This ain’t your father’s Godspell.
Fifty-eight seconds into “Prepare Ye”, it becomes clear that this is a new Godspell, one for the early 21st century rather than the mid-20th. The difference is dramatic when the band breaks loose with a thumping, driving, blast of energy which is way beyond what the original “rock musical” provided in the 1970s.
Then, the folk/rock feel seemed outlandish and shocking because it was so very un-Broadway. Now, “The Great White Way” is used to rock. Rock of Ages, American Idiot, Spring Awakening and Next to Normal shake up Broadway houses while many shows use rock along with other genres to establish contemporary credentials.
Of course, Godspell wasn’t the first “rock musical.” That distinction really belongs to Hair with its 1968 transfer to the Biltmore on Broadway. Jesus Christ Superstar also opened on Broadway before Godspell arrived. It also wasn’t really a “book musical” in the classic meaning of the term. It didn’t tell a linear story using songs and scenes designed to illustrate character and plot. It was, rather, a theatrical setting of a sermon.
It was also perhaps the most theatrically successful term paper in history. Well, actually, it was a master’s thesis. Twenty-two year old John-Michael Tebelak developed it at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh where he was studying Greek and Roman mythology. At Easter in 1970 he focused on the Gospel of Saint Matthew. Later, fellow Carnegie Mellon alum Stephen Schwartz wrote the score we know today. With Schwartz’ score, the show opened off-Broadway and ran for five years before a Broadway production was mounted.
The current Broadway incarnation takes you back to the ambiance of off-Broadway by mounting the show in the least Broadway-ish Tony-eligible theater of them all, the 776-seat Circle in the Square Theatre in the basement of the Gershwin Theatre where Wicked continues its phenomenal run. (Thus, both the big house upstairs and the small one downstairs are filled with the songs of Stephen Schwartz.)
This arena-style theater in the round rocks to the sound of a pit band of six and a cast of ten. The musical environment becomes enveloping.
That feeling is well captured on this disc. “The Tower of Babble” can be a bit confusing as an intro. It is composed, after all, of snippets of Sartre and Socrates, Galileo and L. Ron Hubbard, Hegel and Edward Gibbon. But it does build from solo to full crowd scene in measured steps just as it does in the theater.
Then, in a moment reminiscent of another Schwartz project, Leonard Bernstein’s Mass for which Schwartz wrote most of the lyrics, cacophony is interrupted by beauty. In this case the interruption is the strong voice of Wallace Smith as John the Baptist leading into the rock-blast of “Prepare Ye.”
The series of parables and hymns set as musical scenes, which constitutes the essence of the show, takes over with some of the best known of the songs Schwartz composed using the lyrics of hymns as well as biblical quotations.
- The big hit of the show is “Day by Day,” a setting of a twelfth century text from St. Richard of Chicester, which is given a lovely up-tempo rendition by Anna Maria Perez de Tagle.
- “We Beseech Thee,” which Nick Blaemire turns into a romp, is actually based on the lyrics of Thomas Benson Pollock’s nineteenth century hymn.
- “Save the People” uses the lyric of the hymn “The People’s Anthem” by nineteenth century English poet Ebenezer Elliott.
- The tender “All Good Gifts” sung in a clean near falsetto by Telly Leung uses lyrics by Jane M. Campell’s nineteenth-century hymn.
Other songs use biblical quotes. The solo for Hunter Parrish’s Jesus, “Alas for You,” is Schwartz’ take on Matthew 23:13-17, while “Light of the World,” which cast member George Salazar leads as the finale of Act I, comes from Matthew 5:13-16.
The distinctive sound of this production is a result of new orchestrations and vocal arrangements by Michael Holland and the efforts of music director Charlie Alterman who leads the band from his keyboard position at one side of the stage. In the theater the guitarists are sprinkled throughout the seating area while the drum set is off to one side. While this recording isn’t a “surround sound” disc attempting to reconstruct that spatial relationship, it does a good job of blending sounds to create a full environment using the same six players.
The 40 page booklet does a fine job of providing an idea of the visual qualities of the show. It also has useful notes by Schwartz explaining his role in developing the score (and giving full credit to Peggy Gordon and Jay Hamburger who wrote “By My Side” for the show before he joined the project) and Paul Shaffer, whose career has been linked with Godspell ever since the 1972 Toronto production. (The night I saw the show he had come over from his gig at “The Late Show with David Letterman” to join in the festivities. He doesn’t, however, appear on the recording.)
The relatively short recording is bolstered by two “bonus tracks.” One has Schwartz’ “Beautiful City” from the film version of Godspell sung here by John Ondrasik who is also known as Five for Fighting in the pop music world. The other is an after hours recording of “Learn Your Lessons Well” which you can compare to the version in Act I in which Celisse Henderson accompanies herself on the Ukulele before switching over to a rocking electric guitar.