Since its off-Broadway premiere in May of 1971, the musical “Godspell” has entertained millions in its various incarnations that have included a six-year off-Broadway run and two subsequent revivals, a Broadway run and a more recent Main Stem revival, several national and international tours, lengthy sit-down runs in a number of cities and thousands of college, church, and community theater productions across the globe.
Many who have encountered “Godspell” claim to have been genuinely transformed by the experience of rediscovering the story of Jesus of Nazareth through the musical’s pop-rock score, its story-theater style of recounting Jesus’s parables, and the sense of innocent joy conveyed by its earnest clown-like characters who celebrate community and connection.
For the first time, the entire story of “Godspell,” from its earliest days as a spark in the mind of a Carnegie Mellon University student through its most recent Broadway revival in 2011, has been assembled in a fact and anecdote filled new book titled “The Godspell Experience: Inside a Transformative Musical,” by Carol de Giere, a Connecticut resident and author of a similarly comprehensive biography of another Connecticut resident, the composer/lyricist behind “Godspell,” Stephen Schwartz, titled “Defying Gravity.”
No doubt that de Giere’s work on the Schwartz biography provided her with a solid base of information for “The Godspell Experience,” particularly regarding access to Schwartz himself, but she also draws upon the recollections of many of the original cast members, producers, and designers of “Godspell,” as well as any number of individuals involved in the show’s many revivals and tours.
The most interesting and valuable part of her book is the detailed history of how the musical evolved from an idea in the head of John-Michael Tebelak, a directing student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, for a class project. Inspired by theologian Harvey Cox’s book “The Feast for Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy” and a dispiriting experience at an Easter Sunday worship service, Tebelak came up with the idea of presenting the Biblical story of Jesus that restored a feeling of joy, excitement and love to Jesus’s message, which he felt was the essential point. The book outlines Tebelak’s preparations throughout the spring, summer and fall of 1970 in writing the show which would be based extensively on Jesus’s parables taken predominantly from the Gospel of St. Matthew.
It is exciting to see how Tebelak gathered a group of CMU classmates together in advance of his scheduled December. Tebelak himself had previously run a thread-bare theater in Cleveland during one of his summer breaks from CMU, learning a great deal about production as well as becoming acquainted with the various acting styles of several of his classmates and other undergraduates who he had invited to join him. Enamored of the radical new approaches to theater that were being championed at that time by the likes of the Living Theater and others, Tebelak carefully guided his CMU cast through a series of improvisational rehearsals that resulted in the story-theater approach to the parables, with the actors using mime, song, dance, impersonations and any number of commonly-found objects to act out the different stories. In addition, he had certain Biblical passages and hymns set to a rock music score which would be incorporated into the production.
One of his most significant decisions was to have the cast dressed as clowns, each of whom would develop specific personalities through the rehearsal process, as well as a central Jesus figure, also dressed as a clown, who would serve as a guide/teacher to help this makeshift congregation come together as a spiritual community by the end of the evening, which would culminate in the crucifixion. The show would be unexpectedly well-received in Pittsburgh and then through a series of fortuitous circumstances end up having an off-Broadway production early in the following year at the highly regarded experimental theater, the Café LaMama, and then almost immediately be optioned by commercial producers who would bring in another CMU graduate and an acquaintance of Tebelak’s, Stephen Schwartz, to create a new totally new rock and pop influenced score.
De Giere details how the young composer comes up with the new score in just over a month and develops a symbiotic relationship with Tebelak, who as director is guiding his new off-Broadway cast through another set of improvisational rehearsals. Schwartz will adapt his score to fit the talents of this new cast, as well as help Tebelak refine the storyline through the addition of new songs and further revised lyrics. The story of the show’s opening and its subsequent world-wide success follows.
While de Giere clearly holds Schwartz and Tebelak in high regard for their talent, creativity and collegiality, she doesn’t entirely downplay the ghosts and demons that haunted Tebelak, whose alcoholism and drug addictions would plague him throughout his relatively short life which ended at the age of 36 in 1985. In fact, she barely covers Tebelak’s passing, which seems like a glaring omission since his death no doubt had a great impact on many of the cast members she follows throughout “Godspell”’s many iterations. But the big takeaway is that virtually all of the original cast members she quotes express their deep appreciation for Tebelak’s process in helping the cast develop their characterizations.
The author also devotes a lengthy section to each of the songs in the show, detailing the origin of the lyrics from within the Gospels, if appropriate, and outlining Schwartz’s and Tebelak’s purpose for the song and its placement within the musical. This section may be of particular value to all directors of future productions of “Godspell,” who can gain a better understanding of the authors’ intentions through de Giere’s reportage. The book also contains a great many photographs from a variety of “Godspell” productions, ranging from the initial Carnegie Mellon production through various touring and sit-down productions all the way through the recent Broadway revival, which future directors and die-hard fans will find especially valuable.
De Giere also includes testimony from former cast members, production personnel and even audience members on the impact that “Godspell” has had on their lives, not necessarily from professional perspective, but from a more spiritual one. For any number of people, hearing and connecting with the words of the musical has produced various “aha!” moments that have changed individual lives, providing solace, resolving some deep seated questions or strengthening someone’s resolve in moving forward. The story of “Godspell” is enhanced by these contributions and this reader would have welcomed several more.
Unfortunately, de Giere has an occasional tendency to stop her narrative to announce what a particular section of her book is attempting to achieve. This can be annoying, as her writing style, organizational structure and chapter headings easily cue the reader about her intentions for a particular section. She also early inserts italicized notes into her copy indicating where certain information can be found later in the book, almost to assure readers that she has not neglected a certain topic, but will indeed cover it in greater detail later on. These interruptions could be easily left to footnotes and not disturb the easy flow of her book.
Schwartz himself has written the Foreward for “The Godspell Experience” in which he provides his recollections of the genesis of the show that was originally called “The Godspell” in its CMU and La Mama versions. (“The” was dropped from the title as the show was reworked for Broadway.) Schwartz is pleased to have such a comprehensive history of the show available at last and admits that there are certain aspects of the production that he knew nothing about until he read de Giere’s book.
Any director, amateur or professional, who is considering helming a production of “Godspell” should read this book as it gets to the heart of the creators’ intentions. Anyone who has been a fan of the show over the years or who has fond memories of any of the productions he or she has seen would also benefit from learning more about the show’s development. Every Broadway show has its own unique history and “The Godspell Experience” is a welcome addition to the growing library of books that are keeping these show histories alive.
“The Godspell Experience” is published by Scene I Publishing in Bethel, Connecticut, at 10 Library Place #909, Bethel, CT 06801-0909 with a list price of $24.95 (paperback, 370 pages). The book’s website is www.TheGodspellExperience.com.