John Michael Tebelak originally produced Godspell at age 22 as his masters thesis project, under the tutelage of Lawrence Carra, at Carnegie Mellon University in December 1970.
He had been studying Greek and Roman mythology, with the deadline for his thesis two weeks away, but became fascinated by the joy he found in the Gospels. He attended an Easter Vigil service in 1970 at Pittsburgh’s St. Paul Cathedral, wearing his usual overalls and T-shirt. In his words:
I decided to go to Easter sunrise service to experience, again, the story that I had gotten from the Gospel. As I went, it began to snow which is rather strange for Easter. When I went into the cathedral, everyone there was sitting, grumbling about the snow, and the fact that they had already changed their tires. They weren’t going to be able to take pictures that afternoon. Snow was upsetting their plans.
As the service began, I thought it might be a little different. Instead, 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 I was leaving the church, a policeman who had been sitting two pews ahead of me during the service, stopped me and wanted to know if he could search me. Apparently he had thought I was ducking into the church to escape the snowstorm. 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 recreate the sense of community, which I did not share when I went to that service.
I went to my teachers at Carnegie and asked if I could work at my own special project for my masters’ degree, and they agreed. That following fall, in October, we began rehearsals at Carnegie.
Based on the Gospel of St Matthew, Tebelak developed the play’s concept, which connected Bible parables with actors behaving like clowns (or comic movie characters) in order to bring a joyful and spontaneous feeling to the material. Tebelak managed to convert a reluctant group of ten cast members to his outlandish notion. For a 1970 production of what was then called “The Godspell” in a tiny theatre on the Carnegie campus, the actors helped develop the playful performance style. The first score, written by a friend of the director, attached rock music to a set of lyrics from hymns and psalms.
It was so popular, they took the show off-off Broadway for a two week run, and producers began to show an interest in the show, but thought that musical score had to be improved.
In 1971, Stephen Schwartz, -also a Carnegie grad – was an ambitious twenty-three-year-old. He had a few college musicals on his resume, along with one Broadway song credit, “Butterflies Are Free,” used in the play of the same name. Fortunately for him, New York agent, Shirley Bernstein (Leonard Bernstein’s sister), had recognized his talent when he played her some songs from the college version of Pippin, and she promoted him to others.
Schwartz saw the version that was staged in the winter of 1971 off-off-Broadway. During their first meeting, Tebelak handed Schwartz a mimeographed script that included psalms, hymns, and parables. New song placement and tunes were now up for grabs, though the show’s basic structure would remain intact. Schwartz recalls about the status of the show, “It just had to be musicalized in a way that was more accessible or emotional, and had more variety.”
With guidance from Schwartz and Tebalak, the cast for the new version of Godspell brought their own character ideas and antics into the mix. Schwartz kept “By My Side” from the off-off-Broadway Godspell, wrote new music for lyrics already in place, and added his own original music and lyrics for “All For the Best,” and “Learn Your Lessons Well.”
Song lyric sources
Stephen Schwartz adapted the lyrics or wrote original lyrics for Godspell. All music except for By My side is original. By My Side music is by Peggy Gordon, a member of the original cast.
“Prologue”: various philosophical sources adapted by Tebelek, revised by Schwartz Summer 2000.
“Prepare Ye”: Matthew 3:3 (Isaiah 40:3)
“Save the People”: Episcopal Hymnal 1940, no. 496
“Day by Day”: E. Hymnal, no. 429
“Learn Your Lessons Well”: Original lyric by S.S.
“Bless the Lord”: E. Hymnal, no. 293 (adaptation from Psalm 103)
“All for the Best”: Original lyric by SS.
“All Good Gifts”: E.Hymnal no. 138
“Light of the World”: Adaptation of Matthew 5:13-16
“Turn Back, O Man”: E. Hymnal no. 536
“Alas for You”: Adaptation of Matthew 23:13-37
“By my Side”: Original lyric by Jay Hamburger
“We Beseech Thee”: E. Hymnal no. 229
“On the Willows”: Adaptation of Psalm 137
“Finale”: Original lyric by SS; reprise of Matthew 3:3
“Beautiful City”: The lyrics for the song do not come from scripture but were written for the film version.