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‘Divinely Inspired’ Godspell

Many people talk about theatre as a transformative experience, but few experience that transformation quite as drastically as Carol de Giere did when she experienced Godspell. Growing up in Madison, Wisconsin, she mostly saw movie musicals or what was being performed at school. Somehow she missed one of the most widely produced musicals of all time until she was in her late 40s and living in Fairfield, Iowa, a town of about 10,000 residents. Artistic offerings were limited in Fairfield, so when the local community theatre presented Godspell, de Giere was there. And that was the beginning of the end of her days in Fairfield.

“I felt myself being emotionally expanded,” said de Giere, 63, during a phone interview. “The score and the performances were so joyful. It was just exhilarating to watch. I felt like it had a spirit to it that was different from other musicals. It lifted me out of the boundaries of the moment.”

It also lifted her out of the Midwest. She quit her job as a librarian. Her husband had been laid off and they moved to Connecticut, where she began to explore the work of Godspell’s composer. “I felt I needed to be near Broadway. I wanted to be close to the creative pot, to see what the chefs were brewing.”

Her exploration led to her first book, Defying Gravity: The Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz, from Godspell to Wicked (2008).

“I like writing behind the scenes,” she said. “Rather than write about a musical, I like to recreate the experience of being present at the creation.”

She found Schwartz and cast members willing to talk about their experiences with Godspell. The show began as a master’s thesis for John-Michael Tebelak at Carnegie Mellon University, after initial resistance by his academic adviser. It then had a stint Off-Off-Broadway, and producers brought on Schwarz, giving him five weeks to compose new music. Godspell as we know it opened Off-Broadway on May 17, 1971, then moved to Broadway for a total New York run of six years. It has been translated into more than a half-dozen languages, became a movie in 1973, and is produced a few hundred times each year somewhere in the world.

Tebelak’s affection for religious material dated to his childhood. His sister told de Giere that John-Michael loved the religious pageantry he experienced at Trinity Cathedral in Cleveland. She said Tebelak would create an altar, burn candles, and re-enact Communion — “all the dramatic parts” — when he returned from the cathedral.

Years later, when searching for a thesis topic, Tebelak considered several plays about miracles and Christ’s Passion, but he determined they were too heavy. He started reading the gospels and discovered their joy.

“Tebelak resolved to attend a church service, and it was there that a spiritual experience, or lack thereof, completed the inspiration for the new musical,” de Giere writes.

On a snowy Easter morning in 1970, Tebelak attended another Trinity Cathedral, this time in Pittsburgh. He told Dramatics magazine about his experience: “An old priest came out and mumbled into a microphone, and people mumbled things back, and then everyone got up and left. Instead of ‘healing’ the burden, or resurrecting the Christ, it seems those people had pushed him back into the tomb. They had refused to let him come out that day.”

As he was leaving the service, a policeman tried to frisk him, suspecting him of carrying drugs because of his appearance. “At that moment — I think because of the absurd situation — it angered me so much that I went home and realized what I wanted to do with the gospels: I wanted to make it the simple, joyful message that I felt the first time I read them and re-create the sense of community, which I did not share when I went to that service.”

And so the roots of Godspell were grounded in Tebelak’s mixed experiences of the Anglican tradition.

Considering how many lives the show has touched, de Giere wanted to write a second book, focusing strictly on Godspell, while original cast members could share their stories. The Godspell Experience: Inside a Transformative Musical, for which de Giere conducted nearly 40 interviews, features engaging anecdotes, exhaustive research, and an analysis of the show’s songs, several of which come from the Episcopal Church’s hymnal.

“I thought, ‘I’m probably the only person who’s going to do this.’ This is a time when people will remember. They’re all in their 60s or deceased. I’m writing for future generations.”

Cast members tell lively stories about the creative process with Tebelak, who was also the original director of Godspell. The musical was different because it did not begin with a script. Tebelak, who died in 1985, had the actors improvise Jesus’ parables. What worked became part of the show. It was confusing for the actors at first, but Tebelak had tapped into the art of improvisation, which became popular through Saturday Night Live.

Composer Stephen Schwartz set the lyrics to livelier music. He drew from the artists he was listening to — James Taylor, the Mamas and the Papas, the Supremes, and Elton John — to create a pastiche of his favorite pop styles. When additional lyrics were required, he turned to biblical passages.

“Stephen was one of the first people to integrate popular music into the style of musical theatre,” de Giere says. “It was innovative and it spoke to people musically.”

Schwartz had rich material to work with in Episcopal hymns. Most of the lyrics for “Day by Day,” which was a breakout hit, were by Richard of Chichester (Richard de Wyche, 1197-1253), who was canonized by Pope Urban IV in 1262. He wrote it in Latin without the beginning and ending words “day by day,” and it became Hymn 429 in the 1940 hymnal. Schwartz simplified Richard’s lyrics slightly and added some repetition.

The beautiful “All Good Gifts” was a harvest song, “We Plow the Fields, and Scatter,” that Tebelak remembered from Thanksgiving services.

“Turn Back, O Man” was inspired by Clifford Bax, whose hymn appeared in 1919, after World War I.

When Schwartz was looking for an up-tempo song, what musical theatre often calls the “Eleven O’clock” number, Tebelak suggested “Father Hear Thy Children’s Call,” with lyrics attributed to Thomas Benson Pollock, a graduate of Trinity College in Dublin who was ordained in 1870. After Schwartz’s adaptation, that hymn became the lively “We Beseech Thee.”

Godspell’s score is one reason for the show’s enduring popularity, de Giere says. Another is the non-didactic way the parables are presented. In clowning around, the actors draw out the humor but not in a satirical way. When done properly, the show leaves the audience with a strong appreciation for Jesus’ message.

In her epilogue, de Giere offers a reflection from former cast member Don Scardino: “I got letters from people who had quit drugs (including heroin), or gone back to their Bible, or patched up relationships with their mother or father after seeing Godspell. They would say it’s the power of the show and you playing Jesus, and I knew it had nothing to do with me. I would always write back and say it is the show. The show is divinely inspired.”

Retta Blaney is an award-winning journalist and author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, which includes interviews with Kristin Chenoweth, Edward Herrmann, Liam Neeson, Phylicia Rashad and Vanessa Williams.

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