‘Godspell’ celebrates 40th anniversary with new CD

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I read an interview with Ali MacGraw recently where the actress told a reporter that she had no problem telling people her age —73 — but what really shook her was realizing how many years ago certain events had taken place.

MacGraw was startled to do the math and to figure out that “Just Tell Me What You Want” was 30 years ago and “Love Story” was 40 years ago.

I felt a similar twinge the other day when the new 40th anniversary CD of the musical “Godspell” landed on my desk.

Wow! 40 years since that college break when I visited my brother in New York City and saw the just-opened Stephen Schwartz-John Michael Tebelak show that set the gospels to a very pleasing soft-rock beat.

“Godspell” was done in an intimate off-Broadway venue with a wonderfully energetic cast and a rock band rather than the standard show-tune accompaniment.

I had seen some pretty impressive Broadway fare during the same trip, but “Godspell” felt fresher and it was exciting to experience it in a small house where the actors were only a few feet away. To me, it seemed vastly superior to the overblown Broadway debut of “Jesus Christ Superstar” which took place almost simultaneously.

It didn’t cross my mind that the little musical would become a juggernaut, spinning off a major hit single the following year (“Day by Day”), a major studio film in 1973, and stage productions all over the world. Schwartz would go on to the big leagues, writing Broadway blockbusters such as “Pippin” and the current, long-running hit “Wicked.”

When I sat down to listen to the 40th anniversary “Godspell” — which includes both the original cast album and the movie soundtrack recording — I hadn’t heard the songs for many years. How nice it is to learn that the music and lyrics are still strong and the sentiment not as gooey as you might expect from a non-denominational 1970s Christian rock musical.

Schwartz and company followed the “Hair” template, mixing rock tunes with more traditional Broadway-style material — “All for the Best” stopped the show then with its song-and-dance pizzazz and it should still work its magic in the revival set for Broadway later this year (starring Hunter Parrish of “Spring Awakening”).

The two CDs are beautifully packaged with a booklet tracing the history of the show and a nice recollection piece by Schwartz.

The film version was not wildly successful — probably because of the loss of intimacy — but it gave Schwartz the chance to add a terrific new tune, “Beautiful City,” that was frequently performed in New York City clubs after 9/11.

Victor Garber starred in the movie of “Godspell” which had the story play out all over Manhattan. The decision to shoot a major sequence at the recently completed World Trade Center (above) now makes the movie almost unbearably poignant.

Joe Meyers

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