In September 2019, Stephen Schwartz, composer/lyricist of Godspell, Pippin, and Wicked, will be the keynote speaker for the Educational Theatre Association’s annual National Conference in New York City. Dramatics first profiled the Thespian alum in 1975, when the rights to Godspell were released for high school production. 

IN THE MID-1960s, a young Honor Thespian of Troupe 612 at Berea High School in Berea, Ohio, plastered a putty nose in place to play the title role in Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, while across the country at Garden City Park, Long Island’s Mineola High School, another Honor Thespian of Dan Wargo’s Troupe 276 eyebrow penciled a moustache on his upper lip to play Anne’s father in Diary of Anne Frank.

Stephen Schwartz

Stephen Schwartz in the 1970s

Short years later, these two men met as undergraduates on the campus of Carnegie-Mellon University. But it wasn’t until mid-May in 1971, in the lobby of New York’s Off-Broadway theatre the Promenade, that John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz re-met to form an artistic union that would give the theatergoing world Godspell, the show that this month passed The Blacks to become the fifth longest running play Off-Broadway.

Despite negative reviews (most notably from The New York Times’ Clive Barnes), the audiences at the Promenade quietly grew large, the ticket became “hot,” and soon half-a-dozen American cities had resident companies. Two companies were touring the country (one in England), the show was translated into nearly a dozen foreign languages, racked up four Drama Desk Awards, and a Grammy.

John-Michael Tebelak

John-Michael Tebelak in the 1970s

This month, after nearly a four-year wait, performance rights to Godspell have become readily available to nonprofessional production companies. (Some metropolitan areas in the Northeast still must wait a bit for performance permission.) Music Maximus, who is “agenting” the show, reports their switchboard jammed for several days following a mass mailing announcing the availability of rights to high schools across the country.

Meanwhile, at the Promenade, at 7:26 each night, a sold-out crowd hears 10 voices from backstage chanting the “Godspell Motto,” as they prepare to take the stage: “Keep the corners of your mouth turned up. Speak in a low, persuasive tone. Listen, be teachable. Laugh at good stories, and learn to tell them … for as long as you are green, brother, you can grow.”

As last year ended, Dramatics Editor Thomas A. Barker talked with both John­-Michael Tebelak, who wrote the script and “conceived” the production, and with Stephen Schwartz, who added music and lyrics, at their homes in New York and Connecticut.

Stephen, you’re the married member of the team. Do you have children? 
STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: Yes, I have one son, 10 months old.

It’s early to tell if he’ll compose, but does he sing? 
SS: Yes, he sings. Not particularly well, but he sings rather constantly.

John-Michael, even though you are unmarried, you have a family of three. Are they pre-Godspell or post-Godspell acquisitions? 
JOHN-MICHAEL TEBELAK: I think I’ve gotten one every year since Godspell opened. No, I’ve missed one. I have a nice mongrel from the “Bide-A-Wee” home in New York. I have an old English sheep dog from right around my area here and a chow from New Haven. I really don’t have a very good pencil sharpener. I keep them for that excuse.

John-Michael, by now most of the world knows you wrote and directed Godspell, but your billing always boasts “Conceived by.” Is writing a conception? 
JMT: You really can’t put your finger on how you write something. I remember hearing of one playwright — I think he was in his mid-40s before his first play was done — and someone asked, “How long did it take you to write your play?” He said. “Well, 39 years to live, and I think, maybe three days to put it down on paper.”

Is that the Godspell legend? 
JMT: I think I kind of agree with him. It may take a short time to really put it down on the paper, but that’s not the important part. Plays are to be spoken — they are to be lived more than read.

Trace for us the history of the show from pre-pencil and paper to last night’s performance at the Promenade. 
JMT: I had been a student at Carnegie-Mellon University in the drama department — a directing major. Most of my work had been done with mythology — something I feel is a part of theatre. But the Greek myths seemed to have no relation to my casts or audiences. The Greek mythology is so different — so distant to our way of thinking — that it was difficult for a cast to portray the feelings, the emotions, or even the power of certain characters.

Does what you’re speaking of involve the Greek mythological gods? 
JMT: Yes. Our concept of Zeus is not the same as the Greeks concept would have been. We think of Zeus as a “father image.” He was really not — he was much more a human image. The Judea-Christian ideas of Zeus are “god-the-father” images. Because of that conflict, I began looking for a mythology that seemed a bit closer to me, closer to a cast, closer to the audience. The Judeo-Christian mythology was the obvious choice. I read miracle plays, cycle plays, passion plays, but nothing really excited me. They all seemed to be very heavy — downtrodden. Finally, I turned toward the Gospels and sat one afternoon and read the whole thing through. Afterward, I became terribly excited because I found what I wanted to portray onstage.

Which was …
JMT: Joy! I found a great joy, a simplicity — some rather comforting words in the Gospel itself — in these four books. I began immediately to adapt it. I decided to go to Easter sunrise service to experience, again, the story that I had forgotten 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 master’s degree, and they agreed. That following fall, in October, we began rehearsals at Carnegie.

At this point, did the show have music? 
JMT: Yes, it had a rock score that was assembled by myself and my roommates — all medical students. It was an all-doctor band. Basically, because it was a pure rock score, it really didn’t have the dimension of different sounds. It wasn’t eclectic enough. Part of the Godspell concept is to be eclectic and gather from all sources. We had many of the same words, though. Some are based on old hymns. “Day By Day” was written by Sir Richard of Chitchester in the late 14th century. “Turn Back, O Man” was a rather popular Victorian hymn. Obviously “We plow the fields and scatter …” is a traditional sort of hymn.

Let’s trace back to Carnegie again. You’re about to open. 
JMT: Yes. It was December, and we decided that Godspell would be our Christmas gift to the theatre department. It went over quite well for the four performances we did. We thought at that point we’d never see or hear of it again.

At this moment in the conception of Godspell, where was Jesus Christ Superstar?
JMT: Superstar was written first.

Stephen, before you added your music and lyrics to John-Michael’s script, did you listen to Superstar? 
SS: The album was released in, I believe, December 1970. I had a copy of the album, but had not listened to it. I was asked to do Godspell, and consequently I did not listen to it until I finished Godspell.

Was that purposeful? 
SS: Once I knew I was going to do Godspell, yes, it was on purpose. I didn’t want to be affected either by subconsciously imitating it or consciously striving not to imitate it. I just wanted not to know about it at all.

JMT: Superstar came out as a recording just the summer I was writing Godspell. I had not heard it because I was so busy directing and writing. It wasn’t until I moved to New York that I actually heard it. In fact I know the exact date: May 20, just three days after the show opened in New York.

Have you spoken to Superstar creators, Webber and Rice? Your creations draw several parallel lines. 
JMT: About two weeks after we had opened, Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice came down to see our show. They had heard we were playing a pirated version of their show. They came in very tersely, with looks like “We’re not going to enjoy this.” Afterward, we met with them and they had enjoyed it a great deal and were happy we were so totally different. It was fun, then, to sit and compare notes.

I’ve sidetracked the discussion. When we left the development of Godspell, John-Michael, you had just closed at Carnegie. What came next? 
JMT: After we closed in Pittsburgh, we thought we’d never see or hear of Godspell again. I went to New York for rest, and in my travels, I met with Ellen Stewart who founded La Mama Theatre, and I mentioned my play. She thought it sounded interesting, but unfortunately she wasn’t then able to do anything for about a year. Two days later, she called and asked, “How soon can you be here?” I very quickly said, “Six weeks,” and she said, “Fine!” She had had a cancellation. We started rehearsals the following week and, five weeks later, we opened at La Mama with the workshop production we had done at Carnegie. At La Mama, producers Edgar Lansbury, Stuart Duncan, and Joseph Bruh came and saw the show. Afterward, we met and started negotiations for an Off-Broadway production. They asked if I would like to change the show in any way, and my first reaction was music. I wanted something a little more eclectic than pure rock. They said, “Fine, we’ll send down a young composer we have heard a score from.”

It sounds like you’re leading up to something. 
JMT: The night he was supposed to come, I was waiting in the lobby. I thought someone would introduce themselves to me, but instead there were mostly old friends from school, and while I was talking with them, one of the old friends happened to be …

Stephen Schwartz! 
JMT: Right. I said, “How did you enjoy it?” And he said, “Fine, I can’t wait to get back to Edgar and Joe,” and I realized that this was the “young composer.” Five weeks later we had a complete score for the show. We went into rehearsals at the Cherry Lane Theatre and after four weeks we opened, on May 17 — which was also my graduation. I had not returned to school, obviously, from the time I had left at Christmas, and I was a little afraid of what the school would think about my — in a sense — running away. My professor in directing had given me $100 to get a truck so I could move all of my things to New York with our sets and costumes. Opening night, the department sent me a telegram that said, “No matter what the critics say, you’ve passed with us,” and then announced that I would graduate.

From the Cherry Lane, you moved to the Promenade. When? 
JMT: We opened in May and moved in August.

Stephen, since Godspell, you’ve written with a flourish, and not without acclaim, Pippin and The Magic Show, both with a rock flavor. What sort of affect do you think you’ve had on rock music, in general, and it on you? 
SS: Well, I would say that my effect on the current rock scene, up to this point, has been virtually nil. The effect of rock music on me, I think, is quite large, as one can see from my writing. The kind of music that I listen to, say, 75 percent of the time, is bound to have an effect sooner or later. With Godspell, where the score had to be concocted very, very quickly, I often thought that this should have a “James Taylor feel” or such-and-such should have whatever kind of feel. I think that’s implicit in the music. I believe that I’ve developed enough of a style so that no matter where my influences come from the music is identifiable as my own.

You have. Who’s your favorite rock artist? 
SS: I think that the person I have really admired most for years, for two, three, four years, is Joni Mitchell. She’s unquestionably the finest songwriter in America today, bar none. I think Paul Simon is also a great songwriter.

John-Michael, want to play the “favorites game?” 
JMT: Oh, I think Loggins and Messena have come out with some very exciting records. I like Gladys Knight and the Pips. I listen, quite often, to Aretha Franklin.

Let’s talk about theatre artists for a moment. Stephen, some are calling Stephen Sondheim the “musical Neil Simon.” 
SS: Well, I think that’s both overpraising Steve and belittling him at the same time. He’s not nearly as successful as Neil Simon, and at the same time, I think what he’s doing is probably of finer quality.

JMT: Oh, Simon’s a genius. Someone once said, “If Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing for Desilu.” There’s nothing wrong with that, writing for the masses.

Godspell will soon be available to masses of nonprofessionals. What sort of advice can both of you offer a cast and director about to begin work on your very delicate show? 
SS: I could go on forever, of course, but let me say the three things that I think are most important: First, the creation of a family feeling between all the cast members is vital. It’s very important that the audience feels the connection between the cast members onstage. If everybody is out there doing his individual shtik then the whole fabric of the show will disintegrate. It is very hard to create that kind of family feeling. Offstage exercises and theatrical games — I would recommend that very highly. The second thing to bear in mind, and this is advice to the director, is that the story of Godspell is almost entirely subtextual, and therefore it’s very important for him to know what kind of development he wants to see and be able to put it onstage. By that, I mean that really what happens in Godspell is that 10 separate individuals come together and then turn to the audience and attempt to get them to also become a unit with them. This happens very slowly. Once again, I think that if everyone’s out there just making jokes, doing shtiks, and has no overview of the show, it will fall apart. The third thing I would advise is that the director exercise as much taste as he possibly can. With a show like Godspell, it is very easy to go for cheap gags, what I call “television humor.”

JMT: The basic structure must be adhered to, and there are certain qualities that must be maintained. The honesty of each performer trying to find a clown within himself, as opposed to adding a clown character on top of what is inherently funny about that individual. Trust is one of the most important elements in the show. As long as the cast has that image of trust, and friendship, and working ability, and ensemble among themselves, I don’t think that there could be a bad Godspell. The important thing to do is to enjoy the experience, enjoy each other. I secretly wrote a part for myself, but I’ve never been able to perform it.

Which part is yours? 
JMT: If you notice, there’s one character who usually wears overalls. I’m kind of known for wearing my overalls.

John-Michael, while you’re giving away secrets, what’s the secret of Godspell’s universality? You’ve translated the show for companies in Australia, England, France, Holland, Norway, Germany, South Africa. How can you take a line that is typically and topically American — say a catchphrase from a television commercial — and get a South African and a housewife in Sidney together to laugh at it? Or going even one step farther, how do you get a Bostonian and a Denverite to chuckle at the same line? 
JMT: That’s part of the fun. When people read our script, I think it scares them a little. It doesn’t look like a very funny show or even a very amusing show. It’s basically just the text of the Bible. And in workshops and in rehearsals with the cast you can begin to develop the show. Because of this, in almost every country we have gone to, the cast — in a sense — translates the show. Not only in other countries, but also in America. We “localize” it for each particular city, each part of the country. And the cast basically does that work.

You’re not giving a carte blanche to anyone who wants to rewrite Godspell, are you? 
JMT: No, I don’t think so. The important thing is to keep the basic structure, which is terribly important, but the improvisation that goes around the basic structure can be changed — should be changed — for each particular company. It’s very much like a pianist playing Bach. He really can’t do very good Bach improvisation until he has Bach down.

How does the show play in England? It seems British humor is a completely different color from America’s.
JMT: This is an example of how a cast can translate a show. We were running previews in England, and I was so worried that we hadn’t become “British” enough. As I was leaving the theatre one night, two gentlemen from England were talking. One said, “It’s a teddibly delightful show, but I don’t see how they’re ever going to take it in the United States … it’s so teddibly British!”

Critics were mixed when the show opened in New York. Barnes was negative. Stephen, what do you think of the critics? 
SS: I know I — and I have a great deal more musical training and probably a better ear — I have no way to evaluate a score upon first hearing it. So how they can do it is utterly beyond me. Because of this, critics tend to like scores which are accessible, and in the end turn out to be rather dull, and find scores that make more demands on them … for those they use phrases like, “There’s nothing whistle-able,” or they call it “unmemorable,” because they aren’t able to leave after one hearing having memorized the score. Critics obviously are necessary to get people into the theatre and so one has to “get by” the critics.

John-Michael, where are those kids who came to New York with you from Carnegie? Did most of them go back to Pittsburgh and graduate?
JMT: Most of them have gone on to other jobs. Eight of the original Cherry Lane cast were from Carnegie; three were students at the time.

Where are they now? 
JMT: David Haskell is in California now working in television. Robin Lamont is doing Grease, and of course Sonia Manzano is on Sesame Street. Lots of times they come back to New York and do the show for a while. Right now we have Gilmer McCormick from the original company back in New York.

Godspell must be magnetic. 
JMT: Often their agents or people around them say, “Why are you going back?” “Well, it’s enjoyable,” they say. Most of them, as soon as they get back, say to me, “Oh, you must come down. It’s a totally different show, and I’m doing all of these new things!” I remember one particular party in England, where the company had been on tour for a year and a half. On stage you would hear an actor say, “Oh, my goodness, not ‘Day By Day’ again!” Then one night, we had about six new members going into the show. Half of the cast was leaving. Instead of having a party to really forget Godspell, everyone sat down and sang the entire score.

Both of you were active in Thespian troupes in your high schools. What did that experience mean to you? Does it affect your work today? 
JMT: I was already working in the professional theatre when I was in high school, so it wasn’t really until my last year and a half in high school that I was finally in shows at school myself. I got to do Cyrano, which excited me. I was an Honor Thespian, but I think the important thing is the sense of recognition in one’s own school. It’s like a sports sweater — it gives responsibility to the school’s progress. I think I was very fortunate in having an instructor in high school who gave us a great deal of freedom. And because of that we were able to try things, which you aren’t always able to do in similar situations.

Stephen?
SS: I saw a letter you wrote to Shirley (Bernstein, Schwartz’s agent) that said I was one of your most distinguished alumni. What astonishes me — and I mentioned this to my wife last night — is that I just assumed that anybody who was interested in the theatre when in high school was a Thespian. That’s where the experience was. I don’t know how the system works in other schools, but I know under (Dan) Wargo (who is still sponsor of Schwartz’ old troupe at Mineola High School in New Hyde Park, Long Island) students were given enormous amounts of freedom and permitted — really permitted — to make their own mistakes and also to have their own successes. I don’t know how old the Thespian Society is …

We began in 1929.
SS: … then I really don’t understand how I can be one of your most distinguished alumni, since I figure that anyone who has gone through high school and wound up in the theatre would have been involved in the Thespian Society.

Stephen, what advice do you have for someone contemplating a career in professional theatre? What should he do? 
SS: Well, I think that any student who is reading your magazine is already doing the right thing. He must be actively working as much as possible at what he wants to do, and while in high school the best way is to be involved in whatever extracurricular theatre there is. I really believe that if somebody is talented — that if they are really to succeed in show business today — they need a great deal of determination and talent. I deliberately put determination first, because you have to resign yourself to really wading through a lot of crap, to put it more mildly than I usually do. Sooner or later, if one is really determined, they’ll make it. And I think it’s rather easier than people generally think.

John-Michael, any parting words?
JMT: Tell everyone who is going to do Godspell to have fun.

SS: Your readers should realize that it is in their power to change the theatre in whatever way they want. In a few years, it is going to be up to them, and I think that’s something for them to be excited about.

This story appeared in the January 1975 print version of Dramatics. Subscribe to our print magazine.

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