Newsweek's Jack Kroll called The Gospel at Colonus "one of the most marvelous shows of the decade based on one of the most inspired ideas of any time, a triumph of reconciliation bringing together black and white, pagan and Christian, ancient and modern in a sunburst of joy that seems to touch the secret heart of civilization itself."
The New York Times's Frank Rich termed it "thrilling! The score is an explosion. Even a cynic may feel that the tidal wave of music is lifting him to some higher ecstatic plane." Clive Barnes in the New York Post: "Terrific! Dazzling! Moves the audience to a divine frenzy! See it!"
When The Gospel at Colonus, the invigorating Lee Breuer-Bob Telson fusion of Greek tragedy and black gospel music, opened at the Goodman Theatre on June 18, Richard Christiansen of the Tribune praised it as a "guaranteed good evening," and Hedy Weiss of the Sun-Times called it a "masterwork of synthesis." In these pages Albert Williams argued that it "appeals on an intellectual level to those sophisticated and educated enough to appreciate the authors' reworking of Sophocles' tragedy Oedipus at Colonus; it also works marvelously as sheer entertainment."
The Gospel at Colonus received only one local pan, and even that dissenter--Dan Zeff of Waukegan's News-Sun and the Copley News Service--confessed that the "opening night was effusive and every performance will probably end in a standing ovation." Both were true.
The word-of-mouth message was electric. The musical played to 97 percent capacity and was extended for four weeks.
But the Joseph Jefferson Awards Committee did not even nominate it for--let alone honor it with--a single award.
It's happened before. The brilliantly acted Rat in the Skull got a cold shoulder from the committee when it took Wisdom Bridge by storm half a decade ago. Likewise the 1988 revival of Hair, one of the best-designed shows in recent memory. And, given the diversity of taste and experience within the 40-member awards committee, such lapses will happen again.
Why? The irony is that the real culprit may not be so much the Jeff members themselves--who are quick to say that they are not infallible critics--as the committee's supposedly fail-safe judging process.
The way it works is that the Jeff Committee sends five judges to every eligible theater's opening night. To nominate a show a minimum of three judges must vote for it in the same category (one of 14, including production, ensemble, set, and costumes). A fourth judge must also vote for it, but this fourth vote can be in any category. Once a show is "nominated," all 40 Jeff members will see it and cast secret ballots in any category; these votes determine the winners who will be announced at the annual November awards presentation and dinner.
The Gospel at Colonus did not receive the necessary four votes on opening night.
A critic for the Daily Herald and the Reader, Tom Valeo was one of five opening-night Jeff judges who voted on the show--he voted for it. As he explains it, "Theoretically you could have five people voting for a show, and it would still not be nominated if they voted for different categories."
Valeo, who has served as the recorder of votes, testifies to the constant disagreement on shows the judges see. "Judging any theatrical production is extremely subjective. A lot depends on what you bring to the theater, and a lot is simply the luck of the draw. Some Jeff members are extremely demanding, some easy. If I had the power, I could determine exactly how a play would fare by deciding who was sent to it."
To avoid stacking the deck, opening-night judges are chosen by a computerized random-number generator. The system becomes less random as the season progresses--because the pool of available judges shrinks. (Each Jeff member judges 24 openings a year out of some 200, and the rules prevent a judge from evaluating the same theater twice in the same season.) "The real enemy for the theaters," says Valeo, "is the law of probability."
But why must Jeff judges agree so much in the categories they nominate? Well, for one thing that prevents a plethora of nominations from forcing committee members to spend too many nights in the theater. Committee chairman David McGaughy points out that if a show receives opening-night votes in several different categories, that may be an indication that the judges were stretching to get the show nominated for reasons other than its inherent excellence. They were trying to throw the theater a bone. That's frowned upon. "The role of the Jeffs is not to encourage theater but to recognize excellence," says McGaughy. "I tell the members, "When you nominate something on opening night ask yourself, would you want to see this show win an award?"'
OK, but what if the show is uniformly excellent in several categories? In that case, McGaughy says, three opening-night judges would probably nominate it for best production, and there would be no problem.
Along with Valeo, two more of The Gospel at Colonus's opening-night judges, Kate McGovern and McGaughy, were forthcoming in talking about what happened. McGovern admitted, "It's very much a horse race. Clearly with Gospel the tally didn't bear out the nomination." She also said she sometimes wonders about the shows that are picked: "At times I sit in the dark and think "What were my colleagues thinking when they nominated this show?' However, since we don't know what it was recommended for, we go in as unprejudiced as possible. With Gospel we just didn't come up with the right number."
McGaughy prefers to downplay the possibility of human error as well as to expand the criticism of the musical. "We aren't critics, so we don't get to write our reasons. Besides, each vote is strictly confidential. I don't think there's bias--I love gospel music. But I know that a lot of the older members of the Goodman board of directors weren't happy with the show. I sent a friend who belongs to a gospel church, and she walked out during the intermission. Anyway, what happened wasn't a fluke--it's the law of averages."
The two remaining judges sounded a tad defensive. Bill Bromfield took the equivalent of the Fifth Amendment: "The committee's policy is never to talk about why individual judges vote as they do" (which is indeed the case). Lewis Lazare, a Reader columnist and the fifth Jeff judge, believes that the reviews of The Gospel at Colonus did not represent what audiences really thought of the show. He cites as proof the musical's failure on Broadway, ignoring its great success at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and in several regional theaters, including the Goodman.
Certainly there is a history of friction between the Jeff Committee and the Goodman Theatre (which wants the awards to be noncompetitive, like the non-Equity Jeff Citations). Goodman no longer provides reserved seats for Jeff members and their guests, an indignity that has reportedly miffed several.
Finally there's the unpleasant suggestion that the rejection of The Gospel at Colonus reflects latent prejudice. After all, Pump Boys and Dinettes was never treated this way. But, as always, pernicious subjectivity is hard to prove. And to be fair, the Jeff Committee did give 1990 awards to two other major shows with black themes, Pecong and From the Mississippi Delta (and in the past has honored Chicago City Theatre's Po' and Have You Seen Zandile?).
So perhaps we should blame not just human fallibility but also a voting system that's far from foolproof.
Fortunately, The Gospel at Colonus was too good for anyone to keep down.