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This article is about the play. For the movie see Godspell (film). For the album see Godspell (album).
Music Stephen Schwartz
Lyrics Stephen Schwartz
Episcopal Hymnal
Book John-Michael Tebelak
Basis Gospel of Saint Matthew
Productions 1971 Off-Broadway
1972 Toronto
1976 Broadway
2007 UK Tour

Godspell is a 1970 musical by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak. It opened off-Broadway on May 17, 1971 and has played in various touring companies and revivals many times since. Several cast albums have been released over the years and one of its songs, Day By Day from the original cast album, reached #13 on the Billboard pop singles chart in the summer of 1972.

The structure of the musical is that of a series of parables, taken primarily from the Gospel of Matthew. These are then interspersed with a variety of modern music set primarily to lyrics from traditional hymns, with the passion of Christ treated briefly near the end of performance. It started as a college project performed by students at Carnegie Mellon University and moved to La Mama in Greenwich Village. It was then re-scored for an off-Broadway production that was a long-running success, but most people are familiar with the film version or have seen a local high school production of the musical.

The musical opened a year after another religiously-themed successful rock musical, Jesus Christ Superstar.


The show originated in 1970's as Tebelak's master's thesis project, under the direction of Lawrence Carra, at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Most of the score's lyrics were from the Episcopal Hymnal, set to music by the cast members. Several of those cast members were from the CMU music department. Tebelak then directed the show, with much of the student cast, for a two-week, ten-performance run at New York's La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club (aka Cafe la Mama), opening February 24, 1971. It was brought to the attention of producers Edgar Lansbury (brother of Angela Lansbury) and Joseph Beruh by Carnegie alumnus Charles Haid (associate producer), who wanted to open it off-Broadway.

The producers hired Stephen Schwartz, another alumnus of Carnegie Mellon's theatre department, to write a new song score (although By My Side was retained from the original score). Schwartz's songs included a variety of musical styles, from pop to folk rock, gospel, and vaudeville. As with the original score, most of the non-Schwartz lyrics were from the Episcopal Hymnal. See also Godspell (1971 Off-Broadway Cast).

Godspell moved from the Cherry Lane Theatre to the larger Promenade Theatre on August 10, 1971, where it became one of the longest-running off-Broadway musicals, before moving to Broadway in June 1976, where it ended its run in September 1977 after an additional 527 performances, for a total of more than 2,600.

All ten actors are on stage throughout the musical.


The original cast defined the personalities of each character as the show was developed. The characters names are simply the first name of the actor, so they are more easily identified by the song they sing.

Actor Role Song
Stephen Nathan Jesus several
David Haskell Judas/John several
Herb Simon Herb no song of his own
Robin Lamont Robin Day by Day
Gilmer McCormick Gilmer Learn Your Lessons Well
Joanne Jonas Joanne Bless the Lord
Lamar Alford Lamar All Good Gifts
Sonia Manzano Sonia Turn Back, O Man
Peggy Gordon Peggy By My Side
Jeffrey Mylett Jeffrey We Beseech Thee

Herb Simon is credited as Herb Braha on the cast album; it is unclear if this is the same person.

Lamar Alford died April 5, 1991.. It is a coincidence that his counterpart in the film version, Merrell Jackson died a few months earlier.


Act one

The show begins with the Voice of God declaring his supremacy: "My name is known: God and King. I am most in majesty, in whom no beginning may be and no end." The company enters and takes the role of various philosophers throughout the ages: Socrates, Thomas Aquinas, Leonardo da Vinci, Edward Gibbon, Jean-Paul Sartre, Martin Luther, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Buckminster Fuller. They sing fragments of their respective philosophies — first as solos and then in cacophonous counterpoint — in "Tower of Babble (Prologue)".

In response to this, John the Baptist blows three notes on the shofar, to call the community to order. He then beckons them to "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord", and baptizes the company. Jesus comes, also, to be baptized, to which John responds by, instead, asking to be baptized by Jesus. Jesus explains that it is not his place to baptize; that he has come to "Save the People".

In his first parable, Jesus explains to the company that he has come "not to abolish the law and the prophets, but to complete." In the original production, it was at this point that the company donned their clown makeup, and subsequent productions may use some object — be it a pin, a scarf, or a badge — to denote that the company has become followers of Jesus. He explains to the company that those who adhere to the law of God will earn the highest place in the Kingdom of Heaven. He tells them the story of the widow and the Judge: God is a just jurist who will support those who cry out to him.

The company is just beginning to understand Jesus and his teachings, and take it upon themselves to tell the story of the Pharisee and the tax gatherer praying in the temple. "Every man who humbles himself shall be exalted!"

As Jesus teaches of the law regarding the offering of gifts at the altar, the company makes offerings, themselves. They are taught that to approach the altar of God, they must be pure of heart and soul.

Then, they act out the story of a master and a servant who owed him a debt. The servant asks his master for pity in repaying the debt, and the master absolves it. The servant then turns to a fellow servant who "owed him a few dollars" and demands that it be paid in full. The master, hearing this, condemns the servant to prison. Jesus explains the moral: "Forgive your brothers from your heart." The member of the company telling the parable sings "Day by Day", and the company joins in. After the song, Jesus teaches that if one part of you offends God, it is better to lose it than to have the whole of the body thrown into hell.

The company then plays charades to finish several statements posed by Jesus, including "If a man sues you for your shirt...." and "If a man asks you to go a mile with him...."

"Do you want to see a show?" The company relays the story of the Good Samaritan in the form of a play-within-a-play. Jesus explains the need to "love your enemies" and not make a show of religion before men. God will reward a good deed done in secret. ("Shhh! It's a secret!")

The parable of Lazarus and the rich man is next tackled by the company, who are quickly learning how to work together. The rich man feasts, and Lazarus begs and is ignored. Lazarus is rewarded with Heaven, while the rich man is in hell. We are told to "Learn Your Lessons Well", or be faced with eternal damnation.

Jesus teaches us that no man can serve two masters: God and money. A member of the company tells a story of a man who spent a lifetime acquiring the good things in life, then dies before he has the time to enjoy them. She sings "Oh Bless the Lord, My Soul", then Jesus tells them not to worry about tomorrow: "tomorrow will take care of itself. Today has problems of its own."

In a call-and-response type of method, the company recites the beatitudes. Judas, however, directs the final beatitude regarding persecution at Jesus, and he seemingly changes the subject. ("Did I ever tell you that I used to read feet?") However, with this Jesus persuades the company that it's "All For the Best": heaven contains the ultimate reward. Judas sings a verse, and the two do a soft shoe and a vaudevillian joke. The company joins in the final verse (sung in counterpoint) to bring the song to conclusion.

This is followed by the parable of the sower and the seeds, which Jesus tells them represents the Word of God. "All Good Gifts" is sung to further illustrate the point.

The action to this point, while amusing and entertaining, has been to do one thing: create from this rag-tag company a community of love and caring. At this point in the musical, they have formed this community and now march as soldiers in the military, symbolic of their ability to think as one unit. With Jesus as a drill sergeant, they segue into the most famous parable of them all: the Prodigal Son. They sing "Light of the World" about Christ's Light and how it should shine in each of us. Jesus thanks the audience for coming, and announces a ten-minute intermission. (In the original production, the cast joined the audience for wine and bread.)

Act Two

The second act opens with one or more cast members singing "Learn Your Lessons Well", to call the audience back into the hall. Another member of the community sings "Turn Back, O Man", in which she implores mankind to give up its temporal pursuits and to turn to God.

Jesus says, "This is the beginning."

At this point, several members of the community begin to question Jesus's authority, and he responds with yet another parable. He is asked, "What is the greatest commandment?" and responds, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul.... And the second is like it: 'You shall love your neighbour as yourself.'" The Pharisees continue to question him, and he laments Alas For You, and calls them hypocrites. Members of the community gather and join in his song, and throw garbage at the Pharisees.

Jesus predicts that he will not be seen for quite awhile, while standing at the " Wailing Wall", and predicts great wars and famines. He reminds us of the time of Noah, and teaches that faith can calm the storm. The community is told to "keep awake, then. For the Son of Man will come at a time when you least expect it."

One woman is cast out as an adulteress. Jesus says, "Let the one of you who is faultless cast the first stone." He explains that he will not condemn her, either, but she must not sin again. She watches Jesus walk from her, and entreats him to remain "By My Side". During this song, we see Judas agrees to betray Jesus and receives thirty pieces of silver.

In one of the lighter moments in the second act, Jesus tells how he will separate men as a shepherd separates his flock into sheep and goats. The sheep will enter heaven while the goats must suffer eternal damnation. "We Beseech Thee" cry the goats, begging for mercy.

After the song, the community reminds each other to take things "Day By Day", as they remove their clown makeup (or other accoutrement). They assemble for the Last Supper, and Jesus tells them that one will betray him. Each member of the community asks, "Is it I?" ending with Judas. Jesus tells him to do quickly what he must do, and he [Judas] runs off. Jesus breaks the bread and shares the wine and tells his followers that they will dine together in the Kingdom of Heaven. He asks that they wait for him as he goes into the garden to pray. The band sings "On the Willows", reminding us all just what's been sacrificed.

In the garden, Jesus implores God, if there is another way, to let the burden be lifted from his shoulders. He is tempted by Satan, but orders him out. Jesus returns to his followers to find them all asleep.

Judas returns and kisses Jesus on the cheek, and turns him to bring him to be crucified. The community starts to attack Judas, while Jesus reminds them, "He who lives by the sword, will die by the sword.... This has all happened to fulfill what the Prophets have written."

The "Finale" begins, loud and in B-minor, with Jesus being put upon an electric fence, representative of the cross described in the gospel of Matthew. Jesus wails, "Oh God, I'm dying," and the community answers, "Oh God, You're dying." Jesus expires and the music comes to a rest. One woman sings "Long Live God," joined on each phrase by another female voice. The men join in with "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord" in counterpoint, as they remove Jesus from the fence and carry him out. They sing one final verse of "Prepare Ye" in full harmony, in joyful expectation of the resurrection.


Act I
  • Opening ‡
  • Prologue:Tower of Babble ‡
  • Prepare ye The Way of the Lord
  • Save the People
  • Day By Day
  • Learn Your Lessons Well
  • O Bless the Lord
  • All for the Best
  • All Good Gifts
  • Light of the World
Act II
  • Learn Your Lessons Well (Reprise) ‡
  • Turn Back, O Man
  • Alas for You
  • By My Side
  • Beautiful City †
  • We Beseech Thee
  • On The Willows
  • Finale
  • Day By Day (Reprise)

‡ These songs are sometimes omitted from productions

† See notes below on "Beautiful City"

"Beautiful City"

"Beautiful City" was written in 1971 as part of the movie, and re-written in 1994 after the Northridge earthquake in Los Angeles. While not part of the show proper, it can be included in any production without having to secure additional rights, so long as the new lyrics are used. It can be placed anywhere in the show the director desires, though it makes more sense as part of the second act.

Its position in the film is directly after "By My Side", which in turn follows directly on from "Alas For You", omitting the parable in between. This provides a sequence where Jesus upturns the tables at the temple before the pharisees. Then, scared by what he has done, he walks off, followed by the disciples, who ask "Where are you going? Can you take me with you?", and they are reunited with Jesus, and sing "Beautiful City".

Many theatrical directors choose to use it in place of the "Day by Day" reprise, and it is also effective in place of the "Long Live God"'s and "Prepare Ye..." of the "Finale". It can be shortened or re-arranged as needed. "Beautiful City" has also been used at the very end of the play in an additional dialogue-free scene that depicts the Resurrection, which was not depicted in the original.

In their Broadway Junior series — popular musicals edited to one act and appropriate for middle school — Music Theatre International supplies "Beautiful City" as part of the show. This version contains much of the first act and very little of the second: "By My Side" is omitted entirely. "Beautiful City" is at a point in the beginning of the traditional second act, but followed quickly by the Last Supper, the Betrayal, and the Crucifixion.

Toronto production

Although Godspell was produced in many cities throughout the world, the Toronto production in 1972-1973 had a lasting effect on the city's theatrical community and the entertainment world as well.

Before Godspell, Toronto's theatre community was essentially limited to short runs and touring companies of Broadway and West End plays. When Godspell opened at the Royal Alexandra Theatre it was expected to be a run of a few dozen performances for what was largely an audience of subscribers to the theatre's season. However, the Toronto run had a cast drawn entirely from local performers instead of using a touring company. After an enthusiastic response from the audience, the show moved uptown to the Bayview Playhouse in Leaside after its scheduled run at the Royal Alex ended, and ran until August 1973, setting what was then a record run of 488 performances. This record was not broken until the Toronto production of Cats in 1986. Godspell established Toronto as a major theatre centre which could support its own productions with its own talent.

Moreover, the production provided the first regular acting jobs for several performers who would later go on to bigger things, including Victor Garber (who won the role of Jesus in the film version), Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Gilda Radner, Dave Thomas, and Martin Short. Radner came to the attention of Lorne Michaels during the production, which also had several performers who had worked with him on his Canadian comedy specials. Three years later, Radner was the first cast member hired for Saturday Night Live. Jayne Eastwood left the cast to become a member of the original Toronto troupe of The Second City which has been in almost continuous production since, and Levy, Martin and Short went on to join that company as well. Paul Shaffer, the show's musical director, would also join Radner on Saturday Night Live as its musical director.

Modern Productions

Godspell has remained such an important part of the modern musical theater vocabulary because of its versatility. The original production made the company a troupe of clowns who follow Jesus in an abandoned playground; subsequent productions have been set in museums, classrooms, on top of buildings, an apocalyptic world or in an abandoned theatre. Since the setting is never explicitly stated in the text, directors love using this show as a chance to show off their creative abilities. This show can occur, literally, anywhere. The setting can be as advanced enough for the biggest Broadway producers, and small enough for any high school production. In one such production, the setting was simply three construction scaffolds. In another, it was done with a wall, some steps, and a treasure chest. The setting has even been in a McDonald's restaurant. Godspell is also very low-budget musical. A church production in Grand Rapids, MI had a total cost of less than $500 for running two shows--the only thing they purchased was the music and liberetto.

The 2000 tour mounted by Stephen Schwartz's son, Scott, set the action in a technologically-created universe. In addition to an updated score, several of the philosophers during Tower of Babble were re-characterized.

In May of 2007, John-Michael Tebelak's alma mater, Berea High School, performed "Godspell" for the first time since its creation. His sister was present for one of the performances.

In September 2007, Paul Kerryson directed an all new cast for a Revival UK Tour of Godspell which opened at the Peterborough Key Theatre, and is set to run throughout early 2008. The Show currently stars Tom Bradley (Grease is the Word finalist)as Jesus, Ryan Molloy as John The Baptist/Judas, and the cast also includes Christopher Bartlett, Yildiz Hussein, Paul Ayres and Tiffany Graves to name but a few.


A film version of the musical was released in 1973, set in modern New York, and starring Victor Garber as Jesus, David Haskell as John the Baptist/ Judas, and Lynne Thigpen in her first film role. John-Michael Tebelak co-wrote the screenplay and served as the creative consultant. The song Beautiful City was written for and first included in the film, while the songs "Prologue/Tower Of Babble", "Learn Your Lessons Well" and "We Beseech Thee" were left out.

In popular culture

  • Godspell is the archaic Old English spelling of the word gospel and literally means good news.
  • In the film Meet the Parents, Greg (Ben Stiller) recites "Day by Day" when asked to say grace over his first meal with the family.
  • In the film Wet Hot American Summer, "Day by Day" is performed at the camp talent show. At first, the other campers enjoy the performance, but at the end of the song, booing ensues when an image of the cross appears behind the performers.
  • On their album Jesus Freak, Christian rock band DC Talk do a cover version of "Day by Day".
  • In one of his "Slimmin' Down With Steve" segments on The Daily Show With Jon Stewart, Steve Carell worked with a nutritionist to make a healthy meal of pasta primavera. When they both bowed their heads to say grace, Carell belted out "All Good Gifts" at the top of his lungs, startling the nutritionist.
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