The Godspell Movie Origins: From Ideas to the Top of the World

Godspell movie 1973 posterThe Godspell movie will be part of the Easter lineup on the Turner Classic Movies channel this year, as it often is. (It’s on DVD as well.) On screen, the actors in this festive musical tumble around an oddly empty New York City singing the buoyant Stephen Schwartz score and performing an adaptation of the stage production.

This year, Godspell fans have a chance to learn of the making of the movie, as explored in a 21-page chapter in the new book The Godspell Experience. For those who haven’t yet picked up the book, here are a couple of the behind-the-scenes stories about the movie development.

Ideas for the Godspell Movie

Godspell hadn’t been playing for long after its opening in 1971 before dreams of a movie adaptation rose for the producers. Producer Edgar Lansbury realized that the intimacy of theater couldn’t be translated to the film medium, and therefore the movie makers needed a unique concept. “That’s the challenge any film has when you’re making a film out of a play,” he says. “You have to find the language, metaphor or whatever to keep the idea.” It didn’t seem likely that having three cameras focused on stage actors would do the trick.

The creators of the stage musical had their own ideas. John-Michael Tebelak, who had conceived the show, hoped for a film with a lot of variety in format. Composer Stephen Schwartz, who wrote the score, was clear about what he didn’t want to see on the silver screen: something like On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.For Godspell, he very much wanted to overcome some of the challenges inherent in having people singing in real life settings.

At a meeting with Tebelak and director David Greene, he suggested that the world of Godspell had to somehow be made fantastical. “I thought it was important for the experience to be magical and not real,” Schwartz comments. Tebelak had previously developed the notion of an abandoned playground with the cyclone fence boundary. It was Schwartz’s idea to extend this into New York City and somehow create an empty city as a backdrop. If they could film it so that none of the millions of inhabitants and visitors were visible, he felt it would be strikingly different. “It wouldn’t be a normal day-to-day world, and therefore, people could sing.”

The Godspell Movie Score

During the planning phase, Schwartz came up with a new song, “Beautiful City,” in part to replace “We Beseech Thee” that director David Greene wanted to cut in the film version. Before any shooting could take place, the songs had to be recorded. Music director Stephen Reinhardt remembers that Stephen Schwartz wanted the soundtrack to be great. “Now that Godspell was going to be a movie, it was going to be a really big kind of recording event, and so we did it at A & R studios with one of the top engineers in the city at that time.”

To ensure the best accompaniment under studio time pressures, Schwartz had Paul Shaffer flown in from the Toronto production because he and Reinhardt had been so impressed with his keyboard ability. It was Shaffer’s first trip to New York City, a place where he’d end up a celebrity performer for David Letterman and other shows. Shaffer recalls about Godspell, “He brought me in for a couple of things specifically. One was what I was doing with ‘Bless the Lord.’ I was kind of funking it up even more, and he liked that.” Schwartz also knew that Shaffer could play a Hammond B3 organ and invited him to improvise. “I happened to love that instrument,” Shaffer states. “He just said play a solo here,” and it ran while the end credits rolled.

“Beautiful City” was new for everyone. Victor Garber told one interviewer, “I was very excited about ‘Beautiful City,’ but recording the soundtrack was the most fun for me anyway. I was used to singing in a studio, and I felt comfortable there. And Stephen was so sure of what he wanted, and so smart.”

Filming: Inspiring Laughter and Memories

When shooting began in August 1972, the actors didn’t have a copy of the shooting script. They were simply told which parable or scene they would be doing the next day. They were all so experienced with the musical that they didn’t need much rehearsal. They would show up in the morning ready to improvise, explore the possibilities in the location, and then start the shoot.

Jerry Sroka was grateful that David Greene created a working space for the actors, helping them feel comfortable performing even with the hubbub around them as the crew set up shots. “He created an environment that was safe to try anything,” Sroka comments. The actors almost made a game of getting their director to laugh. “He would just fall out of his chair laughing at what we did,” says Sroka. “If David was happy, I was okay.”

The dance movement was a combination of direction from Greene, choreography by Sammy Bayes inspired by the stage show, and comments from cast member and dancer Joanne Jonas.

Godspell sountrack for the movieOne of the most dramatic filming experiences was on top of one of the nearly completed World Trade Center towers. Lynne Thigpen once explained how much she enjoyed the experience. “It hadn’t been opened yet. It was just a new building. There were all these people in clown costumes standing on the top, dancing around and carrying on. Of course, we couldn’t resist facing the Empire State Building and waving in our clown outfits. There were a couple of people who didn’t like heights. I like heights so it was really amazing. We got there very, very early in the morning, before sunrise, so the sun was coming up. You could see the East River and the tributaries and watch everything go gold. It was quite extraordinary.”

As it happens, the concept of using an empty New York City as a backdrop meant that cinematographer Richard Heimann preserved some of the city’s heritage on film. Armchair travelers who like seeing New York on film can enjoy so much of what is beautiful in the city. The “All for the Best” scene at the World Trade Center serves as a visually stunning memento for the towers before they were felled on September 11, 2001.

Film commentator Andrew Martin characterizes the movie as successful in the long run. “Turner Classic Movies shows it every Easter morning. It retains a cult following for a lot of different reasons. I think Victor Garber may have something to do with that. I think children tend to really like the movie because it’s a relatable story; it doesn’t feel like you have to sit through Bible class – it’s just a fun, fun thing. Also there’s a time capsule aspect to it because it’s very early 1970s. It’s an effective film and it holds up.”

A new book on Godspell with Foreword by Stephen SchwartzSee the book The Godspell Experience for many more stories about how the movie was made and about the talented cast members: Victor Garber, Katie Hanley, David Haskell, Merrell Jackson, Robin Lamont, Joanne Jonas, Gilmer McCormick, Jeffrey Mylett, Jerry Sroka, and Lynne Thigpen.

Godspell POSTER Movie (27 x 40 Inches – 69cm x 102cm) (1973)

The soundtrack album scored well after its 1973 release, quickly reaching the Billboard pop charts. Godspell: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

The movie is also available as a DVD Godspell movie on DVD and on Amazon.com’s instant video Godspell

This article is copyrighted by Carol de Giere, April 1, 2015.