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Godspell's Discs from Stage and Screen

Godspell’s Discs from Stage and Screen

By Peter Filichia —

There are many wonderful aspects to the “40th Anniversary Celebration” of Godspell. How often is an original cast album (of the landmark 1971 off-Broadway production) offered along with the soundtrack album (of the 1973 film version)?

But here’s what might be the best aspect of this pairing of two different recordings of the Stephen Schwartz score: it will help people to understand the difference between an original cast album and a soundtrack album.

While I resignedly expect that John Q. Theatergoer will say “soundtrack” when he means “original cast album,” I’ve seen writers of great worth at major publications and networks say “soundtrack” in this one-size-fits-all fashion.

At the risk of being insulting – and if I’m being insensitive, I am sorry – but I figured out the difference between an original cast album and a soundtrack when I was a mere 16 going on 17. I was just getting interested in Broadway, and I was looking at albums in Farrington’s Record Store in Arlington, Massachusetts. I was initially flummoxed when I saw two different albums of The King and I. Both had Yul Brynner on the cover, but each had markedly different artwork, not to mention a different “I.” Deborah Kerr was on one, and someone named Gertrude Lawrence was on the other.

I stayed confused until I noticed that one said “Original Cast Album” while the other said “Soundtrack.” After a few seconds’ thought, light dawned. Ah! The soundtrack is for the MOVIE version — because a movie has a TRACK of SOUND.

Chances are that for any given Broadway musical, you know the original cast album better than the soundtrack. Musical theater fans tend to gravitate to a stage recording sooner than to a film one. (West Side Story and The Sound of Music may be the most notable exceptions.) Godspell’s two are markedly similar.

For one thing, five members of the original off-Broadway cast – David Haskell, Joanne Jonas, Robin Lamont, Gilmer McCormick and Jeffrey Mylett – appear in the film version, too. They respectively played David, Joanne, Robin, Gilmer and Jeffrey.

If those names sound too familiar from the previous sentence, be apprised that Godspell has always had actors essentially “playing themselves” as they re-enacted the last week in the life of Jesus Christ. Haskell did indeed play both John the Baptist and Judas, while Stephen Nathan portrayed Jesus. But the rest played many different roles from Jesus’ disciples to townspeople of Jerusalem.

One minor difference between the two recordings is the positioning of “Turn Back, O Man,” better known as “Mary Magdalene’s song.” In the original cast album, it’s the ninth song, while in the soundtrack, it’s the fourth. Thus, those who know the cast album inside out will be a little discombobulated after “Day by Day.” During the few seconds of silence that follow, they’ll hear in their head the bouncy vamp to “Learn Your Lessons Well,” but will instead hear the barrelhouse introduction to “Turn Back, O Man.” Indeed, “Learn Your Lessons Well” was excised from the film and doesn’t appear on the soundtrack – although both it and “We Beseech Thee” can be briefly heard if one closely studies the film itself.)

The most profound difference between the two albums is that “We Beseech Thee” – a marvelous rouser – is on the cast album while “Beautiful City” – a rhythmic treat – replaces it on the soundtrack. Oh, bless the Lord, my soul, each has its distinctive charm and infectious melody, and listeners have been known to embrace both.

Many assume that Godspell was Schwartz’s New York writing debut. Actually, he first came on the Broadway scene in late 1969. A new play with the unlikely name of Butterflies Are Free needed a folk song, because its protagonist yearned to be a songwriter-singer. Schwartz’s agent, Shirley Bernstein (also known as Leonard’s sister), got him the chance to audition and his song was chosen. It meant a nice little royalty check through the show’s 1,128 performances.

One could say that Schwartz was slowly weaned into theater writing, for Godspell didn’t ask him to provide a full score, either. While many naturally assume that every lyric is his, a careful look at the credits yields “Music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz.” “Turn Back, O Man,” “Save the People,” “Bless the Lord,” “All Good Gifts,” “We Beseech Thee” and the show’s biggest hit — “Day by Day” – were all lyrics found in an Episcopal hymnal. Schwartz wrote new melodies for those, and provided the music and lyrics for five of the other six.

The one exception was “By My Side,” which was already in place when John-Michael Tebelak started the project at Carnegie-Mellon University. Peggy Gordon (who’d be in the off-Broadway cast) and Jay Hamburger had written it. And while many songwriters joining a project would say, “Everything will have to be replaced now that I’m here,” Schwartz was taken enough by “By My Side” to say, “Leave it in.” (Jesus would have approved.)

One of Schwartz’ best is “All for the Best.” In the middle of his delightful pop rock score, the songwriter throws us a charming vaudeville quodlibet: Jesus sings a section, Judas a different one, and then both simultaneously sing the sections.

A look at this number in the movie is bittersweet, for part of it was filmed atop the then-still-under construction World Trade Center. In fact, the cover of the soundtrack album (pictured twice with this two-CD release) offers a still from that scene.

One expects that any film version musical would have bigger stars than its stage production, and Godspell turns out to be no exception. The irony, however, is that Victor Garber became famous only after he had appeared as Jesus in the film. This was his first time before the cameras, but hardly his last. Garber must be the only actor who’s portrayed Daddy Warbucks, Prince Charles, Sid Luft and Liberace in various film projects.

What’s sad is how many of the cast died young. Jeffrey Mylett and Merrell Jackson, who duetted “All Good Gifts,” respectively lived to only 36 and 38. David Haskell (John the Baptist and Judas), who appeared in 85 of Santa Barbara’s 560 episodes, died at 52; Lynne Thigpen died at 54 – but not before she received six Daytime Emmy nominations and a 1997 Tony for An American Daughter.

Godspell ran 2,124 performances off-Broadway, but it didn’t close for lack of business after its 61-month run. It simply moved to Broadway where it played 15 more months and racked up 527 more performances. This allowed Schwartz to be the first composer-lyricist to receive a Tony nomination for his first show after he’d already received one for his second show (Pippin, in 1973).

In a way, the success is not surprising. Popular books have always been good fodder for musicals, and Godspell has its basis in the most popular book of all: The Bible.

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Monday, Wednesday and Friday at;. His new book Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit & the Biggest Flop of the Season, 1959-2009 is now available through Applause Books and at