By Ron Fassler . . .
Carol de Giere’s new book The Godspell Experience is a follow-up to her 2008 Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz from Godspell to Wicked. Having covered a good deal about the show already, de Giere clearly feels there’s an audience for an even more in-depth Godspell history — and I suspect she’s right. This “little show that could” has been a blockbuster ever since it premiered fifty years ago on May 17, 1971, still produced in an astonishing array of productions the world over.
Holding a special place in the hearts of devotees of musical theatre, Godspell’s mix of religion and rock came around the same time as Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar. Though conceived for the stage, Superstar was first heard via a concept album. In its earliest incarnations, Godspell (though a wholly constructed theatre piece), contained only bits and pieces of music and not a fully integrated score. Composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz was invited on board only after it was first produced in New York off-off-Broadway. Its producers, Edgar Lansbury and Joe Beruh, knew the untested twenty-three year-old from his playing songs for them from his then un-produced musical Pippin. Thus began the extraordinary triumvirate of Schwartz’s three back-to-back hit musicals, Godspell, Pippin and The Magic Show, with New York runs combined of close to 6,000 performances.
The well-researched stories that de Giere has unearthed are worth the read. She has interviewed nearly everyone connected with the show who participated in its earliest incarnations, though I would have enjoyed more about the fabled Toronto production in 1972, which featured such future stars as Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Gilda Radner, Andrea Martin, Paul Schaeffer (David Letterman’s former band leader) and Victor Garber as Jesus (who, by way of this production, landed the role in the 1973 film version). There had to have been some fantastic tales about THAT particular troupe thrown together as twenty-somethings. For whatever reasons, less than two pages are devoted to it.
Breaking the book into four sections, the first part concerns the details of the show’s origins; the second delves into the concepts and symbols behind the production; third is a breakdown of the score song by song, ending with a “Godspell Grab Bag,” where de Giere stuffs in a bunch of extras which prove to be a lot of fun. It all makes for a lively, informative mix of the elements that go into not only the making of a musical, but what its afterlife is, especially one like Godspell that continues to draw audiences wherever its performed.
The early part of the book is the best. The drama surrounding how it was created was half-inspiration and half-perspiration (to paraphrase Mark Twain’s famous remark). The director was a young college student at Carnegie Mellon University (then called Carnegie Tech) named Jon-Michael Tebelak, who began developing the show as a student there. An eccentric, he was more an idea man than a traditional director gifted at staging or working with actors (he was neither). But he was passionate and his cast felt an allegiance to him even though he left them almost entirely to their own devices. It was Schwartz (only a year older) who became the wise elder who helped stage and supervise the off-Broadway production that opened in 1971 at the Cherry Lane Theatre, aided every step of the way by an indispensable stage manager, Nina Faso. Tebelak became one of the few (if only) directors to achieve a hit while still attending college (Godspell’s New York production was his senior thesis). Sadly, Tebelak’s directing career (not for want of trying) never took flight again. He died a little more than a dozen years after Godspell’s premiere at the age of thirty-five.
Of course, life turned out very differently for Stephen Schwartz. Also a graduate of Carnegie (though they overlapped, he and Tebelak never worked together there), Schwartz has had a rich and varied career in theatre: contributions as a lyricist to the scores for major Disney cartoons such as Pocahontas and Hunchback of Notre Dame; the composing of an opera, Séance on a Wet Afternoon… and let’s not forget Wicked. He’s also directed his own works on many occasions and is a teacher and mentor to young composers and lyricists via his work at the ASCAP Foundation to which he continues to devote a great deal of time and energy. Legions of talented men and women remain grateful for his kindness and assistance over the years.
In the book, Stephen Reinhardt, the show’s original musical director, is quoted as saying: “You have to have your heart on your sleeve when you come to see Godspell in order to receive the full experience it has to offer.” And for those who’ve done so over the past half-century, as well as those discovering its creative joys anew, Carol de Giere’s The Godspell Experience is a book well worth a read.
In honor of the 50th Anniversary celebration here are additional links you might like: An interview with the original cast that streams on May 16th https://fb.me/e/20fbKnPs4 and a big online celebration for any former cast members at https://www.godspellfamilycelebration.com/