When Hair ushered in the Age of Aquarius on April 29, 1968, it heralded the arrival of the rock revolution on Broadway. The New York Times‘ influential critic Clive Barnes didn’t mince his words, declaring that the musical was a “long-term joust against Broadway’s world of Sigmund Romberg [the composer of such operettas as The Student Prince]” and more importantly, “the first Broadway musical in some time to have the authentic voice of today rather than the day before yesterday.” And while the songs of the stage once populated the Billboard charts, the tide had turned with the advent of Bob Dylan and The Beatles.
But if Hair was considered by many to be an assault on classic musical theatre sensibilities, it actually took Broadway and the pop charts full circle. The 5th Dimension’s medley of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” in 1969 topped the charts for six weeks, winning a Grammy for Record of the Year. The Cowsills’ take on the title song “Hair” climbed to No. 2. Producer Bob Crewe’s single-named protégé Oliver wasn’t far behind with his rendition of “Good Morning Starshine” which reached No. 3. “Easy to Be Hard” went to No. 4 for Three Dog Night, and across the pond, Nina Simone’s 1968 medley of “Ain’t Got No / I Got Life” reached the Top 5. Just a few months later, on December 1, Promises, Promises opened, swinging the pop/rock pendulum to pop, but still undisputedly “current.” This was the heady atmosphere in which Godspell was born.
Now, as the musical marks its 40th year and New York anticipates a revival to start performances in October, Masterworks Broadway has just released Godspell: 40th Anniversary Celebration. This 2-CD set joins together Bell Records’ Original Cast Recording (1971) and Original Soundtrack to the film adaptation (1973) in one attractive and reasonably-priced package. It’s a great pleasure to hear these recordings back to back, vividly remastered by Maria Triana, as the albums are “so close, yet so far” to each other.
Godspell came along at precisely the right time. Like many of his generation, author/director John-Michael Tebelak, an Episcopalian, was soul-searching. He hit upon the idea of presenting the teachings of Jesus Christ in a completely new way, energized by the image of Jesus as a clown, a bringer of joy. Tebelak was inspired by the work of The Living Theatre, Jerzy Grotowski (a Polish director who sought to remove the barrier between actor and audience) and Peter Brook (director of Marat/Sade, in which the cast portrays mental patients performing a play, with minimal setting), but he wound up conceiving a play that was as universal as it was avant-garde. Godspell utilized a cast of actors, answering to their own names, performing Biblical parables, with only the actors portraying Jesus and Judas set apart (though Judas doubled as John the Baptist). It was set during the last week of Jesus’ life, and Act Two offers the most straightforward sequences in the musical, depicting events such as the Last Supper and the crucifixion.
During a March 1971 presentation at the Café La Mama in New York City, Stephen Schwartz, a young Jewish composer with both A&R and production credits at RCA Records, was brought on board to create a more fully developed musical score for the show’s next incarnation. Prior to Schwartz’s arrival, Biblical lyrics were performed to melodies devised by the cast and band. Schwartz had known Tebelak from their days at Carnegie-Mellon University, and took the challenge of crafting a full score in advance of the show’s May 17, 1971 opening off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre. He retained many of the Biblical lyrics, writing two songs’ words from scratch, “All for the Best” and “Learn Your Lessons Well.” (Note the “Music and New Lyrics by” credit on Disc 1, simplified for the film and Disc 2 as the standard “Music and lyrics by.”) The Godspell we know today was then born. Hit the jump for more!
As Tebelak was influenced by a number of experimental theatre greats, Schwartz took his melodic cues from the pop music of the day: Motown, Laura Nyro, Elton John, and James Taylor to name a few. So when “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” opens the Original Cast Recording, it’s with a brash blast of sound clearly from a band, not an orchestra, and more specifically, a rock band. Schwartz produced the album in the style of a pop-rock album, not an original cast album, a decision he would emulate for his next Broadway musical, Pippin, and its Motown cast recording. Even today, the seventies pop sound is a familiar and reassuring one, but far from the only musical style on display. Schwartz’s innate dramatic sensibility guides the recording, and in fact, guided the original production. He added structure to the piece as he composed his songs, having found the La Mama production a “messy” one.
A monologue was converted into Jesus’ fiery “Alas for You,” while the comically vaudevillian “All for the Best” was wholly written by Schwartz to convey the friendship between Jesus (Stephen Nathan) and Judas (David Haskell) prior to the eventual betrayal. “Turn Back O Man” is a cautionary Episcopal hymn reimagined by Schwartz as a saucy, sultry Mae West-style torch song, performed to the hilt by Sonia Manzano. Joanne Jonas led “Bless the Lord,” a rouser with a piano vamp that wouldn’t sound out-of-place next to Laura Nyro’s “Wedding Bell Blues” or “Flim Flam Man.” And of course, there’s “Day By Day.” Though the song as led by Robin Lamont became a charting pop single (the last such single to come from an original cast recording), it still arises out of character in the musical. When Robin finally understands Jesus’ teachings about the importance of forgiveness, she sings “Day by Day.” It’s just as joyous and infectious today as it was in 1971. Equally stunning is the haunting ballad “All Good Gifts,” passionately sung by Lamar Alford. “By My Side” (written by Peggy Gordon and Jay Hamburger) was retained by Schwartz from the original La Mama score, and its simple folk melody fits snugly with his work.
By modern standards, the film adaptation of Godspell arrived quickly. The 1973 Columbia Pictures film version was released while the stage production was still going strong off-Broadway. Director David Greene shot the film on location in New York City, and Schwartz oversaw the music, producing the soundtrack recording. For the central role of Jesus, a then-unknown actor named Victor Garber was chosen to don the already-famous Superman shirt. Garber was a veteran of the musical’s Canadian company, alongside Paul Shaffer, Martin Short, Gilda Radner, Andrea Martin and Eugene Levy! (One word: wow!) Shaffer appears on the Godspell soundtrack, tickling the ivories for “All for the Best.” Another future legend, Michael Kamen, plays the ARP synthesizer on “Alas for You.”
Five members of the original cast were afforded the opportunity to revisit their roles in the film adaptation and reinterpret their songs for the film: David Haskell, Joanne Jonas, Robin Lamont, Gilmer McCormick and Jeffrey Mylett. They respectively played David, Joanne, Robin, Gilmer and Jeffrey, retaining the conceit of actors portraying themselves and performing “spontaneous” parables.
The Godspell film and its soundtrack are remarkably faithful to the original show. Schwartz only slightly beefed up the original band arrangements, so the gentle acoustic strumming of “Save the People” remained. “Day by Day” was taken at a somewhat faster tempo, again led by Lamont, and a breakneck dance sequence heightens this “All for the Best,” performed by Garber opposite David Haskell, the original off-Broadway Judas. Garber, later to find fame on both stage and screen, was joined by another star-to-be. The late Lynne Thigpen can be heard on the album, leading “Bless the Lord” with her distinct vocals. She would later work with Schwartz on the 1978 musical Working and go on to star on television in programs as diverse as Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego and Law and Order.
Despite being one of Schwartz’s wholly original songs, the rollicking “Learn Your Lessons Well” was excised from the film version. The sly torch song “Turn Back, O Man” survived to the film version, but comes much earlier on the soundtrack than on the cast recording. “We Beseech Thee” was also cut from the movie, although it was replaced by an even more felicitous song, “Beautiful City.” So well-received was Schwartz’s cinematic addition to his score that it subsequently began to appear in stage productions with its predecessor, “We Beseech Thee,” although Schwartz later tweaked both the music and lyrics of “Beautiful City.” Still, it’s a beautiful addition to the soundtrack: bright, optimistic and full of the hope and promise of youth. It should have followed in the footsteps of “Day By Day,” as it was not only effective in context of the show and soundtrack, but was radio-worthy! Garber sounds sensational throughout the album, his voice filled with character and intensity. You might even shed a tear with the full company’s “Oh, God…” cries during the poignant, emotional finale.
Whether you’re a fan of the musical itself, of classic pop music or of Schwartz’s later work, Godspell: 40th Anniversary Celebration is a must-own. In later years, he branched out to films (Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and opera (Séance on a Wet Afternoon) not to mention numerous musicals – including a tiny little hit by the name of Wicked! Still, this is ground zero for his still-thriving career. And his association with religious-themed works didn’t end with Godspell; no less an eminence grise than Leonard Bernstein invited the young Schwartz to pen lyrics for Mass, which inaugurated Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center on September 8, 1971. He wrote both music and lyrics from DreamWorks’ animated film The Prince of Egypt in 1998.
The 22-page booklet features an introductory essay by Schwartz recounting the show’s history, in addition to the Original Cast Recording’s liner notes by the musical’s producer, Edgar Lansbury (or the brother of Angela). Full lyrics have also been reprinted for all songs, including “Beautiful City,” and there are plenty of photographs from both the stage production and the film. Reissue producers David Foil, Scott Farthing and Cathleen Murphy have done an exceptional job with this presentation. The only true disappointment is the lack of any previously unreleased material or rare bonus tracks. (New Godspell interviews and performance videos will be accessible at Masterworks Broadway.) The digipak wisely retains the original poster artwork of David Edward Byrd, which is also being used for the upcoming Broadway revival, and reprints the original Bell LP covers of both included albums.
Prepare ye the way of the Lord! Godspell is back, and this deluxe reissue is, undoubtedly, “all for the best.”