NEW YORK (AP) – It won’t surprise its legion of fans that the first professional musical to be performed in the US during the pandemic was Godspell.
The Berkshire Theater Group in western Massachusetts hosted a production in August of plexiglass partitions between the actors and temperature tests for the audience. Why “Godspell”? His message of hope and love.
“Godspell just felt like that,” said Kate Maguire, artistic director and CEO of the Berkshire Theater Group. “All of a sudden, the story of ‘Godspell’ and what it’s about became more important.”
The musical by John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz is celebrating its 50th anniversary this month, a golden milestone for a show with roots in the hippie era but which can still talk to those on TikTok.
Some who traveled to western Massachusetts to see the “Godspell” pandemic were veterans of the show, such as Peggy Gordon, who was in the original cast. “It was incredibly emotionally strong for us,” she says. Maguire told her she hoped the production would make Gordon proud. “I said, ‘You already have.'”
“Godspell” was an off-Broadway hit in 1971. Made into a movie in 1973, it jumped to Broadway in 1976, nominated for Best Score at the Tony Awards and a Grammy winner. One of the songs, “Day by Day,” peaked at number 13 on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart. It was a stepping stone for everyone from Aaron Tveit, whose first real appearance was on a “Godspell” tour, to Uzo Aduba, who took part in a 2011 Broadway revival.
The musical is a retelling of the ministry of Jesus made up of a series of parables, most of which come from the Gospel of Matthew in the Bible, with songs interspersed. Tebelak created it in 1970 as a college project while helping out at Carnegie Mellon University and the student-led original cast.
“While I’m not a very religious person, it was an act of love in many ways,” says Robin Lamont, who brought the original show to Broadway and then to film. “I think a lot of actors feel this way when they help create a show. But that was a special love. “
The musical has fueled countless school, regional, and community theater productions, a natural choice because of its uplifting message and also because it requires 10 actors in the ensemble and few props. It’s nimble and sporty.
The original concept was a collection of clowns gathered in a playground – and Jesus in a Superman suspender t-shirt – but it can adapt. Lamont saw a production doubling the cast and another in an abandoned church. Tebelak ran a production in South Africa in the 1970s that challenged South African racial laws by insisting that the cast be multiracial.
Most of the texts in the first score came from the episcopal hymnbook and the songs were atonal. Moving onto a bigger stage, Schwartz was brought in by producer Edgar Lansbury to write a new score spanning a variety of musical styles, from pop to folk rock to gospel and vaudeville.
Between the transfer from the La MaMa Experimental Theater Club to the Cherry Lane Theater, Schwartz only had four weeks to write new music for eight existing songs, write five more songs and make music for the prologue.
When Schwartz came back, he had gems like “day by day”, “everything for the best” and “all good gifts”. He charmed Gordon when he admitted he couldn’t improve on her “By My Side” post.
While it’s easy for “Godspell” to come across as shapeless and allow pockets of improvisation, Gordon knows better. “The show was meticulously constructed, but constructed to be spontaneous,” she says.
Gordon remembers the dress rehearsal on Cherry Lane by invitation only – the first time they performed the new version in front of an audience. The cast came out, held hands, and bowed at the curtain call.
“As we bowed, I heard thunderous applause,” she says. “They stood on their feet and they applauded and they cried. I was like, ‘Oh my god, I think it’s good!’ “
Many of the critics were delighted too. New York magazine called it “a playful, exciting little show” and the Daily News said it was “cheerfully disrespectful and spirited.” The Boston Globe called it “hair with a halo”. As a sign that the show had penetrated the nation’s fabric, it was mocked on “The Simpsons,” with Homer singing “day after day / I have” three kids / and two are fine. “
Both Gordon and Lamont are proud to be part of a network of the 10 original “Godspell” companies. They have a private Facebook group and plan to reunions every ten years, a big one this year. They reflect the spirit of “Godspell”: “We are.” A loud, noisy, incredibly active group of friends who love each other, ”says Gordon.
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