Godspell is a musical based on the Gospel of Saint Matthew with music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and book by John-Michael Tebelak.
Following closely on the heels of the similarly-themed Jesus Christ Superstar, it opened off-Broadway on May 17, 1971 and has played in various touring companies and revivals many times since. Several cast albums have been released over the years and one of its songs, Day By Day from the original cast album, reached #13 on the Billboard pop singles chart in the summer of 1972.
The show originated in 1970 as Tebelak's master's thesis project, under the direction of Lawrence Carra, at Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). Most of the score's lyrics were from the Episcopal Hymnal, set to music by the cast members. Tebelak then directed it, with much of the student cast, for a two-week run at New York's experimental venue Cafe La MaMa, opening February 24, 1971. It caught the eye of producers Edgar Lansbury and Joseph Beruh, who wanted to open it off-Broadway.
The producers hired Stephen Schwartz, another alumnus of Carnegie Mellon's theater department, to write a new song score (although By My Side was retained from the original score). Schwartz's songs included a variety of musical styles, from pop to folk rock, gospel, and vaudeville. As with the original score, most of the non-Schwartz lyrics were from the Episcopal Hymnal. See also Godspell (1971 Off-Off-Broadway Cast).
Godspell became one of the longest-running off-Broadway musicals before moving to Broadway in June 1976, where it ended its run in September 1977 after an additional 527 performances, for a total of more than 2,600.
A film version of the musical was released in 1973, set in modern New York, and featuring Victor Garber as Jesus, David Haskell as John the Baptist/Judas, and Lynne Thigpen in her first film role. John-Michael Tebelak co-wrote the screenplay and served as the creative consultant. The song Beautiful City was written for and first included in the film, while the songs Learn Your Lessons Well and We Beseech Thee were left out.
Although Godspell was produced in many cities throughout the world, the Toronto production in 1972-1973 had a lasting effect on the city's theatrical community and the entertainment world as well.
In May 1972, Toronto's theatre community was essentially limited to short runs and touring companies of Broadway and West End plays. When Godspell opened at the Royal Alexandra Theatre it was expected to be a run of a few dozen performances for what was largely an audience of subscribers to the theatre's season. However, the Toronto run had a cast drawn entirely from local performers instead of using a touring company. After an enthusiastic response from the audience, the show moved to the Bayview Playhouse after its scheduled run at the Royal Alex ended, and ran until August 1973, setting what was then a record run of 488 performances. This record was not broken until the Toronto production of Cats in 1986. Godspell established Toronto as a major theatre center which could support its own productions with its own talent.
Moreover, the production provided the first regular acting job for several performers who would later go onto bigger things, including Victor Garber (who won the role of Jesus in the film version), Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Gilda Radner and Martin Short. Radner came to the attention of Lorne Michaels during the production, which also had several performers who had worked with him on his Canadian comedy specials. Three years later, Radner was the first cast member hired for Saturday Night Live. Jayne Eastwood left the cast to become a member of the original Toronto troupe of The Second City which has been in almost continuous production since, and Levy, Martin and Short went on to join that company as well. Another person to establish his reputation in the show was its musical director Paul Shaffer, who would also join Michaels and Radner on Saturday Night Live.
The show begins with the Voice of God declaring his supremacy, "in whom no beginning may be and no end". The company enters and takes the role of various philosophers throughout the ages: Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, Leonardo da Vinci, Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Luther, and Friedrich Nietzsche. They sing fragments of their respective philosophies — first as solos and then in cacophonous counterpoint — in Tower of Babble (Prologue).
In response to this, John the Baptist blows three notes on the shofar, to call the community to order. He then beckons them to Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord, and baptizes the company. Jesus comes, also, to be baptized, to which John responds by, instead, asking to be baptized by Jesus. Jesus explains that it is not his place to baptize; that he has come to Save the People.
In his first parable, Jesus explains to the company that he has come "not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to complete." In the original production, it was at this point that the company donned their clown makeup, and subsequent productions may use some object — be it a pin, a scarf, or a badge — to denote that the company has become followers of Jesus. He explains to the company that those who adhere to the law of God will earn the highest place in the Kingdom of Heaven. He tells them the story of the widow and the Judge: God is a just jurist who will support those who cry out to him.
The company is just beginning to understand Jesus and his teachings, and take it upon themselves to tell the story of the Pharisee and the tax gatherer praying in the temple. "Every man who humbles himself shall be exalted!"
As Jesus teaches of the law regarding the offering of gifts at the altar, the company makes offerings, themselves. They are taught that to approach the altar of God, they must be pure of heart and soul.
Then, they act out the story of a master and a servant who owed him a debt. The servant asks his master for pity in repaying the debt, and the master absolves it. The servant then turns to a fellow servant who "owed him a few dollars" and demands that it be paid in full. The master, hearing this, condemns the servant to prison. Jesus explains the moral: "Forgive your brothers from your heart." The member of the company telling the parable sings Day by Day, and the company joins in. After the song, Jesus teaches that if one part of you offends God, it is better to lose it than to have the whole of the body thrown into hell.
The company then plays charades to finish several statements posed by Jesus, including "If a man sues you for your shirt...." and "If a man asks you to go a mile with him...."
"Do you want to see a show?" The company relays the story of the Good Samaritan in the form of a play-within-a-play. Jesus explains the need to "love your enemies" and not make a show of religion before men. God will reward a good deed done in secret. ("Shhh! It's a secret!")
The parable of Lazarus and the rich man is next tackled by the company, who are quickly learning how to work together. The rich man feasts, and Lazarus begs and is ignored. Lazarus is rewarded with Heaven, while the rich man is in hell. We are told to Learn Your Lessons Well, or be faced with eternal damnation.
Jesus teaches us that no man can serve two masters: God and money. A member of the company tells a story of a man who spent a lifetime acquiring the good things in life, then dies before he has the time to enjoy them. She sings Oh Bless the Lord, My Soul, then Jesus tells them not to worry about tomorrow: "tomorrow will take care of itself. Today has problems of its own."
In a call-and-response type of method, the company recites the beatitudes. Judas, however, directs the final beatitude regarding persecution at Jesus, and he seemingly changes the subject. ("Did I ever tell you that I used to read feet?") However, with this Jesus persuades the company that it's All For the Best: heaven contains the ultimate reward. Judas sings a verse, and the two do a soft shoe and a vaudevillian joke. The company joins in the final verse (sung in counterpoint) to bring the song to conclusion.
This is followed by the parable of the sower and the seeds, which Jesus tells them represents the Word of God. All Good Gifts is sung to further illustrate the point.
The action to this point, while amusing and entertaining, has been to do one thing: create from this rag-tag company a community of love and caring. At this point in the musical, they have formed this community and now march as soldiers in the military, symbolic of their ability to think as one unit. With Jesus as a drill sergeant, they segue into the most famous parable of them all: the Prodigal Son. They sing Light of the World about Christ's Light and how it should shine in each of us. Jesus thanks the audience for coming, and announces a ten-minute intermission.
The second act opens with one or more cast members singing Learn Your Lessons Well, to call the audience back into the hall. Another member of the community sings Turn Back, O Man, in which she implores mankind to give up its temporal pursuits and to turn to God.
Jesus says, "This is the beginning."
At this point, several members of the community begin to question Jesus's authority, and he responds with yet another parable. He is asked, "What is the greatest commandment?" and responds, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul.... And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" The Pharisees continue to question him, and he laments Alas For You, and calls them hypocrites. Members of the community gather and join in his song, and throw garbage at the Pharisees.
Jesus predicts that he will not be seen for quite awhile, while standing at the "Wailing Wall", and predicts great wars and famines. He reminds us of the time of Noah, and teaches that faith can calm the storm. The community is told to "keep awake, then. For the Son of Man will come at a time when you least expect it."
One woman is cast out as an adulteress. Jesus says, "Let the one of you who is faultless cast the first stone." He explains that he will not condemn her, either, but she must not sin again. She watches Jesus walk from her, and entreats him to remain By My Side. During this song, we see Judas say, "What will you give me to deliver him to you?" and he receives his thirty pieces of silver.
In one of the lighter moments in the second act, Jesus tells how he will separate men as a shepherd separates his flock into sheep and goats. The sheep will enter heaven while the goats must suffer eternal damnation. "We Beseech Thee" cry the goats, begging for mercy.
After the song, the community reminds each other to take things Day By Day, as they remove their clown makeup (or other accoutrement). They assemble for the Last Supper, and Jesus tells them that one will betray him. Each member of the community asks, "Is it I?" ending with Judas. Jesus tells him to do quickly what he must do, and he runs off. He breaks the bread and shares the wine and tells his followers that they will dine together in the Kingdom of Heaven. He asks that they wait for him as he goes into the garden to pray. The band sings On the Willows, reminding us all just what's been sacrificed.
In the garden, Jesus begs for God to let the burden be lifted from his shoulders. He is tempted by Satan, but orders him out. Jesus returns to his followers to find them all asleep.
Judas returns and kisses Jesus on the cheek, and turns him to bring him to be crucified. The community attacks Judas, while Jesus reminds them, "He who lives by the sword, will die by the sword.... This has all happened to fulfill what the Prophets have written."
The Finale begins, loud and in B-minor, and with Jesus being nailed to the cross. Jesus wails, "Oh God, I'm dying," and the community answers, "Oh God, You're dying." Jesus expires and the music comes to a rest. One woman sings "Long Live God," joined on each phrase by another female voice. The men join in with "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord" in counterpoint, as they remove Jesus from the cross and carry him out. They sing one final verse of Prepare Ye in full harmony, in joyful expectation of the resurrection.
Beautiful City was written in 1971 as part of the movie, and re-written in 1994 after the Los Angeles earthquake. While not part of the show proper, it can be included in any production without having to secure additional rights, so long as the new lyrics are used. It can be placed anywhere in the show the director desires, though it makes more sense as part of the second act. Many directors choose to use it in place of the Day by Day reprise, and it is also effective in place of the "Long Live God"'s and "Prepare Ye..." of the Finale. It can be shortened or re-arranged as needed.
In their Broadway Junior series — several best-loved musicals edited down to one act and appropriate for middle school — Music Theater International supplies Beautiful City as part of the show. This version contains much of the first act and very little of the second: By My Side is omitted entirely. Beautiful City is at a point in the beginning of the traditional second act, but followed quickly by the Last Supper, the Betrayal, and the Crucifixion.
Godspell has remained such an important part of the modern musical theater vocabulary because of its versatility. The original production made the company a troupe of clowns who follow Jesus in an abandoned playground; subsequent productions have been set in museums, classrooms, on top of buildings, or in an abandoned theater. Since the setting is never explicitly stated in the text, directors love using this show as a chance to show off their creative abilities. This show can occur, literally, anywhere. The setting can be as advanced enough for the biggest Broadway producers, and small enough for any high school production. In one such production, the setting was simply three construction scaffolds.
The 2000 tour mounted by Stephen Schwartz's son, Scott, set the action in a technologically-created universe. In addition to an updated score, several of the philosophers during Tower of Babble were re-cast.