The Journey So Far

A chronological stroll thru the history of Broadway Musicals as they came to be recorded by Hollywood--the summation of a lifelong vocation, and a journey of self discovery. Equal parts cultural history, critique and personal memoir. Coming next: Mamma Mia

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Godspell

March 21, 1973,  Columbia   102 minutes
My parents took me to church until I was a teenager, at which point they dropped the pretense of being any more interested than I. We were Russian Orthodox, which meant more ceremony than content--and tho I was even an altar boy for a season, the whole megilla made little impact on me. For I had stumbled onto my true religion at any early age: musical comedy. I needed no Russian icon on my ceiling (like my parents), just an Original Cast Recording on my portable "stereo" was enuf to earn my worship and devotion. Music is not a necessity like water, food and oxygen, but it is nourishment for the soul. Placed in context of an amusing story and tasty setting, the improbability of these elements mixing into some cohesive entertainment indicates to me the existence of Divinity. Having found my God, I saw little need for any other; least of all one from that ancient book of fairy tales called The Bible; that continues to hold sway over the masses centuries later--in a culture that can't live without regular iphone upgrades. But for me, the subject of Jesus falls into the category of "turn-offs."--as the babes in Playboy might list on their questionnaire. I'd had a modicum of Sunday school, and seen the culturally brainwashing likes of Ben-Hur and The Ten Commandments--tentpoles of the '50s; but the period and the milieu just didn't grab me, and they seemed no less pure fantasy than Sleeping Beauty or Mary Poppins. I'll choose my own fantasies, thank you. As far as I'm concerned there's a lot more God in Kismet and The Music Man than Godspell.

The growing prominence and influence of Off-Bway grew so much that by April '68 even so hallowed a publication as The New Yorker--which for decades headlined Goings About Town with Bway Theatre listings first & foremost--began listing Off-Bway shows in with all plays and musicals. Theater was now Theatre: no matter where (in New York) or how small. America's latest dramatists were developing more in the margins than on The Big Street, and by the '70s there was newer, more important work being done Off-Bway than on. For musicals the situation was more muted. Anything of any size still aimed for Bway, so the byword was small: intimate, confessional stories; thriftshop parodies, postage-stamp-sized revivals or songbook revues. Yet size did not deter a handful of Off-Bway musicals from rising above their station--even crossing over to Bway in later revivals, if not during their initial runs. The Fantasticks is, of course, the grandaddy of these--and the debut of a writing team (Schmidt & Jones) who went on to Bway success. But most often the authors of these Off-but-Honorary "Bway" musicals (Little Mary Sunshine, Dames at Sea, You're a Good Man Charlie Brown, Your Own Thing, Grease) never graduated to The Main Stem. Exception to that rule is Godspell''s Stephen Schwartz. Not only was he quickly whisked off to Bway, his freshman effort, Godspell, ran longer than Threepenny Opera--and ended it's Off-Bway run by transferring to Bway for another year and half. More impressive still is that Godspell became the first Off-Bway musical to be made a movie.

The show was originally a Masters thesis by John-Michael Tebelak at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. After attending an uptight Episcopal Easter service Tebelak was sparked to create a '60s "youth-friendly" version of the Gospels (mostly Matthew): parables retold for the Woodstock generation. He directed the campus production in Dec '70, and the reception was such that the show moved to LaMama's  experimental East Village space by Feb '71. This was showcase enuf for hungry producers, Edgar Lansbury, Joseph Beruh & Stuart Duncan to transfer the show Off-Bway to the Cherry Lane by the end of May. Originally there were a few songs by various CMU students, or based on gospel verses. But LaMama presented the piece without music. The new producers wanted a score. One CMU song, "By My Side" was deemed worthy of retaining. but rising talent--and CMU alumus--Stephen Schwartz was hired to whip up a new score in but a few weeks. Both were in their early 20s. Schwartz bounced onto Bway, but Tebelak never scored big again and died in '85 at the age of 35. As for his masterwork, Tebelak's Godspell was soon forever known as a Stephen Schwartz musical.

Hard to know why this frankly amateurish concept and production caught the public fancy, but something in the Zeitgeist was calling for Jesus. Perhaps it was the sudden void left by the end of the musical's Golden Age. But there was a clear need to find God in something besides Sondheim. But Christ and Biblical tales are both the laziest and most pandering of subjects. And we all know how the story ends. Tebelak's hippie-clown love-in set the show in an urban junkyard, framed with a chain-link fence for easy crucifixions. The parables are told in cutesy freewheeling style as tho for children or morons, followed by a Christian soft-rock song. Who knew?--This would run longer than Hair? I was young then (and the target demographic) but I was weaned on adult entertainments and couldn't respond to this Sesame Street-like introduction to the New Testament--which I saw that first summer of '71. The coolest thing about the show was its Off-Bway poster, designed by David Edward Byrd, who created the iconic cracked Follies masthead that very same spring. What a pair these two sheets made side by side in subway stations.

Godspell ushered in the Bronze Age, right on the heels of Follies' epitaph to the Golden. In its wake came a steady parade of neophyte talents challenging, or subverting or mangling the form--with the occasional success: Jesus Christ Superstar, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Grease, Pippin. (The latter was in constant play in my bedroom that spring while I learned to juggle. I highly recommend it for that purpose.) But after such a radical stretch in which Bway turned away from the recent past, there was slight hope with the spring crop of '73. A new Prince/Sondheim musical; a follow up resuscitation to No, No, Nanette, staged by Gower Champion, and the first Cy Coleman show since Sweet Charity (and again with Dorothy Fields)--which was of the most interest to me. But tho there were charms in A Little Night Music, Irene and Seesaw, there was more an aftertaste of bitter than sweet. And still I was sure The Fabulous Invalid would revive itself, as it always has. After all, I hadn't arrived on the scene yet; I could very well be among the new young turks to do it. Look at Tebelak: barely three years after his conception and less than two years Off B'way, Godspell was on the screen--with no threat to the stage version continuing for years to come.

You can see why young actors enjoy doing the show; it's a bit like an improv circus or an extended acting class, encouraging all manner of physical and verbal gymnastics, a license to experiment. It operates like a school for clowns; full of pratfalls, silly walks, freestyle dancing, mime and celebrity impressions--but no real characters. Lines are read in funny voices or as Groucho, Howard Cossell, Baby Snooks, Mae West, Jack Benny or Ed Wynn. Some references are so dated it's hard to imagine audiences in '73 knew them (East Lynne, anyone?--a once famous, but long dormant Victorian melodrama.) I would hope that bits have been updated over the years. Tebelak was clearly well-versed in cultural history and drew from that well for much of his direction--which I suspect went over the heads of much of his audience. To no matter. The original NY company yielded no future stars, but the London production, six months later had Julie Covington, David Essex and Jeremy Irons. Unquestionably, the Toronto edition was by far the most fertile, bringing together half the future SCTV gang: Andrea Martin, Eugene Levy, Dave Thomas & Martin Short; as well as Gilda Radner, Victor Garber and musical director Paul Schaffer. With such talent to draw from, how bizarre that only Garber was cast (as J.C.) in the movie. Five of the original NY cast who were cleary faves of Tebelak (and former CMU pals) were loyally rewarded. I can't say any of the women (including the one other future working actress: the lantern-jawed Lynne Thigpen) are very interesting or for that matter, appealing. On the male side, David Haskell and Jeffrey Mylett embody a certain '70s esprit (not to mention hair) that is sweet, but shocking in how foreign and mostly forgotten that era now is. Sadly both Haskell & Mylett would die early, one of brain cancer the other of AIDS. A slight gay sensibility informed the show, coming from Tebelak, Mylett and Garber. A gay Jesus isn't a wise commercial choice--and Garber gave off no particular gayness (and zero hunkiness--he improved much with age). And tho this Christ with a Jew-fro runs around in clown paint and suspenders over a Superman tee, there was no intent to blaspheme. I don't recall anyone protesting Godspell--unless it was for its inanities.

The show's junkyard unit set required a rethink for film. The solution, written by TV director David Greene, in consultation with Tebelak, was to pick up where Bob Fosse left off in Sweet Charity, and let New York be Jesus' and his Apostles' deserted playground. But unlike all previous NY-set musicals, this one would be lensed entirely on location. Even the junkyard set, is cobbled together in some rundown borough. But in the main we get the usual landmarks; Central Park, Times Square, Brooklyn Bridge, Lincoln Center, Fifth Avenue, Grant's Tomb; all creepily devoid of any humanity. Two locations have a deeper resonance. The first is the historic Cherry Lane Theater in the West Village (which will figure prominently in my life in just a few years); and which was Godspell''s first Off-Bway home. The other is the World Trade Center, the barely-finished North Tower rooftop featured as a dance floor for a Bway-style strut called--ironically, in time--(It's) "All for the Best"; and later looming over the harbor thru "Light of the World"--which has the jaw-dropping lyric, "The tallest candlestick isn't much good without a wick." It's a bit too chilling to watch; an unintended darkness that would likely warm Fosse's heart.
The movie opens on a noisy New York in full throttle. A waitress, a dancer, a model, a taxi driver, student, shopper, parking lot attendant and garment runner are going thru their daily paces, when they hear the call of John the Baptist, who appears (in Sgt. Pepper garb) as a visitation to lure each to drop everything and rush into Bethesda fountain. It's a strange beginning--one the stage show didn't have or need to deal with--that suggests what? Hard work and career ambitions are wrongheaded, decadent pursuits? And here he comes to save the day, it's. . . Jesus! Fresh from the fountain in his boxers to bring this merry band together, and obliterate the rest of the city's populace. Then, with this sad clown posse in attendance we start with the parables. It's bad enuf they're in verse, they're presented as skits, gimmicked up as if for kiddies; a comic brawl, silent film clips (at the Cherry Lane), face-painting and playing dress-up. 
The songs come as relief, but they're just as tarted up; dancing on a Times Square billboard; romping thru the Carnegie mansion--with Joanne Jonas affecting Mae West (but looking like Jennifer Beals.) The director's reverence for Fosse is misguided for this material; which begs for a Richard Lester approach (the occasional flashes of this in the Lincoln Center section of "All for the Best" prove my point).  Sammy Bayes' choreography encourages jumping, 



prancing, clapping and stupidly grinning. The cast does so much skipping in this movie you'd think they were expecting a yellow brick road. The whole of "Beautiful City" is one long skip. By the time we get to Judas's betrayal we're ready to skip out of the movie. Yet there's the chain-link crucifixion still to endure. As a theatrical device it was at least excusable. On film it looks utterly ridiculous, and finally sinks the movie entirely. Carrying J.C.'s body thru the still-empty canyons of Manhattan the merry pranksters pick up the show's ear-worm and hit song, "Day by Day" for the final feel-good ending. Aside from the sheer relief that the movie is over, there is one nice final moment: as the gang turns the corner on Park Avenue, the camera, a few steps behind, follows the curve running headlong into the suddenly reappeared throng. It's a nifty touch, but wasted on what's otherwise, basically, an unwatchable picture.

In the wake of Sound of Music-itis, Hlwd production of movie musicals was grinding to a halt (even cheapie Elvis flicks were done by 1970). The Roadshow was retired and the Bway catalog nearly exhausted. An air of desperation hung over the screen musicals of 1973; two of them were animated children's pics (Charlotte's Web; Robin Hood). One was a Reader's Digest production geared for the family: Tom Sawyer with a Sherman Bros. score. The other three were of spiritual bent. Two about Jesus (what are they odds?) and one of more secular faith--belief in utopia. Columbia was a minor player thru the great Bway movie musical years, but kicked into gear with the late-coming bounty of Oliver! and Funny Girl.  The studio aimed for another double punch with Godspell and. . . . Lost Horizon.  Yes, the hoary James Hilton story of a Himalayan Brigadoon; hopelessly dated and philosophically lazy. As Shangri-La it flopped on Bway in the '50s with a Harry Warren score. Producer Ross Hunter, whose previous film musicals were Thoroughly Modern Millie and Flower Drum Song--both commercial hits for Universal--thought a Burt Bacharach/Hal David score just the ticket to bring the musty material to contemporary relevance. Bacharach had vowed to never write another Bway score after working for David Merrick, but out of the strife, Promises, Promises was promising. If not a classic, it delivered an era-defining theater score with the trademark Bacharach sound. Not so with Lost Horizon, which by every measure is dreadful. To add insult to injury, Hunter stacked the film with such luminaries as Peter Finch, John Gieldud, Charles Boyer, Liv Ulmann, George Kennedy, Sally Kellerman and Michael York--none of them known for song. Directed by Charles Jarrott, (fresh off Anne of a Thousand Days and Mary Queen of Scots), with a script by a post-Women in Love, pre-Normal Heart Larry Kramer, the resulting fiasco effectively killed both their Hlwd futures. And tho he was still in his early 50s, with a solid track record behind him, Ross Hunter never dared to make another motion picture. No loss to critic Pauline Kael who wrote Hunter was to movies what Liberace was to music; summing up his "geriatric" Shangri-La as "about as alluring as Forest Lawn." It was D.O.A. at the box office. 
Columbia must've known the picture was a turkey, why else would they release their two musicals within a week of each other in March? Times Square had deteriorated so thoroughly by '73, The New Yorker no longer even listed Bway's film theaters (except for the dwindling Roadshows). Legit remained intact if a bit less active in the midst of the Tenderloin swill--that's where the houses where; but cinemas were all over town. These were the twilight years of the staggered release: when movies--even Hlwd's biggest--opened on the East Side in a single house (drawing legendary lines by cineastes) before widening weeks or even months later. It would take the Jaws of a shark to initiate Hlwd's practice to open wide. Columbia released both musicals in exclusive Eastside venues, rather than on Bway or the Music Hall; Godspell at Columbia 2 on Second Avenue--where it lasted from March 21 until mid-July--and Lost Horizon at Loewe's Tower East for a dismal eight weeks. Godspell's peculiar weirdness was somewhat buffeted by larger stinkbomb left by Horizon. Still it managed to eke out only $1,200,000 in film rentals--even less than The Boy Friend.

As Godspell hit theaters, to my complete disinterest, a lark of an opportunity came my way that would have great repurcussions for many years in my future. My best bud, Bill, had moved back home to Cupertino, after six months in SF, to take a job in a bookstore at Stanford Shopping Center, managed by the mother of our friend, Denise Alexander--who also pulled a few hours a week. Well, in very short order there seemed to be another vacancy in the schedule and I was hired as well. What could be a better job? Spending late afternoons and early evenings browsing thru seas of books, chatting with gossipy older queens, and closing up to play "bookmarket sweep," a game we devised seeing who could stack up the highest cost in books after a 3 minute sweep. Those were the days! Here is where I first learned about Edward Gorey, casual borrowing, and petty-cash theft. (Or, as I later learned The Booksellers IRA fund). Given that it was employment, my father let me drive his new Plymouth Duster the 20 miles into Palo Alto several days a week. This became the one stretch of time I listened regularly to AM pop radio. Revisiting it now, I can't tell if it was a particularly fecund period, or only because I know these pop songs so much more than those before or after: Stevie Wonder's "Superstition," and "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," Carly Simon's "You're So Vain", Elton John's "Daniel" and "Crocodile Rock;" Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly" The O'Jay's "Love Train," The Carpenter's "Sing," and Vicki Lawrence's camp classic, "The Night the Light's Went Out in Georgia." But there was one song above all that suited that open road--Hwy 280 thru Los Altos Hills up to Sand Hill Rd.--a velvet ribbon of highway, perhaps the most scenic urban freeway in America. I can see it still clearly: sailing over those undulating hills at 75 MPH, to the heavenly guitar strains of The Doobie Bros., "Listen to the Music." Pure nirvana. And altho it wasn't in league with my beloved Bway catalog, it was incontrovertible proof there was God in all kinds of music. I was a grass virgin but the buzz I got out of being alive that spring was transcendent. I had just had a great personal success with Cracked Ice; I'd stopped going to my useless classes at San Jose State; I had the easiest, most entertaining new job (near the greatest ever sandwich shop); I had the best circle of friends, who were almost always available for fun; and I was gearing up to returning to NY in the summer. Like the open road before me on the wings of the Doobies, my whole adult life lay blissfully ahead--and even as I anticipated all the great things yet to come, I wondered if I could ever possibly be this happy again? (Spoiler alert: I could) And yet that memory now remains as golden as any other in 60 years.) As for Godspell, in the final analysis, I'd say it was one damn successful Masters Thesis.

Next Up: Jesus Christ Superstar


Report Card:  Godspell
Overall Film:  D
Stage Fidelity:  B
Songs from Stage: 11
Songs Cut from Stage: 2
New Songs:  1  "Beautiful City"
Standout Number: "All for the Best"
Casting:  Cute, personable Guys, dull Gals
Standout Cast:  New York
Cast from Bway: David Haskell, Joanne Jonas,  
     Robin Lamont, Gilmer McCormick,
     Jeffrey Mylett
Direction:  Gimmicky, pretentious, hogtied
Choreography:  Skipping, prancing & hopping 
Scenic Design: Streets of New York
Costumes: Hippie clown college
Standout Location: World Trade Center
      (dancing on the the doomed rooftop)
Titles: Modern end titles over funk "Day by Day"
Oscar noms:  Not even close

1 comment:

Ken Anderson said...

Couldn't agree more with your take on the film adaptation of "Godspell." In spite of enjoying the songs and delighting in the New York locations, I find all the flower-child the gamboling about to be a bit trying to my nerves. I always wind up feeling like Peter Boyle in "Joe" by the 30-minute mark.
I did, however, love reading your post. It's easy to say that something doesn't work, but not so easy to say why. You do a great job of pinpointing what doesn't work for you. In addition, you mention "Lost Horizon" what could be better?
Once again, a terrific post. I have to explore your blog further.