In the summer of 1998, movie audiences were "treated" to rival movies about meteors that were going to destroy the planet unless a small team of astronauts saved the day. And while Deep Impact and Armageddon weren't exactly cinematic classics, they certainly gave their respective audiences plenty to talk about.
The Broadway community was given a similar situation in 1971 when two shows opened in New York about the last days of Jesus. The shows were Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell.
While both pieces focus on the same characters and are arguably the best works from their respective composers, they are much different from one another both musically and thematically. JSC is a rock opera while Godspell dabbles in various musical styles. While Godspell focuses on the Gospel according to Matthew, JSC takes its interpretation from multiple Gospels. In my opinion, Godspell is more celebratory while JSC is more investigatory. While JSC stirred up a lot of controversy, Godspell is considered a safe choice and endorsed by many church groups. In most cases it comes down between a show that is full of improvisation versus envelope pushing.
But which one is better? There probably isn't an answer for that. My personal favorite is Godspell but only because I've been involved with multiple productions of it and never have done JSC.
I asked my friend who I know has done both productions and he sent me the following:
Godspell I see as a far more reverent piece. The script is primarily taken from the gospels of St Matthew and the show was written and conceived in a very communal environment where the original cast had direct input to the songs and construction of the show and therefore has a much more personal feel to it. Also, the staging of Godspell is a very organic process. The version you've seen in the film mirrors the original off-Broadway production where the cast were portrayed as children playing games and learning through the parables. Later productions (including mine) were far different staging it in more modern settings and allowing the show to evolve. Also, there is a very improvisational aspect to the show in that the staging of the parables themselves are very up to interpretation and open to adding modern pop culture to the show making it accessible to newer audiences. It's these aspects that I think make Godspell a much more artistic show.
'Superstar' on the other hand is not only a fantastic piece of political and social commentary told through the final days of Jesus Christ, it is also Andrew Lloyd Webber's most brilliant musical he ever wrote! The show I find to be much more about Judas Iscariot, portraying him as a tragic figure and Jesus is portrayed more as a prophet who's divinity is constantly in question and is seen more as a man than in any other portrayal. It is a show that over thirty years later is still seen as controversial and really pushes the envelope in terms of telling the story of this historic and biblical figure.
In the end I enjoy both shows for different reasons and feel both are fantastic works of theatre that should be seen by everyone.