He was making all of $25 a week from his first New York show.
But Stephen Schwartz amassed so much more from the next one: GODSPELL, subtitled “A Musical Based upon The Gospel of St. Matthew.”
No, the show that details the last seven days of Jesus Christ’s life hasn’t been around nearly as long as its source material. But it can boast that it marks a fiftieth anniversary this week.
Schwartz’s good fortune started thanks to BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE, a 1969 play that would win a Tony for newcomer Blythe Danner and an Oscar for old pro Eileen Heckart. Leonard Gershe saw his script become one of the ten longest-running comedies in Broadway history.
BUTTERFLIES’ hero was a budding composer-lyricist, so a song was needed. Agent Shirley Bernstein (Leonard’s sister) had been impressed with a musical that recent Carnegie Mellon graduate Stephen Schwartz had written, so she encouraged him to write on spec a title tune for the play.
Schwartz not only got the job, but he also received that aforementioned weekly royalty. BUTTERFLIES played Broadway for 143 weeks, so Schwartz netted a cool $3,575 and more still from touring companies and the film.
But by the time BUTTERFLIES closed on July 2, 1972, Schwartz didn’t much need it. In the interim, Bernstein had arranged for producers Edgar Lansbury (Angela’s brother) and Joseph Beruh to hear Schwartz’s Carnegie Mellon musical: PIPPIN PIPPIN.
(That’s not a typo; in those days, Schwartz’s title repeated the word.)
Although Lansbury and Beruh didn’t want to produce that one – a decision that they must have later regretted – they had a hunch that Schwartz would be good for the musical that they were trying out at LaMama: THE GODSPELL.
It then had songs mostly written by cast members and some pop writers. Schwartz would be required to pen a score in a matter of weeks, but – with a little help from the lyrics of existing songs – he finished in time for GODSPELL (no THE) to open on May 17, 1971 at the Cherry Lane. Soon after, Schwartz won two Drama Desk Awards – one for Most Promising Composer and one for Most Promising Lyricist.
He has kept both promises time and time again.
Business was so strong that three months later GODSPELL moved to the larger Promenade Theatre where it remained until 1976 and its 2,124th performance. That made it the longest-running American off-Broadway musical aside from, of course, THE FANTASTICKS.
But GODSPELL did finish first in the category of films created from off-Broadway musicals. Never before had Hollywood made one, but GODSPELL opened a mere two years and two weeks after the stage show’s downtown debut.
GODSPELL didn’t end its off-Broadway run in 1976 because business wasn’t good; on the contrary, the feeling was that its strong name recognition and reputation could sustain a Broadway run. Indeed it did, for 527 performances. Thus the (very) grand total of GODSPELL performances was 2,651. Schwartz became the first-ever Best Score Tony nominee to be honored for music and lyrics that were by then more than a half-decade old.
The show’s crown jewel was “Day by Day.” Executives at Bell Records, which had issued the original cast album and had seen it stay on the charts for months, lifted that cut from the recording, released it as a single and saw it reach lucky Number Thirteen on Billboard’s Hot 100. And who sang it?
To avoid a “Who’s on first?” situation, let’s explain. The seventies represented the first full decade where theater music was considered terribly old-fashioned and rock was taken seriously enough that newspapers were hiring critics and feature writers to cover it. Groups sported such monikers as Three Dog Night, Grand Funk Railroad and Jethro Tull – names that had no innately musical connotations – so “Godspell” was as good as any other name for a group. No mention was made on the 45 r.p.m. record label that this was the name of a musical, lest it hamper sales – at least for the first pressing. After a while, after the song had been established, a new label mentioned that the song sprang from a musical.
But “Godspell” was still credited as the artist. Given that Robin Lamont was the song’s lead singer, she was entitled to be “a little put off,” as she says, that the record didn’t ever sport her name. “But from what I recall,” she says, “that was the first time a song had been lifted from a cast album and released as a single, so there really was no precedent. Steve Schwartz wanted to make it up to me and had Bell Records make me a gold record which is hanging right near my desk.”
That’s not all she got, for Lamont was one of the few original cast members to appear in the 1973 film. Victor Garber, playing Jesus, and Lynne Thigpen were just starting out, not aware that he’d eventually be nominated for four Tonys and that she would be tabbed for two and win one.
For the film, Schwartz replaced “We Beseech Thee” with “Beautiful City.” Each is a winner, so most productions of GODSPELL now offer both songs. Luckily for listeners, the 40th anniversary two-disc set issued by Masterworks Broadway contains both the original cast album and the soundtrack, so no one need be denied either song.
What’s remarkable is that “By My Side” – music by Peggy Gordon, lyrics by Jay Hamburger – has stayed with the show since its early days. Once Schwartz came in, he could have pulled rank the way many composer-lyricists would have and prohibited any song that wasn’t his to be part of the show.
“I felt that while I could try to write another song for the same moment,” Schwartz says, “this song was beautiful and already existed, so why not retain it? The producers and director agreed, and so ‘By My Side’ remained.”
That director was John-Michael Tebelak, who created GODSPELL with his fellow Carnegie Mellon students: Lamont, Gordon, Lamar Alford, Herb Braha, David Haskell, Joanne Jonas, Sonia Manzano, Gilmer McCormick, Jeffrey Mylett and Steve Nathan, all of whom created The Godspell Commune Company.
“Because we co-created the show with JMT,” as Gordon chummily calls the director who died at a mere thirty-five, “we collectively own fifteen percent of the show. Our contract became the boiler plate for other groups that also co-create a show from scratch.”
For a show based on the Bible, Tebelak’s concept for GODSPELL was unexpected. The cast wore clown-like costumes and Jesus sported a Superman shirt. Gordon says Tebelak “chose clowns because they are children’s iconic characters, which is also why he made Jesus into another child’s icon: a comic-book-styled superhero. The world JMT tasked us to create was an utterly innocent one, drenched in love and childlike joy.”
Gordon also recalls when she and the cast appeared on the Labor Day Telethon that Jerry Lewis annually hosted to raise money for children with muscular dystrophy. “He requested ‘By My Side,’” she says. “I told him I was nervous about that because the lyrics reference walking. He told me that was exactly why he wanted it, for it would give his dystrophic children hope. As I sang, I looked out and at the table in front of me were children seated in wheelchairs, some of whom had braces on their legs. As I sang, they wept. I barely got through the song. When I finished, I looked over at Jerry Lewis who was also crying. He mouthed, ‘Thank you.’ This is why I am both humbly proud and grateful every day of my life to have been an original cast member of GODSPELL.”
“Day by Day” has afforded Lamont similar experiences. “I am contacted on social media by strangers who want to express how meaningful the show and that particular song has been for them,” she says. One of her favorite remarks is “You spoke to my soul with ‘Day by Day’ – and I’m not even Christian!”
Says Lamont, “One person wanted to let me know that listening to the song helped her through chemotherapy. I’m grateful that the musical has made a unique and powerful difference in people’s lives. How many actors get to say that?”
And how many actors can say what Gilmer McCormick can? GODSPELL allowed the actress who duetted with Gordon on “By My Side” and sang “Learn Your Lessons Well” to meet musical director Steve Reinhardt. Next February, they’ll celebrate their own fiftieth anniversary as husband and wife. When that night arrives, if they so decided, they could probably take in a performance of GODSPELL; Lord knows that it will be playing somewhere in its second half-century of life.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.