are they. Let them not pass like weeds away,” which gets me every time.
Later on I sing “Alas For You,” which is a very different song. Jesus is speaking to the Pharisees who keep mocking him and trying to make him purger himself or say something they can condemn him for. In the song, Jesus snaps. He completely loses his patience and unleashes his anger and frustration at them, calling out their hypocrisy and railing against the damage their laws have done to the people. I love that he uses the word, “Alas.” In his deepest rage, he cares about them.
I also sing a song called “Beautiful City,” which is about rebuilding after things fall apart. It’s a particularly beautiful song, and when I sing it I sing it to the cast, I sing it to myself, I sing it to my wife and son, I sing it to my friends and my family, I sing it to strangers who don’t have anywhere to go on cold nights like tonight, I sing it to my mom. It’s a song of hope.
Have you appeared in other productions of Godspell and who did you play, and how is this production different and unique?
You know what? I have! When I was 7 years old I was in Godspell at summer camp. I don’t remember much. We got to draw on white t-shirts with magic markers to make our own costumes. When the director was going around giving parts to people, I apparently went up to her and said, “I wanna be Jesus.” At 7 years old. That didn’t work out, but I do remember I got to sing the line, “But if that light is under a bushel, it’s lost something kind of crucial.” Our production is VERY different from that, but it’s unique from any production I’ve ever heard of. We’re reworking a lot of the scenes in some really cool ways. This show definitely has a lot of surprises. But mostly, the uniqueness is in the world we’re creating. The scenic design is spectacular, and gives the play a grit and an edge that feels new and exciting to Godspell.
What is your favorite song in the show and why?
This is an impossible question to answer. There isn’t a single song that I don’t love. But if I have to pick one… I’ll go with Light of the World. It’s just unabashedly ebullient, and I love singing it to my little boy when we dance around the apartment together.
Which character in the show is most like you, and why?
All the characters in this show are inspired and activated by what each actor brings to them. We are an ensemble of everymen and everywomen, and I think the only way to do that effectively is to humble yourself, and be a window to your own truth. So, in that way, I think I’m most like Jesus in this show. Not that I have a messianic complex or anything. I identify with his love and appreciation for the people around him. I am in awe of this cast, and I spend a lot of time watching them in slack-jawed amazement, so Jesus does too. They inspire me creatively, and they do the same for him. I’m entering new territory with this show, and sometimes feel like a bit of an outsider, and so does Jesus as he meets this community of people. So much of his fun, silliness, frustration, grief is pulled from my own heart. His story is not mine, and the quality of his character is far better, but we both use our humanity to inspire and share with others. We’re both artists.
What do you admire most about your fellow castmates’ performances?
Oh man, is there an “All of the above” option? The way they sing, the way they move, blows my mind. Their kindness and generosity as people and as professionals makes work feel like home. The desire to deepen their understanding and personalize their relationship with this play is what makes this unique production work. But I think the thing I admire most is how well they, we, work together. They take ideas and run with them, everybody is game to play, and there’s an egoless trust in each other that’s really beautiful to be around. To be a part of.
How would you describe a Stephen Schwartz song and this score?
I don’t think I really know how to do this. Steve Martin said, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture,” and I’m inclined to agree. But I’ll try. I find Stephen Schwartz songs (what I know of them) to be guileless and enlightened. You don’t always get a lot of plot, they tend to be about big ideas. This score is very eclectic. It’s jubilant and edifying and has melodies that will stay with you for the rest of your life.
What was the best advice or suggestions that Director Jason King Jones about laying your character and how has Musical Director Christopher Youstra helped you with your performance?
The first day of rehearsal, Jason said that cynicism has no place in this process. I think this really freed us to keep our hearts open, and to keep our creativity alive and saying “yes” to the ideas that came along. For me, I appreciate how he’s helped me release my sense of humor and silliness into the character. Chris has helped me bring a bit of an edge to the performance. I came in with a bit of passive benevolence, and Chris has helped gauge when and how to expose more of the fire burning within.
How would you describe Bryan Knowlton’s choreography and what was the hardest thing to learn?
Bryan’s choreography is so much freaking fun. It bursts and flows with the same jubilance as the music, and keeps the grit of the world we’re creating. It feels like he tailored each move to the strengths of our group. We go from totally rocking out to these delicate beautiful movements that break your heart. Choreography is where my experience is the most lacking, but everything Bryan’s designed for us makes so much sense, and is such a joy to do. I can’t think of anything that’s been the hardest to learn, I mean it’s all been challenging in ways, but it fits so perfectly it feels natural.
Why should audience goers bring their families to see Godspell?
Come for the joy of it. If you’ve seen Godspell before, you’ve never seen it like this. And if you haven’t, come experience it for the first time! Wherever your faith lies, you’ll love this show. The music will stay with you forever, the talent and energy of this cast is amazing, and the story is all about goodness and brotherly love and challenging hypocrisy. I guarantee you’ll leave feeling kinder, more generous, more loving and more hopeful than when you came.