Godspell is one of the few musicals that its first cast members helped to create. The new book The Godspell Experience: Inside a Transformative Musical reveals the full behind-the-scenes story.

Actors who originate roles in new musicals may help shape the character, but most of them are working with a written script. Godspell’s actors, on the other hand, were rehearsing with parables and Bible phrases that were brought in by the show’s conceiver and director, John-Michael Tebelak. The methods of working with the material essentially emerged by way of an improvisational process. They shaped various spiritual lessons into a stylized piece of musical theater under Tebelak’s guidance. Whether they played charades, came up with a Three Stooges type of response, or found some other way to communicate an idea, it was largely invented during rehearsals.
Godspell, 1971 June Digital ID: 2025927. New York Public Library

PHOTO: Stephen Nathan, Robin Lamont, Sonia Manzano and others in Godspell, 1971. Photo by Kenn Duncan.

For the first two of New York productions (an off-off Broadway version that transferred to Off-Broadway), actor Stephen Nathan played Jesus. He recalls many hours of improvisatory acting that yielded some lines that became set in the show. John-Michael Tebelak helped whittle down the pieces. “Shaping it was primarily a job of trimming things back, with the help of John-Michael’s perspective on it,” says Nathan.

Of course it was Tebelak’s idea to draw from the profound source material in the first place: phrases and parables primarily from Matthew and Luke.
Read the full story of the making of Godspell in The Godspell Experience.