Conceived and directed by the late John-Michael Tebelak with music and new lyrics by Oscar and Grammy winner Stephen Schwartz, Godspell—a hip musical re-telling of the New Testament's Gospel of Matthew—made its New York City premiere May 17, 1971 at the Cherry Lane Theatre, subsequently moving to the Promenade later that year. The show was an Off-Broadway smash, spawning the hit song "Day by Day" and eventually transferring to Broadway, where it opened at the Broadhurst Theatre June 22, 1976. Godspell, which received a Tony nomination for Best Original Score, would eventually play both the Plymouth and Ambassador theatres before closing September 4, 1977, after 527 regular performances.
To celebrate the 50th anniversary of this rock musical that relates the parables of Jesus, Playbill asked a host of artists involved with various productions of the Tebelak-Schwartz show—including actors from the original Off-Broadway and Broadway productions, the Toronto premiere, the 1973 film version, and the 2011 Broadway revival—to reflect on its continued success, sharing one of their favorite Godspell memories. (In the video above, compiled, edited, and produced by Godspell alum Paul Kreppel, several cast members share their congratulatory wishes.)
Uzo Aduba, Broadway revival
I think the show has remained so popular because of the pure joy surrounding it. The show challenges each of us to let go of doubt, free ourselves of cynicism, and to embrace the full weight and abandonment of love and joy. It feels silly to start, but after letting yourself be swept into that wave, you can’t help but let yourself just swim in it. It’s wonderful. I loved every day I got to do that show.
A favorite memory of mine was the real connections right before intermission ended we all would have with the audience. We could talk to them about how they came to be at our show that day. I’ll never forget a woman sitting front row, she lived uptown and had been having a really tough time that week. She said she saw some photo ad of the show in the paper, and she came down because she thought it would “lift her up.” I asked her if we, the show, had succeeded in lifting her up. “More than you know,” she responded. I think that’s when I knew the love and lift I was getting could possibly be shared and experienced by anyone who joined us for the experience.
Jayne Eastwood, Original Toronto cast
The music is extraordinary. The message is pure. The parables are all open to improv, which makes it the perfect show to do in every high school. I’ve helped direct a few. I’m sure many of us have. Every new production is pure joy because the message of redemption is cause for endless celebration.
[I remember] Valda Aviks had nodes, [and] she couldn’t sing “By My Side” [one] night. Marty Short said he would take over Marty Short said he would take over. I remember sitting beside him cross-legged on stage. It was one of the most beautiful, moving songs in the show. The lights were low. He did very well for the first few bars—then he lost those lyrics. He was singing “Humana Humana.” Well, I completely lost it. I was trying so hard to not laugh I wet my knickers. Then Marty started to laugh between his “Humana Humanas.” Oh man. I don’t know how we got through that one. Hopefully, somebody who was professional took over. I don’t really remember because I was still laughing and worried about my rather wet costume.
Nina Faso, Original stage manager; production supervisor; directed Boston, San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Paris companies
John-Michael Tebelak and Harvey Cox would say that it was Christ as clown. But for me it is simply that Godspell allows us to return to a childlike innocence, a state in which we can forget the duress of making our way in the real world and return to a time when we could be children again. Play games with a trusted and magical friend who knows our deepest thoughts and feelings and helps us to stand on our own by learning to trust ourselves and each other. Basically, we have 10 kids playing hooky with a cool older teen keeping an eye on them.
Of course, the music is simple and direct, melodic, and exciting, and we tell the story of the gospel of St. Matthew almost without being aware of it.
Look Back at the Original Off-Broadway Production of Godspell
Merle Frimark, Publicist
It is a blessing that the late creator-director John-Michael Tebelak had the happy inspiration to transform the Gospel According to St. Matthew into mime, song, and dance—a musical harlequinade which he called Godspell. Then adding the music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz….magic. Its message is timeless.
I was just beginning my PR journey at the office of Gifford/Wallace and was lucky enough to work on the original Hair and Godspell. In June 1973, Godspell was given a float in the annual salute to Israel parade. When some of the cast were not available to participate, we recruited a few understudies to don those colorful Susan Tsu costumes or Godspell T-shirts. It was a lovely sunny day, and off we went to the Promenade Theatre bright and early to get into costume. Even I was drafted, dressing in the “Bless the Lord” costume—braided my hair and the next thing I knew someone was painting my face! On went the hat and off we went. We spent the next few hours riding up Fifth Avenue in the glorious sunshine, jumping around, singing and waving to the enthusiastic crowds as the recording of the show’s hit song “Day By Day” blasted over the loud speakers. A press agent’s work is truly never done!
Victor Garber, Original Toronto cast, Off-Broadway Promenade, film
I was cast in the role of Jesus in the Toronto production of Godspell in 1972, which debuted at the Royal Alexandra Theatre. It was a life-changing experience for me, not only because of the audience response to an extraordinary, original, musical but also because of the actors assembled, some of whom remain cherished friends to this day. I was aware of something magical happening in the rehearsal room. I think we all were. I will always treasure that time.
Peggy Gordon, Original cast–Carnegie-Mellon, La MaMa, Off-Broadway Cherry Lane, Promenade, Los Angeles
Mine will be a "two birds with one stone" answer. John-Michael Tebelak created a pre-adolescent child's world in a fenced playground. This raison d'être was designed to explore a singular question. Was there any spiritual sustenance in what Jesus is purported to have said and done, divorced from centuries of Church dogma and ritual? This is why Godspell takes Jesus out of the Church. After the baptism wipes us clean, not just of our pontificating worldly dross, but of everything, we come back in as pre-adolescent children who know absolutely nothing, to be taught everything by this special clown. JMT chose clowns because they are children's iconic characters, as was the choice to make Jesus another child's icon, a comic-book-styled superhero clown. This is the essence of why the show has endured. The world JMT tasked us to create was an utterly innocent one, drenched in love and childlike joy. This leads me to “By My Side.” In order for us to get into the mindset of being pre-adolescent children, we would begin each rehearsal at La MaMa with a child's game of Show and Tell. It consisted of games, songs, stories, whatever we used to do as children in kindergarten. I played “By My Side” for Gilmer McCormick. It was her idea to bring it into rehearsal the next night. I taught it to her, she came up with that gorgeous seminal harmony, we played it for the group and JMT said, "I know exactly where that should go. The stoning scene." When Stephen Schwartz was brought in, after La MaMa, to write new music to the eight existing songs, write five additional songs, and musicalize the prologue (all in four weeks), he said to me, "Peg, I tried to compose something to go in that spot, and I couldn't come up with anything I liked better. So, I'm keeping it."
Paul Kreppel, Off-Broadway Promenade
Why has it lasted? Godspell’s universal themes, memorable pop-rock score, coupled with an exuberant playfulness and innocence, make it unique. Godspell is a heartfelt joy to behold and, I might add, perform. So, so many memories. Some hilarious! But for me, it’s all about the talented family that was created 50 years ago, with real love and respect starting from the top by creators John-Michael Tebelak, Stephen Schwartz, and our gentleman producer, Edgar Lansbury. I cherish all the many dear friendships that have endured and all the memories we continue to make. #AllGoodGifts #GODSPELLFOREVER
Robin Lamont, Original cast–Carnegie-Mellon, LaMaMa, Off-Broadway Cherry Lane, Promenade, Broadway, film
I’m probably one of the more ubiquitous cast members, having originated the show at Carnegie-Mellon, opened the Off-Broadway and Broadway productions, and appeared in the film. Over the years I’ve seen numerous productions of Godspell, many with interesting new visions. In all of them, Stephen Schwartz’s score lifts them up to provide a fun, emotional show that doesn’t seem to age at all. I was lucky enough to sing “Day by Day” on the original cast and film albums. And I recall with visceral clarity that as soon as the iconic opening chords were played, one could almost hear a collective sigh in the audience—a sense that they were in good hands and would have a memorable, enjoyable evening of theatre.
For those who might wonder what I’m doing now: after a few years as a private investigator, then criminal prosecutor, I started writing suspense novels, and am working on honing my craft as a writer for TV and film.
Edgar Lansbury, Producer
Godspell remains popular because everyone can relate to it. Each of the characters has a personality trait that we can trace to an individual we know. The parables have a timeless message, but the setting can be any place or time period, providing endless opportunities for the show to be reimagined.
Stephen Schwartz was a young Carnegie-Mellon graduate, and he was the obvious choice to reimagine the material. Once he came on board to write music and new lyrics, he really changed the personality and elevated the show to a polished, professional one. I loved all the songs in the show, especially Peggy Gordon’s song “By My Side,” one of the only songs from the original production. Don Scardino, who remains a close friend, became the show’s director at various points and had an absolutely clear understanding of what the show was about—he also played Jesus for a time. He made tremendous contributions and understood completely what made the show tick.
Telly Leung, Broadway revival, Paper Mill Playhouse
Happy 50th anniversary, Godspell! This show has been a big part of my life. I was part of the Paper Mill production in 2006 which would end up being the 2008 Broadway production-that-never happened at the Barrymore Theatre, and the 2011 revival-that-did-happen at the Circle in the Square Theatre. Uzo Adbua and I were the only two actors to have had the complete roller-coaster ride from 2006 to 2008 to 2011.
My favorite memory of Godspell has to be opening night at the Circle in the Square Theatre. In our tiny theatre-in-the-round was a star-studded house, and sitting all in a row together were the famous Godspell alumni from the original Canadian cast: Andrea Martin, Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Victor Garber, and musical director Paul Shaffer. You could tell they were having a blast watching us re-invent these parables with our own comedic voices and sing these timeless songs that were such a significant part of their early comedy careers. The improvisational nature of Godspell (and the formation of that cast, which also included the late, great Gilda Radner) would be the beginning of SCTV, which would end up being SNL. The DNA of SNL goes all the way back to Godspell and actors taking what's reverent and making it accessible to everyone through comedy and joy. I remember being backstage with them all and Martin Short walking up to Nick Blaemire and saying, "Hey! You sang 'We Beseech Thee'—that was me! I was 'We Beseech Thee'," and Nick and I both looked at him and said: "You’re not 'we beseech thee'—you're Martin Short!" When we all went to the party, we asked where all those big celebs went, and our producer told us they all skipped the party and went to a nearby diner to have their own reunion after almost 40 years. Could you imagine randomly walking into that diner? I think back now, and I say to myself: What I wouldn't give to have a 10-year reunion at a midtown diner with Nick, George, Uzo, Lindsay, Anna Maria, Morgan, Julia, Corey, Eric, Joaquina, Celisse, Wallace, and Hunter. That sounds like heaven.
I recently got to direct a production at Godspell at The University of Michigan. It was my first time directing, and it was during the height of the pandemic—but U of M was determined to give their senior musical theatre majors as much of a live performance experience as possible. We filmed the show with no audience, the actors had to be masked the whole time, and we had to stage them nine feet apart. If there was a COVID outbreak, the entire production would have to be shut down. It was a challenging situation for all involved, but I understood the healing power of that show and felt the deep need to share this show with the next generation of Broadway artists. I knew there was something powerful in gathering a group of artists together and creating something from nothing—even if our little production never saw the light of day due to COVID. [For information on how to watch the free, Leung-directed Godspell, click here.]
Godspell is about how a community of disparate voices come together to collaborate and embrace each other’s individualism but commit to communally abiding by two basic tenets: "Love thy neighbor" and "Always treat others as you would have them treat you." Godspell is based on Christian beliefs, but those two golden rules are universal through all religions and cultures—and it's something we desperately need to hear after this year of being disconnected. We need Godspell to inspire us to come together and rebuild "brick by brick, heart by heart.”
Eugene Levy, Original Toronto cast
One of my most vivid memories from the Toronto production took place at the callback auditions. Eighty hopefuls were trying out in a church auditorium and watching each other audition on the tiny church stage. It was the musical portion of the audition where Stephen Schwartz and Steve Reinhardt would determine who had the musical chops to be in the show. A voice echoed out in the hall: “Victor Garber!” Victor took to the stage carrying his acoustic guitar and sang his version of “Save the People.” Oh. My. God. It was insanely beautiful, and he finished his version with a modulation on the last line “God save the people” that hit a final note that could only be described as ethereal. Eighty auditionees, including me, jumped to their feet and gave him a 10-minute standing ovation. And then, a voice echoed out in the hall with a sound that, to this day, has been the most frightening sound to hit my ear—“Eugene Levy!”
I think the show still resonates with people today because it tells the story, with a flower-child sensibility, that is so close to so many people’s hearts and does it in very simple terms using humor and Stephen Schwartz’s incredible musical score.
Corey Mach, Broadway revival
Godspell has remained intensely popular because it is the epitome of the purpose of theatre: interpreting basic stories in order to be relevant to any place or time in which it is staged. The show has a “let’s put on a show” quality that fits well with anyone who has fallen in love with theatre and its ultimate motive, which gives power to truth, asks us to take risks, and hopefully advocates for new and diverse voices.
I think my favorite Godspell memory was when I was cast as the Jesus/Judas standby in the 2011 revival on Broadway—one of the very first times I went on for Jesus, my entire family and my college mentor, Victoria Bussert (from Baldwin-Wallace University), were all in the audience. I actually didn’t tell my mom I was going on for Jesus, and when she entered the lobby and saw my name and picture on the board, legend has it she fell to the ground and started crying.
Joe Mantegna, Chicago cast
As to its popularity, I think the feel-good, positive message in word and song it presented makes it so enduring and endearing. Hey, Christianity has been popular for over 2,000 years!
I’d have to say my favorite memories are the friends I made because of Godspell. Unfortunately, Richard Gilliland recently passed away, and he was Jesus in the production at the Studebaker Theatre for most of the run and was my dearest friend. I was best man at his wedding, and he was a godfather to my daughter Mia. Also in the cast were Karla DiVito of Meatloaf fame, as well as Merrill Jackson, who did the Godspell film. I’m still in close touch with a few of the other cast members, and it’s those connections offstage that made the experience onstage all the richer.
Sonia Manzano, Original cast–Carnegie-Mellon, LaMaMa, Off-Broadway Cherry Lane, Promenade
Godspell has remained popular because of its searing simplicity. That sensibility allows the theatergoers to insert themselves in the stories. I knew we had something special when, in workshop form, it was performed at Carnegie-Mellon University. At the end of the show and after enjoying each other’s antics on the stage, Robin Lamont and I reached the back of the house. The irony of the crucifixion broke us. We looked at each other realizing the potential impact of what we were creating. There was nothing to do but weep. It was as if we had unwittingly and blindly found some sort of gold.
Andrea Martin, Original Toronto cast
In 1971 I moved from New York to Toronto. When word of auditions for the Toronto company of Godspell came out, I had already seen the New York and London productions multiple times. I had memorized all the songs, and I believed I was the perfect person to play any part in the show. I auditioned with a totally inappropriate song for an "innocent disciple of Christ,” “Somebody" from the Off-Broadway musical Celebration. "At 20, man you've had it, if you know what I mean, and you start aging very fast, the day you reach 13.” I got to sing two measures, and heard the dreaded, Thank you. Then, this adorable girl with pigtails bounced up on stage and sang “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” in its entirety and brought the house down. It was Gilda Radner. She was called back; I was instructed to pick up my coat and leave. Two weeks later, when the young girl cast as the “Day By Day" clown dropped out for personal reasons, my good friend Eugene Levy (who had been cast along with Gilda, Marty Short, Victor Garber, and Dave Thomas) called and asked me to a party he was having for the director and the cast that night. He instructed me to be my "zany, funny, uninhibited" self at the party. I did what he told me. The next day I was cast as Robin, in the original Toronto company of Godspell. It was the beginning of all of our careers and friendships that have lasted a lifetime.
Gilmer McCormick, Original cast–La MaMa, Off-Broadway Cherry Lane, Promenade
With the Vietnam War raging, seeing Godspell was what someone once described as “lighting a fire in a cold world,” driving the message of the joy and humanity of Jesus’ life and teachings. Also, I think the play’s ability to modernize the text for each generation, without ever losing the message, was and is a huge part of its success. Some of my favorite memories: The time Jeffrey [Mylett] farted in the “OM” circle at the top of the play. He had just eaten a chili burger between shows. No escape!!! The time Herbie (aka Hamin Min Gadib) [Braha] inhaled a cockroach while writhing and wailing during the crucifixion sequence. Dancing on the top of the not-yet-completed World Trade Center. We’ve lost John-Michael, Jeffrey, Lamar, David, and most recently Herbie. We who remain cherish the memories and the small part of history we had the fortune to share.
Stephen Nathan, Original cast LaMaMa. Off-Broadway Cherry Lane, Promenade, San Francisco
Godspell contains both the childlike innocence sought by all the world's spiritual disciplines as well as the hard realities of greed, pride, violence, and callousness that all of us must navigate. Godspell shows us that we can overcome the difficulties and pain of our lives through love, compassion, brotherhood, the cosmic hum of music (thank you, Stephen), and, most importantly, humor. Humor gives our lives perspective and a real sense of shared humanity. Without it Godspell would be just another sermon, a polemic that would have disappeared a long time ago. Fortunately, Godspell is still here as a gift to the generations of performers who have and will come after us.
It's difficult to sift through all the memories of the show. But the first preview was memorable for me. We were all having a great time but were still unsure of how the show would be received. We were nervous that night, of course, but at the end the audience gave us a standing ovation, something very rare 50 years ago. We were elated. We knew the audience was touched by the show, and the line between us and them was happily blurred. That night in the theatre we were all part of the same family, which was the real reason we were all involved in the show. Also, the memories of those members of the cast and crew who are no longer with us will never leave me. I loved and still love everyone who was connected with the show. I wish they could all be here to celebrate this extraordinary 50-year run.
Dean Pitchford, Off-Broadway Promenade, national tour
Not only is the message of Godspell timeless and universal, but—c’mon!!—you’ve got all those songs, equal parts heartbreaking and jubilant. It’s every bit as much fun to perform as it is to watch. I had many unique experiences while performing Godspell (meeting Helen Hayes, for instance, who posed backstage with the NYC cast—and an ice cream cake—to celebrate our 100th performance). But this one’s the mind-blower …. I was doing Jesus in the original Washington, D.C., production at Ford’s Theatre (yes, that Ford’s Theatre), and early in the run the house was bought out for an audience of students from Gallaudet, the university in D.C. that educates the deaf and hard of hearing. (The show was to be performed with two signers at the front of the auditorium, translating for the crowd.) Someone came from the school to teach our cast how to sign “Day by Day” in ASL, which was to be a surprise to the audience. When we hit that moment in the show… and those students realized that we were all “speaking” their language…the place went berserk with cheers and tears, a lot of them on the faces of our cast members.
Stephen Reinhardt, Music director original productions at Cherry Lane and Promenade, national tour, Broadway, and around the world
Godspell was created to breathe new life into the familiar stories and life lessons of the gospel, which is an old English word for “good news.” It was and continues to be a joyful oasis of spiritual renewal in a radically and breathlessly changing world desperately looking for something to truly believe in, to have faith in, something enduring and unchanging.
My favorite memory is a personal one. On the night the cast assembled at Edgar Lansbury’s to hear the score for the first time, I had been working on the show with Stephen Schwartz for a mere few weeks, and between us, he and I played. The rest of the night, as we partied, I found myself glancing sideways at one the prettiest ladies I had ever encountered. Her name was Gilmer, an unusual and mysterious name. Celtic, I was guessing. Afterwards, as many as we could manage, crammed, and I mean crammed, into Charlie Haid’s Volkswagen Beetle. This oh-so-pretty lady found herself sitting on my lap. It was electric, but I was all gentleman and all business… totally focused on the challenges ahead. Little did I know it would be the beginning of the rest of my wonderful life with her. Such events take place when we least expect them. I look back on this moment still, 49 years later, and it seems like yesterday.
Don Scardino, Toronto, Off Broadway, and original Broadway cast
Intermission in the original Godspell production was always a sweaty but friendly 15 minutes. Several of the cast stayed on stage to serve wine to audience members encouraged to come on up. The fact that we were very sweaty clowns handing these folks Dixie Cups of wine didn’t seem to diminish their enthusiasm for meeting us, and it was usually fun for all. On one warm summer’s Saturday matinee, a group of three nuns, all in full habit and wimple, came up to me, and I handed wine to the first two. I was drenched in First Act sweat, but that didn’t stop the third sister from grabbing me by the shoulders and kissing me full on the lips. She stepped back and said, “I have been married to you for 13 years, and I never knew you were so cute!” They went off, laughing, as I stood there, frankly shocked. I have to tell you, that nun was a swell kisser.
There is the other side to that story, though. After a matinee of the Toronto production, a young woman asked to see the fellow playing Jesus. I stepped into the green room to say hello and noticed she held a hard-bound bible in her hands. She asked me, “Do you believe that everything Jesus said was true?” I said, yes, of course, and she started smacking me repeatedly upside the head with the bible, crying, “Blasphemy! Blasphemy!” It took Martin Short, Eugene Levy, and our stage manager to carry her out of there, still howling. I guess to play Jesus you have to put up with being loved and persecuted.
Paul Shaffer, Music Director original Toronto production, Promenade, Broadway, film soundtrack
My Godspell memory is of the moment which changed my life forever. In 1972 I had just graduated from the University of Toronto and was setting out into the music business, playing the piano wherever I could, including accompanying friends at their singing auditions. Two women friends were going up for roles in what would be the Toronto company of the aforementioned hit Off-Broadway musical, and brought me along to play for them. Both made it through the preliminaries and Stephen Schwartz, Godspell‘s wunderkind composer, came to town to do the final casting. After I accompanied both my friends who sang for him, Schwartz asked to speak to me. “Can you play piano for the rest of the auditions?” he asked. “I like your ‘feel.’” I was happy to do so, and that day played for the now-legendary auditions of Victor Garber, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, and Gilda Radner, all of whom Stephen cast in the show, to which Andrea Martin was soon added. At the end of the day, he spoke to me again. “Can you get a band together and conduct this show?” “Surely,” I replied. I was in show business!
Martin Short, Original Toronto cast
On March 25, 1972 (on the eve of my 22nd birthday), perhaps the greatest good fortune of my 49-year career occurred. Now down to the last two guys up for the role of Jeffrey the imp (what a stretch) in the greatest new musical around. Stephen Schwartz stood on the stage of the Masonic Temple in Toronto and went silent for moment before uttering the words, “I think we’re going to go with….Martin.” As my heart skipped many beats, I looked over to my friend Eugene Levy, who had already been selected, as his face broke out into a massive smile of, “Is this not the greatest day of our life?” Stephen had selected his Toronto cast: Victor Garber, Eugene Levy, Gilda Radner, Avril Chown, Valda Aviks, Rudy Webb, Joanna Brooks, Gerry Salsberg, Jayne Eastwood, and me. (The brilliant Andrea Martin would replace Joanna Brooks during rehearsals.) Paul Shaffer was made musical director that day. I no longer had to be a social work student at McMaster University in Hamilton. I was now going to be a professional actor; paid for what I would do happily for free. In the intervening years, I’ve had many remarkable show business moments, but nothing has ever rivaled the utter joy and excitement I felt that day. Thank you, Stephen, for launching my career into the dream I’d always dreamed.