Stephen Schwartz and Godspell  History

In 1971, twenty three year old Stephen Schwartz launched his legendary songwriter career with Godspell—a show that quickly became a box office hit in productions around the world. The original cast album went on to win two Grammy Awards, and the single of  “Day by Day” rose high on the Billboard popular music charts.

Stephen Schwartz and the company of Godspell summer 1971 - photo courtesy of Jesse Cutler

PHOTO: Stephen Schwartz (behind the cake) and the company of Godspell from the summer of 1971. Photo courtesy of guitarist in the band, Jesse Cutler.

One reason the newbie’s “first” score worked so well is that Godspell wasn’t actually Schwartz’s first musical. He had contributed to three musicals and an opera in college at Carnegie Mellon University where he studied directing. The shows were all mounted as part of a student club, and so Schwartz gained valuable experience working with actors and getting feedback from audiences.

One of those college shows was an early version of Pippin. Schwartz decided to pursue developing it, writing new songs after college. With these songs, he was able to sign with an agent, Shirley Bernstein, in 1969. She helped him showcase drafts of Pippin‘s score to New York producers. Edgar Lansbury and Joe Beruh were among the producers who were impressed with Schwartz’s talent (even though they didn’t want to stage Pippin). In March of 1971, when Lansbury and Beruh decided to produce Godspell at the Cherry Lane Theatre, they ask Stephen Schwartz if he could write a score.

After Godspell, Schwartz contributed lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s show Mass (thanks to a connection from Shirley), and wrote scores for Pippin, The Magic Show, Wicked, and many other musicals. The colorful story of Schwartz’s career is covered in the biography Defying Gravity: the Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz, from Godspell to Wicked. (And to be complete, before Godspell, Schwartz did receive a Broadway credit for the title song to Butterflies are Free, a play with music. But Godspell was his first musical.)

Godspell History

Godspell‘s development history is revealed in The Godspell Experience: Inside a Transformative Musical. Chapter 7 of The Godspell Experience introduces Schwartz, Lansbury, and Beruh as they begin work on Godspell. Chapter 8 can be read here as a “sample chapter” in PDF form. This chapter brings readers into the collaboration between John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Scwhartz. It covers the days when the Godspell cast from the off-off-Broadway production at Café La MaMa started learning the new songs in preparation for the official opening at the Cherry Lane Theatre, May 17, 1971. Here’s a glimpse at how a group of twenty somethings — Tebelak, Schwartz, band members, and the cast — perfected the show that we now know as Godspell.

Sample Chapter 8 from The Godspell Experience – PDF file (Read online or download)