Archive for August, 2011

If nothing else can be said about Gregory Murphy’s debut novel Incognito, aside from how marvelously the gentleman has utterly and perfectly captured the New York City of one hundred years ago, it is his impeccable and inherent gift for research about the period and the inhabitants therein. His wondrous imagery bursts off the page with total resplendence, and aside from how joyously the narrative reads, the story provides the most miraculous ability for a history lesson, likened as rain brought to a thirsty soil.

William Dysart is a remarkable young attorney to the manor born, whose world contains no room for the demons that have tormented him since the disappearance of his mother while a small boy. Married to Arabella, to whom the daily papers refer as the most beautiful woman in New York, Dysart seems to have the entire world on a string; his father and stepmother possess a significant fortune, he and wife make constant appearances at all the parties one really should attend to maintain a social standing, and he’s in contention for a tremendous future at the law firm governed by managing partner Philipse Havering.

That is, until society dowager Lydia Billings steps in, and demands the firm’s help in removing one Sybil Curtis from a small home on the Billings property in the Long Island enclave of Lloyd’s Neck. Which wouldn’t normally be problematic but for the fact that Ms. Curtis, a thoroughly bewitching creature, has more secrets up her sleeve than a political strategist, and it’s a mere matter of time before Dysart finds himself smitten. This is complicated further by such matters as his marriage to Arabella slowly crumbling at the seams, Sybil’s torrid affair with his old school chum Albert Penniman which turns out to be nothing more than a blatant social climb, and his aunt Edith Bradford, a suffragist and stalwart women’s rights activist who can tell William more about his mother with a glance than anyone else is willing to spill with oceans of explanation.

The highways and byways of this novel are copious, and in fact evoke the greatest storytelling skills of such masters as Edith Wharton. But the surprise ending even emerges as reminiscent of O. Henry in his prime, so difficult is it to see where the last chapter will finally lead until we the readers are helplessly immersed. Suffice to say, one breathes a sigh of inestimable relief to know that the dark cloud of Dysart’s unhappy existence contains some semblance of a silver lining, no matter how unexpected.

In a perfect world, writers like Gregory Murphy would be coming into their own on a daily basis with a long line of timeless works that would be cherished by millions, and take their rightful place in literary history. Alas, such happenstances are few and very far between in the current day and age. Therefore, it couldn’t be more highly recommended to purchase a copy of Incognito. A read this sumptuous only comes around once in an extremely long while.

Back in the glorious heyday of the legendary Greenwich Village supper club The Five Oaks, the only element in greater abundance than the kitchen’s signature Southeastern fare was the catalog of songs featuring lyrics by Dawn Hampton and music by Robert ‘Bobby’ Peaco. Such numbers as “New Orleans Louisiana Blues,” “I Rode That Train to Sorryville,” “That’s How the Ball Bounces” and the pair’s titular homage to the club, “The Five Oaks,” were sung regularly over the course of an evening by such singers/service staff as Aaron Lee Battle, Debra Anderson and Dan Onzo, besides Hampton and Peaco themselves and a hearty smattering of the club’s regular patrons. One of their rare and particularly haunting ballads, however, was “Bring Back the Spring,” which would always invite an appropriate silencing hush over the noisy dinner crowd with its plaintive opening strain, “‘Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all…” And all who were there unanimously agreed that it was never sung better than by Michael Guerette, a pixie-ish gentleman diminutive of height but tremendous of personality and charisma, who had also worked at the Oaks for quite some time as a singing waiter. It was, therefore, a shock to so very many when, on August 12th, the body of a hiker was found dead on the Appalachian Trail in Maine and the person in question turned out to be none other than Guerette, aged fifty-one, whose cause of death has officially remained unexplained. Indeed, what is most unusual is the fact that Guerette, a native of Maine who for the last several years had chosen to reside in the Fire Island enclave of Cherry Grove and display his gift for all things floral as a renowned landscaper and florist, had been a nature lover and avid hiker for the majority of his life, and had trekked the treacherous Appalachian several times before.

Steven Lowenthal, a fixture on the downtown scene as a singer-pianist and accompanist at the Five Oaks and other locales, was stunned by the news. “He was a naturally consummate performer,” says Lowenthal,  “and great at everything he did. Michael was someone whose beauty and depth intimidated me even as we joked around, and so I was not aggressive in trying to know him, although we enjoyed each others’ company over many years. I can’t even remember which songs he sang with me, except for ‘Pass Me By’ , but I assure you they were all good! My first impression of Michael,” he continues, “was a bar customer who looked like an extra from the movie Fanny, which was filmed on location in Marseille. My last impression is of an even more gorgeous man, who sure knew how to stock an delightful garden boutique, out in Cherry Grove. I don’t remember which years he worked at  the Oaks exactly, but approximately from 1981 for quite some time.” Aaron Lee Battle agrees. “I remember that he was a lovely man, with a pure and beautiful voice, and I do think that he sang Hampton and Peaco’s ‘Bring Back the Spring’ the best it was ever sung,” he says. “I always wish I had that beauty and control in my voice. I didn’t work with him at the Oaks because I believe he had stopped working there then, but I do remember spending time with him and Bobby Peaco. And seeing him in Cherry Grove many years later. and feeling that he was happy and loving life. It gave me joy!”

Singer-pianist/composer Peaco, who heard the news while recently appearing in performance on the Greek island of Mykonos, arguably knew Guerette better than anybody and was absolutely bewildered to learn of this tragic demise. “Michael was my first lover,’ he says.  “We met in college at University of New Hampshire, and moved to New York together in 1981. He actually moved a few months before me, because he had taken a bus from New Hampshire to New York, to audition for the original Merrily We Roll Along and got a callback. Didn’t get the show, but was encouraged to leave school and move to New York City. I finished the semester, and then joined him. He had gotten a job at the Five Oaks because a year before, we had a vacation in New York City and went there and loved it. The first time either one of us sang publicly in New York was on that trip (and Marie Blake scared us to death). But he started hanging out there when he moved, and got a job. I got a job there shortly after I moved, as a busboy and service bartender. Before I got the job, he was bartending one night for a show there that Dawn Hampton was doing, and told me I should come see her. Which I did, and was enchanted, as was everyone. So Michael is the reason Dawn & I first met. He sang ‘Bring Back the Spring’ beautifully, and sang it at the MAC Awards one year, which must have been late ’80s or early ’90s. We had long since broken up, but always remained friends, and in the late 80’s we were roommates again for a year or two, in the Village.” He finishes, “There’s so much more I could say, but most of it is really personal. I hadn’t seen him in several years, but he was never far away in my thoughts.”

Dan Onzo was another singing waiter at the club who worked closely with Guerette and knew him well. “How very, very sad that Michael has gone,” he says. “However,  may I say as always, he did all things with brilliance. To believe that he would go for a two-week walk along the Appalachian Trail, on his own, is in and of itself alone amazing. His singing? Well, there are no words. And as to his little flower shop in the Grove, I went there every single time, after and before getting on or off the ferry. The serenity and beauty of the setting, as well as the calmness of his demeanor, would always remind me of the joy of  my arrival. And it definitely prepared me for my departure back to the fracas of work and the bars back in the city. Although I hadn’t spoken to him within the last five years, I have thoughts of him nearly everyday, especially when I sing.” And finally, singer-pianist Charles Lindberg volunteers, “I remember when Michael was a customer at the Oaks; he was an adorable little boy who frequently wore a red bandanna. The owners of the club at the time were Jeremy Burrell and Ginger Regan, and Michael was asking about work. I remember Jeremy telling me that Ginger didn’t want to hire him because she thought he looked like a hustler.  Jeremy, on the other hand, saw through what other people saw, and went with his instincts, which was a good choice. Michael was one of the sweetest, generous, kindest, humblest people I knew. We dated for a while, and I still remember him very fondly.  Outside the bar he was the same sweet, adorable, fun loving person. He always made me feel great, and I have never had anything bad to say about him; actually, I have nothing even remotely negative and never will. He will be sorely missed.” Ergo, though many are saddened by the news of Michael Guerette’s unfortunate and untimely loss, there is comfort in the thought that he’s loaning his angelic voice to a choir on high. And in the final analysis, he’d probably be amazed that so many will always keep a place for him alive in their hearts. All sympathies to his family, friends, and those who simply had the inestimable pleasure of meeting him, for he won’t soon be forgotten.
Entertainment personality Helena Joyce-Wright is one of those performers who come along every so often, so revered by their peers as to be considered legendary and yet still sorely lacking the name recognition they so rightfully deserve. After making a tremendous Broadway debut in Amen Corner over twenty-five years ago, years of starring in national tours and regional companies both musical and dramatic have followed ever since, as well as numerous appearances as Billie Holiday on stages far and wide, but other than a more-than-memorable experience understudying Leslie Uggams in Jerry’s Girls, true stardom has managed to elude the lady. That, however, may finally be about to change; on the evening of Sunday, August 28th at 7 PM, Wright brings her long-awaited one-woman opus, All The Parts I Every Wanted To Sing But Couldn’t ‘Cause I ‘Wuz’ Black, to the Abingdon Theatre, 312 West 36th Street as part of Works-In-Progress Productions. Directed by Dwight R.B. Cook with musical direction by Andrew Smithson and choreography by Mamie Duncan-Gibbs, the show proves rather to be one part Ntozake Shange at her most dramatic, one part Elaine Stritch at her most liberated, and never anything less than the most singularly-unique package she could possibly offer. (Tickets are available by calling 212-868-2055). While the show waits for a longer theatrical run which is most certainly in its future, Wright will continue to champion the mega-hit Web series The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl, developed by and starring Issa Rae and hoping for a jump to full presentation on cable television, in which she’s creating the recurring role of J’s Mother. With so much going on, it’s a joy for The Andrew Martin Report to grab a quick interview with Wright just a few days away from what could well be the second chance of a lifetime.
ANDREW MARTIN:  I understand that you come from a rather large family, and that talent runs through the bloodline. When was the first time you realized that your family had special abilities for the stage and other forms of entertainment?
HELENA-JOYCE WRIGHT: I actually come from a rather small family. Interestingly, I had seven great-aunts, all of whom married, but only one, my grandmother, had any children. The others traveled with their husbands and sorta spoiled me rotten…except of course for my grandmother. My mother was considered ‘prolific’ because she had four children. As for the stage, that is, it would seem, in my blood (much to my mother’s horror). My aunt, Robin Braxton, is part of theatre royalty as part of the early members of Negro Ensemble Company (NEC). Watching them as a child seared things into my consciousness, like, all things are possible. They took a play from a church basement to a Tony Award, and I got to see this process.  I started out as a dance student but I was never encouraged to do ‘fluff stuff,’ because I had gotten so much attention for my academics, and specifically, writing. My mom was devastated when I turned down a full scholarship to Harvard in journalism to study musical theatre instead, but the joke is, she had only put me in ballet because she knew I’d be tall and worried about my posture and decorum. I was a ‘closet singer,’ and had to go all the way to California to ‘come out,” if you will.
AM: What was your first time on a stage, what was it like, and did you know right then and there that this was what you wanted to do for the rest of your life?
HJW: This is what’s strange. My elementary school was doing the play Peter Pan, and I went to audition for Tinkerbell. My music teacher, Ms. Guillermo (who I’ve been trying to find for so many years), broke the news to me that Tinkerbell was only a follow spot. I was crushed, but she asked me to sing anyway. I did, I sang “Moon River,” and she cast me as Peter Pan. It was great, and I got to fly around the auditorium! But then I didn’t go back on stage, except dance recitals, until I left home for college.
AM: I know that you switched colleges in a rather drastic change of events. Please explain that, and the remainder of your college life until graduation.
HJW: It was indeed! I was sort of a hot property, having won some writing awards, etc. I was heavily recruited coming out of high school, and I had committed to going to Harvard, after my visits to a number of other schools. But I changed my mind at the eleventh hour, and went to Howard instead. No sooner was I there than I was transferring; my mom said all I really wanted to be was a professional student. I ended up studying musical theatre under John Blankenship and John Houseman at USC, and did my graduate studies at University of Houston, where Ntozake Shange and Loretta Devine both loomed large, and which is also where I met and fell in love with Billy Stritch. Oh, and besides all this,  I actually graduated with honors from Spelman College.
AM: What ultimately brought you to New York, and what were your earliest jobs, both on the stage and off?
HJW: I was very fortunate. Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis saw me in a production of their play Purlie Victorious, and ended up bringing to New York to co-star with them in Zora Is My Name. That was where I met Woodie King, Jr. And Philip Rose, the man who would be my lifelong friend, mentor, protector and fan. I miss him more than I can say. But, I still had to take LOTS of offstage jobs to pay for my decision to study theatre; it was not something supported by my mom. She just did not ever want to see me struggle.
AM: What were the events leading up to you being cast in Amen Corner? Was your Broadway debut everything you thought it would be? Why or why not?
HJW: No, it was not. With the exception of Chuck Cooper, it took a while for the cast and I to warm up to each other. I was this new kid, who was sort of the teacher’s pet. They didn’t know where I came from or how I got here, and I hadn’t ‘proven’ myself. Of course, my own arrogance didn’t help. I remember thinking, “Now what?” once it was over, because it came too easy and I didn’t have a full appreciation of what it was. Of course now, with a thirty-year perspective, it all makes perfect sense. If had not done that show then and gone through the experience, I wouldn’t possibly be able to do what I’m doing now. This time I am fully present, and grateful for a second chance. I really take a lot of comfort in knowing that if God didn’t want it to happen, I would be in a wheelchair unable to sing, so that takes a lot of the pressure off me!
AM: What were some of your favorite jobs in between Amen Corner and Jerry’s Girls?
HJW: I enjoyed working with Rosetta LeNoire at AMAS; that stands out. I also learned that I was a pretty good teacher. A little unorthodox, but some of my former students are on Facebook and I love them to life! Most of the jobs actually came after Jerry’s Girls, because I was wiped out during that tour. It was pretty devastating.
AM: Tell us about the night you went on for Uggams.
HJW: Well, you’ll have to come to the play to hear that story, but I’ll excerpt you a bit . Can you say, ‘caught with your drawers down?’ Oh my. I had been partying all night, staggered back to the hotel at 3am  in the Nob Hill section of San Fran, and I get “the” call!  Ms. Uggams’ mom had passed, and I was on!  Oh, no. Oh, no! PANIC!  I never had one understudy rehearsal, because neither Leslie nor Carol every missed a show. It was all very crazy; my understudy was preparing to go on for me, while I was preparing to go on for Leslie. There was lots to maneuver, tons of blocking, and musical numbers up the wah-zoo,  and then there was that entrance from waaaaay at the top of the glass staircase, which I had to walk down as though it wasn’t two stories high, in a Bob Mackie original and three-inch heels, all the while singing and emoting and never letting them see me sweat!
AM: Tell us the circumstances of trying to be a working mother.
HJW: That proved impossible. Especially after losing his father. HORROR! My son demanded my attention, and while you can divorce all the husbands you want, those same rules DO NOT apply to children! For a while, I was artistic director of a LORT house in California; I loved the job, and knew I had the vision to make things happen, but it was a struggle because when I got there, the theatre was already in complete disrepair and I was viewed as an outsider, so there was a lot of pushback. People thought the theatre had money, which it did not. I financed most things personally (not a good formula), and the very month I learned my little theatre had been awarded one of the top grants, two million dollars sustaining, I also learned that my mother’s cancer had returned and I had to make a decision. All this plus trying to raise my son and be a great mom. So it was a no-brainer. But of course, I would have liked to see what I would have produced if given the resources. There are some pretty incredible things floating around in this head of mine. And I’m sure God will give me another chance to make them happen. And it’s not just about me, I dream about blessing other people in a major way, all the time. I think of ideas for shows, like some people think of, whatever they think of. I get ideas like The Maestros and Their Muses, sorta just what the title implies. And The Big Bounceback, a show about three or four resurrected ‘Dark Divas’ converging to do their own Follies of sorts. And one of my very favorites is inspired by my relationship with Andre DeShields, but I haven’t had a chance to talk with him about it yet. But I think he’s going to love it.
AM: What about your close brush with starring in the original cast of The Lion King?
HJW: Again, you have to see the show to hear my take in detail. Suffice it to say that in the end, that beat saying, “No matter what I ever accomplish in theatre, Tony Awards notwithstanding, to my son I will always be that woman who turned down the chance to be Rafiki in The Lion King.” My spin was different. “A monkey?? Why in the world would they think I would be perfect for a MONKEY??”  Sad, but true. And, I’ve been trying to be seen again by them ever since.
AM: In the show, you also touch briefly on being a cancer survivor. Besides those things you discuss, what do you not talk about in the show that you think is important to share about the experience?
HJW: I had such a struggle coming into an understanding of certain things. I really thirst for answers and knowledge and I searched everywhere from Ashram to Islam. I just kept looking and looking and looking, I knew there was something more, but I couldn’t figure it out. And I completely rejected the whole notion of my family worshiping someone with blond hair and blue eyes. That made absolutely no sense to me. I never just accepted things at face value; I always looked deeper. I wanted answers! You would think that someone who loves so many abstract forms of art wouldn’t have such an impossible time believing in something like God, but I was stumped during that time. I used to make some of the craziest demands like, “If you’re real. just put an HJ in the sky.” I mean stuff straight out King Herod’s song. I really don’t want to get on a soapbox, because that’s not my style, but I have to say that after the cancer, losing my mom, husband, brother and dad, I was sad, sad, sad and angry, angry, angry at Him, and right about then He made Himself very clear, and I was very grateful. It was like finding that one friggin’ missing piece to the puzzle and really everything started to make sense, even the cancer, why I had it and why I don’t now. I still don’t understand stuff like Heaven. Or, how will I see my mom and dad, how exactly does it work, will they look the same, will they just be spirits, and will that scare me? Again, I like exact answers, and I like details. But in my relationship with God after all that happened, He delights in my humor and I delight in His.
AM: How did you come to get involved with Issa Rae and Awkward Black Girl?
HJW: Oh, here we go. Basically, almost two years ago, when I first began putting together Amen Corner: The Musical, Issa was here working in New York at New Federal, where I was calling and harassing Woodie King, my mentor who I mentioned earlier. Issa was a sweetheart who helped me, sight unseen, to not only navigate Woodie and budgets, but she was also giving me Facebook pointers. I asked so many ridiculous questions back then (not to be confused with the ridiculous questions I ask now) that it’s a wonder she speaks to me at all. But we’ve just had a connection ever since. When ABG was introduced, I got so excited and started advocating, because the show is so good; I wanted to make sure my few little networks knew about it . Which elicited the response from the producers of my show, “We wish you would network your OWN show like that!” Somewhere in all this, I was having really bad withdrawals because the show only airs once a month, and I was reduced to watching outtakes and then her other series, Fly Guys. Anyway, I woke up one night with the character of her mother in my mind. Not being a screenwriter, I hesitated sending it to her, but I finally did and she loved it, and we started talking about my playing her mom. When my showdate was pushed back, I had to turn down the commercial I was going to Los Angeles to do, which of course affected her plans to introduce the ABG Mom character. At the same time, things started to really blow up for ABG (a hundred thousand hits for Episode Six), along with all the other great things that are happening with it; Dennis Dortch directed the last episode, they surpassed their Kickstarter goal, Issa’s been signed by Tina Fey’s agent, etc. I’ve watched with an incredible and overhwelming sense of pride and excitement, and it’s just a vicarious thrill watching this all unfold. So the long and short is, I adore her and have from the start. The only downside is that now I have to find someone to answer all my silly Facebook questions.
AM: Can we talk about your recent experience with the MetroStar competition at the Metropolitan Room and why you entered, as well as your thoughts on the outcome?
HJW: What a trip! Andrew, I never thought of myself as a singer, I’m a musical theatre character. I’ve always found comfort hiding behind a character. Although, playing Billie Holiday forced me out of that. Anyway, I was tickled pink (or purple) for the chance to compete; I love being taken seriously in that very particular market. It was very validating. And the week I really thought I sucked and left thinking I don’t have a snowball’s chance in hell, one of the judges told me later that I nailed it. The next week when I thought, “Hey, I did OK,” considering the abrupt departure of my musical director due to a personal crisis, that same judge, Sherry Eaker, asked me, “What happened?” I liked her instantly. Anyway, if I had it to do again, I would have taken the advice of the accompanist who said he was terrified to sight-read Sondheim and gone with a simple Billie Holiday number. But I thought he did a great job.
AM: What are your personal hopes for ‘Cause I Wuz Black after it plays on the 28th?
HJW: That this show will get picked up, that it hits a pulse, gets developed, moves to Broadway, and everyone’s hard work and belief in me and this project will be rewarded with a sweep at the Tonys, and I am finally able to hire the people that I want and fire the ones I don’t. Tee hee! Then I can produce other stuff in the Works-In-Progress Productions arsenal.
AM: If you could have had it all to do over again, what would you have done with your life?
HJW: I would have handled my losses differently. I really wasn’t at my best at fifty percent, and my son deserved better. It was the best I had, but it wasn’t enough. So I guess I wouldn’t have stayed stuck so long. And I was engaged three times to three wonderful men, but I had horrific commitment issues. It would’ve have been good to work some of that out BEFORE I got married, but I think I’ll be a better wife the next time. After all, I hear the third time’s a charm.
AM: What is the one philosophy of life you’d like to share?
HJW: Actually, I have two. The first is, never argue with an idiot, because he’ll only bring you down to size and beat you with experience. The other is, I am the miracle I had been waiting for.
A miracle most assuredly. Whether or not All The Parts I Every Wanted To Sing But Couldn’t ‘Cause I ‘Wuz’ Black becomes a life-changing event for Helena-Joyce Wright and the fans so eager to crowd the Abingdon on the evening of the 28th remains to be seen, but it doesn’t even matter in the grand scheme; her life has already changed for the better more times than most would ever have been blessed. The rest is merely sweet and blissful icing on the cake of life.

The existence of Godspell as a legendary musical for over four decades could be rightfully called a mix of miraculous and divine. It started out as a Master’s Thesis project for John-Michael Tebelak, then a student at Carnegie-Mellon, and its earliest presentations on stage were little more than parables and songs strung together and performed by a group of friends from school. Within a surprisingly short amount of time, most of the score was discarded and rewritten by Stephen Schwartz, the once and future giant of the modern Broadway musical. This was after the show had caught the attention of Ellen Stewart, who brought it to the Off-Off-Broadway mecca LaMaMa, from whence Edgar Lansbury and other producers moved it Off-Broadway to the Cherry Lane Theatre and then to the Promenade. Five years later after steady success, it landed on Broadway and would ultimately run there for well over five hundred performances. The show spawned “Day by Day” as a Top Fifteen hit on the Billboard charts in 1971, regional companies and tours began to sprout throughout the globe, and the film version of the show was released two years later and retains a tremendous following. What may be most incredible to realize is that Godspell, in different incarnations, served as the official launching point for the careers of Jeremy Irons, Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Victor Garber, Lynne Thigpen, Melanie Mayron and countless others. And New York has seen two notable Off-Broadway revivals of the show since that time; the first was in 1988 at the Lamb’s Theatre, directed by Broadway cast member Don Scardino and featuring Trini Alvarado, Eddie Korbich and Laura Dean, and at the York Theatre in 2000, starring Shoshana Bean, Capathia Jenkins, Barrett Foa, Eliseo Roman, Leslie Kritzer and Chad Kimball among others. But a Broadway revival, which had been scheduled for 2008 and had announced its stars as Diana DeGarmo and Gavin Creel, never took place for a variety of reasons. Which is why the theatre world is anxiously awaiting the latest Broadway outing of the show, with production spearheaded by the Great White Way’s newest powerhouse, Ken Davenport. And the buzz generated by this production, whose previews are scheduled to begin on October 13th at the Circle in the Square, make it seem almost certain for the show’s future go-round as a mega-hit.

Robin Lamont, then and now

Therefore, it’s not merely just a delight but something of a historic happenstance for The Andrew Martin Report to be granted the opportunity to interview all of the original women of the show, some of whom even began on the project way back when it was still merely Tebelak’s thesis at Carnegie in the late 1960s. Robin Lamont was one of the first of these to become particularly well-known, for it was her sultry, folksy lead vocals that helped make “Day by Day” such a memorable hit. After her Godspell days she remained a Broadway mainstay, starring in both Grease and Working (another Schwartz-involved opus), but made a complete career change several years ago when she received a law degree and began work as an Assistant District Attorney of New York, while also settling into life as a proud and happy wife and mother. Most recently, she’s switched gears again and become a novelist, very much enjoying the success of her critically-acclaimed crime-suspense story If Thy Right Hand (those interested in learning more should visit Sonia Manzano has also enjoyed breakout success, not for theatre but as a star of children’s television; while belting out the lusty “Turn Back, O Man” in the show, she was also cast as Maria on Sesame Street by the Children’s Television Workshop and has remained one of the show’s most beloved characters ever since her first episode. She has also begun writing a series of children’s books for Scholastic. Peggy Gordon retains the distinction of being the only original cast member to have co-written the one song from the show that wasn’t discarded and replaced with a Stephen Schwartz composition (she penned the music to “By My Side” with lyrics by Jay Hamburger, and for which she also provided lead vocals), and since Godspell, has become a much-sought-after vocalist for live performances and recording sessions besides one of the most in-demand writers in the city. As the one self-confessed ‘non-singer’ among the women in the show’s original company, Gilmer McCormick nonetheless created a memorable impression when talk-singing the bouncy “Learn Your Lessons Well” in the first act; she also remains very happily married to the show’s original musical director Stephen Reinhardt, and since Godspell she’s had a more-than-full career on stage and screen in roles both comedic and dramatic. And JJ McCraty was at one time known professionally as Joanne Jonas, who no one could ever forget with her commanding performance of “Bless The Lord,” but after officially leaving the business of show in the late 1970s, today is very heavily involved with the stress-reduction company HeartMath and retains a strong artistic sensibility throughout her work with them. Rounding out the women is Nina Faso, who was the show’s original stage manager and sometimes-understudy, and who since that time has directed countless productions of the show as well as Working and other musicals; today, she and her husband most largely work in the areas of finance and real estate from their home-office in San Diego. All of the women were also involved in the film version in 1973, save for Manzano, who was busy with Sesame Street obligations, and Gordon, who had to drop out due to a medical emergency; her role in the film was embodied by Katie Hanley, while McCraty/Jonas took over the singing of “Turn Back, O Man” and Lynne Thigpen assumed “Bless the Lord.”

Again, not all were involved in the original production at Carnegie before the Schwartz touches were added. “Actually,” Lamont says, “I think I’m the only cast member (besides David Haskell) to have been in the Carnegie inception, then Café LaMama, then to open at the Cherry Lane, in the Broadway opening, and also in the film.” Manzano adds, “I was involved with the production at Carnegie, and at that time it was highly improvisational. It was really just the seeds of what it grew into.” Lamont agrees. “At Carnegie, the show was very experimental, in line with the real ensemble theater that was coming into vogue at the time.  I would describe it as ‘raw,’ and wildly different than anything students had seen before.” But whether or not they were all involved in the original production at school, they certainly were part of Tebelak’s widely-growing group of friends, either at Carnegie or from other performance venues. McCormick recalls, “I suppose that the first time I actually worked with JM would have to be the summer he took a group of us to Bay Village, Ohio, to do a season of stock. Among other future Godspell-ites in that group were Jeff Mylett, Steve Nathan, Carla Meyer and Jay Hamburger. We performed MacBird, Marat/Sade, Now Is The Time, and Italian Straw Hat, among others.” Faso also knew Tebelak from a stock experience: “I first met JM at ‘freshman camp’ before school started in 1966,” she tells me. “We were both Dramats (double performance/directing majors), a small group which included Cindy Atlas Gricus. We liked each other, and pledged to be best friends through college.” “I wasn’t involved until LaMaMa,” says Gordon. “In fact, Carol deGiere, the biographer of Steve Schwartz’s great biography Defying Gravity from Godspell to Wicked, sent me a PDF version of our original working script; it was literally five pages of prologue/philosopher speeches (with my name written next to Sartre), and about twenty-five pages of Biblical text. The Carnegie cast, which included wonderful actors like Bob Ari and Randy Danson, created an invaluable skeletal structure. They made it possible for us to use the six-week rehearsal process at LaMaMa (approximately two weeks at JM’s loft and another month at the LaMaMa rehearsal space on Great Jones Street) to fully flesh out, through improvisation, the seminal production Steve Schwartz saw during our two-week run in the month of March. It was through this improvisatory process that I added ‘By My Side,’ thanks to Gilmer’s suggestion, and Jeff Mylett added his song, ‘The Raven and The Swan.’”

Peggy Gordon, then and now

Which leads, naturally, to the next question: what was the first time any of them met Stephen Schwartz? “I was in summer stock and he was our musical director,” McCraty tells me. “It was my second season of stock. I had just finished my first year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, so I was in the chorus and very green. He was this cute small Jewish guy, who really knew his music. The piano was an extension of him. You know, I was raised as the youngest of three girls, with jazz and show music pumped into my veins daily; Ella, Frank, Judy, Barbra. And I could harmonize with the best of them. Perfect relative pitch. Music is/was language to me. I hear the world in sonics and rhythms, and when I met Steve, he was one of only three people who lived in that land that I felt connected with. It wasn’t long before he not only heard my voice but got a sense of my musical ability and we formed a group who sang separately from the regular shows. I became close with him right away in the working process. It was awesome.” Manzano adds, “I don’t really remember the first time I met him. Check with him. But I do remember ‘Turn Back, O Man’ as being the first song he wrote for the show, and I’d like to think it was because my character was so clear.” “The first time I recall meeting Stephen,” says Lamont, “was when he played the new score for the Café LaMama troupe at an apartment in New York City (which I think belonged to one of the producers). I thought the score had amazing vitality, but at the time I wondered if it was too ‘commercial’ for the power of the piece. Needless to say, I was very naïve and foolish. Steve’s score has become a classic in musical theater.” “Stephen and I met at Carnegie during the same years,” McCormick recalls, “though not in the same class. Even so, we knew each other well, shared a lot of the same friends, and one of my classmates even dated him for a time, so I feel as if I’ve known and loved him all my life. We knew at school that he was an exceptionally talented music man, while watching him try out, for instance, his musical Pippin, which of course later went on to Broadway. It has been wonderful watching his career skyrocket; he deserves every bit of it, and he’s worked hard.” And Faso has arguably known him the longest. “I first met Steve early in freshman year.  One of the first mainstage productions at school was a lavish version of Sheridan’s The Rivals. The entire school worked crew on this fantastic production, for which the ushers and the house was costumed and decorated for the period. They had harpsichord music underscoring the entire play, and one of the juniors was in charge of music (not too popular with serious professors at the time).  So one night when I was on crew, I heard music coming from the practice rooms upstairs and followed the sound, to a room where Steve was playing the piano and presumably writing the harpsichord parts. I said hello and asked if I could listen to him, he explained musically what he was after; I was a director, as was he, but my mother is a classical pianist, and I earned college money working for the local symphony/opera company where I grew up in Syracuse. So that began a very long friendship, and I got to know him very well over the years. We both loved music and opera. And he had long blond hair and we were both very hippie-ish, even though we were serious students. Also, he was roommates with a boy I eventually dated, so we saw each other often and became even more special friends. And, The Rivals was a huge success. The funny part is, Steve can still play all the music from it.”

And so, from the time of Carnegie-Mellon to the show’s restructuring period at LaMama, Godspell was firmly taking root. Schwartz’s music, Tebelak’s direction (with additional direction by Schwartz), and Reinhardt’s musical direction (he also collaborated with McCraty/Jonas on choreography)were all being brought to life by the five women, as well as Stephen Nathan as Jesus, David Haskell as Judas/John the Baptist, and Jeffrey Mylett, Lamar Alford and Herb Braha rounding out the male cast. And Faso’s stage management began to emerge as a character all its own. What, then, did they think when the official “new version” began to take the shape it would embody before moving to the Cherry Lane? “We laugh about it now,” Gordon says, “but quite candidly, we really couldn’t understand why our producers wanted to replace Duane Bolick’s original music. It was melodic, and very much like what you would have heard on early-70s FM radio. But our producers were in their forties, and it was a real generational shift for them to feel comfortable with music that, to them, sounded like rock & roll, as opposed to the kind of theater pop popularized by the show Hair. They loved Steve’s music when they heard him play his score for Pippin, so they felt his musical sensibility would be a better fit for a show that was breaking new ground as a theatrical hybrid: part clown show, part revue, part book musical. But poor Steve; we actually liked his music but kind of displaced our anger toward our producers, whom we also grew to love, for dropping Duane’s music. So we reassembled after a few weeks off between LaMaMa and Cherry Lane. It was the night before our first rehearsal on April 12th. We were at Edgar Lansbury’s house and gave Steve a very cold reception when he played all the new music for us. But I have to say how magnanimous he was to tell me that he tried to write something to replace ‘By My Side,’ but ultimately felt like, why do that when there was something already so perfect for that spot? Can you imagine someone choosing to share the spotlight like that, when he’d been given carte blanche to replace all the old music? So our resistance dissipated after the first few rehearsals, because Steve’s vocal arrangements were so beautiful and just heaven to sing. As for the show itself, since we had five new songs (out of Biblical text and hymns) and one wholly re-conceived song, ‘Turn Back, O Man’ (which had been a gorgeous ballad and Robin’s solo), we mostly integrated the new and then got to work either cutting or reshaping sections around the new musical material. What I’d also like to add is that we created all our own choreography. We had no official choreographer although we were blessed to have Joanne and Steve Reinhardt (who wore three hats: musical director, piano player/singer and dancer). Joanne and Steve were able to help us manifest dance and movement ideas into purposely silly choreography. As I told the director for the Broadway revival, Danny Goldstein, JM wanted everything, EVERYTHING, to be in clown character and that included the choreography. Rather than slick, he wanted goofy. Case in point, it was Sonia’s idea that we do a faux tap dance in ‘All for the Best.’ She talked about what children look like when they’re learning to tap but haven’t mastered the steps yet. It was a VERY funny illustration and perfect clown behavior!! And that’s how all our choreography evolved.” Faso has even more backstory about the show’s evolution: “At LaMaMa, JM and I wanted to expand the parables without using fancy effects. We broke into groups and worked on specific pieces, and never gave too much thought to the aggregate effect, as we knew from the interest in the show that it had a glow. We did endless versions of endless parables until we felt we had a decent and funny show, with a shape from Misery to Joy to the miracle of the resurrection. The scheduling of music rehearsals I left to Gilmer and Robin and Peg, and we had some facsimiles of Susy Tsu’s costumes. I know the old designers were there, but I don’t remember anything except the work, trying to keep the troops fed and somehow finding a way to put up a fence at LaMaMa. God bless Jeffrey for helping me constantly to try to do crew work and act, too; he was brilliant. It’s just that we had so much to do, no money, and no real producer yet. But the show opened at LaMaMa, and was sold out all performances. That’s when Charlie Haid came and loved the show, and brought Joe Beruh and Edgar Lansbury. So that was the real beginning of the transition to what it became.”

Sonia Manzano, then and now

Thus, on the evening of May17th, 1971 at the Cherry Lane Theatre, the West Village cul-de-sac of Commerce Street came alive with the force of a new musical. How soon was it before the cast knew they had a hit on their hands? “Well,” Mc Cormick says, “I had a sort of different opening night experience than everyone else. Of course we all went to Sardi’s to wait for the reviews to come in, and when they did, we knew we were a smash. I know none of us ever thought that this would happen, I don’t think any of us really knew what we had or the impact it would have on the audiences. But also opening night, I cut my foot badly on the fence onstage, and could only stay at Sardi’s for a little while before being whisked away to the emergency room for eight stitches. Naturally, I was unable to go on the next two performances, and Nina went on ably in my place. As a consequence, the second night I watched the show from the audience for the first time, and I have to say I was practically dumbstruck. An actor’s perspective is very limited on the stage, and I never really saw what my fellow actors were doing or how the whole piece moved and danced and exploded with such precision. You almost couldn’t take it all in. Two sawhorses and three planks became a boat, or an altar, or a swing, or a table and any number of other things, and as an audience member you sometimes don’t even see the change. That was the FIRST time I was aware of ‘what we had,’ and I remember telling JM that every single cast member should sit out one show and experience the piece as a whole. Which he thought was a good idea, but we had no understudies as of yet so it would have to wait. I was really proud of the show, and even more proud of its simple message of hope and peace, which was changing people’s lives. It was theatre in its truest form.” Lamont says, “I think it sunk in that Godspell was a hit when the out of town productions began to open.  First, we went to Los Angeles, and soon after there were productions in Canada, London and France. Knowing the show ‘worked’ abroad was big.” And Gordon adds, “It was literally while I was still in Los Angeles before rejoining the original cast back in New York. We’d split the cast in the fall of 1971. Some stayed in New York, like Sonia and Joanne, with a replacement cast. But most of us went to LA for a few months to open the show at the Mark Taper Forum. On a popular variety show, there was a skit about doing the Old Testament as a musical, and Alan King cited ‘the international mega-hit Godspell.’ I just sat there and thought, ‘Wow, that’s my show they’re talking about.'” “And for me,” says McCraty, “it was when we took out a full-page ad in the Times, after Clive Barnes gave the show a so-so review. But the best part of his review was, ‘no doubt there will be those who will love this show.’ And the producers wrote, ‘Right you are, Mr. Barnes,’ and listed every other rave review on this huge page. We sold out at the Cherry Lane from then on.”

With every new hit musical comes the recording of the original cast album. What memories stand out about this event? “The most remarkable thing about it to me,” says Manzano, “is that we did the the whole thing in one day.” Gordon agrees. “Lightning fast, almost too fast. Steve Schwartz and I have commiserated about this, that we wished there were things we’d redone. But when you’re in a hit show, and we were, the impetus to get the album out is great. We literally did all the vocals on our Monday day off. I remember glancing at the clock on the wall of the recording studio when it was time to record ‘By My Side’. I think it was something like 1:20 a.m. That’s why I refer to it as my somnambulistic vocal!” “I have only a vague memory of that session,” McCormick says. “Not being what I call a singer, those sessions were probably very uncomfortable for me and I’ve simply blocked it out. All I remember is being very close together around a mike, and the light wasn’t very good.” And Lamont finishes, “It was my first recording session ever! I had a ball, and fell in love with working in a studio. I had some pitch issues with ‘Day by Day’ on the original cast recording, although it is earnest enough. But I did better, I think, on the movie album version of the song, which is still the recording I would prefer people listen to.” While we’re on the subject, were any of the gals, especially Lamont, surprised by the success of “Day by Day” and it’s sudden constant airplay on the radio? Or by the fact that the other songs didn’t become those kinds of hits? “For me it wasn’t so much hearing it on the radio,” Gordon tells me. “I stayed in LA an extra two months while I watched the majority of the original cast sing ‘Day by Day’ on the Grammy Awards in New York. I suddenly realized the scope of the show’s immense popularity. I don’t think I was surprised that other songs didn’t become popular hits, since they were mostly converted hymns. But ‘By My Side’ got a fair number of artists either recording or covering it. Recently, Tori Amos covered it on tour. Amazing.” “I am not surprised that it was the only song that became a Top Twenty hit,” Manzano adds. “Most musicals only have one or two songs that transcend the show it is from, after all.”  McCraty says, “I think the first time I heard it was in an elevator,” while McCormick chimes in, “My first time was probably in an elevator or grocery store, but I wasn’t surprised that it became the hit of the show. Although I liked many of the other numbers a lot more, they were, nonetheless, “show tunes” and were not, as they say, as hummable as ‘Day by Day’ certainly was. As a side note, shortly into the second run, we read that ‘the current Pope’s daily prayer is ‘Day by Day,’ a well-recited prayer in the Catholic church.’ That certainly didn’t hurt the song’s success.” And Lamont has perhaps the best anecdote of all. “Believe it or not, I think the first time I heard ‘Day by Day’ on the radio was when I set my radio alarm for 5:30am to wake up and get to the Godspell movie location bus.  Kind of surreal, to wake up and go, ‘Is that me?’  I was not surprised that the song reached the top of the Billboard charts, and not terribly surprised that it was the only one to do so.  It was always the one folks went home singing after the show, and of all the songs, can stand on its own the best, both lyrically and harmonically.”

Gilmer McCormick, then and now

The next step in Godspell’s evolution was, of course, the film version. The differences between working in each medium are easily imaginable, but what were likewise the similarities, if any? “I had a blast making the film,” Lamont says, “and felt honored to have been included in the cast. In theater, as an ensemble piece with all ten cast members on stage pretty much the whole time, our rehearsals were constant engagement; we experimented with bits, tried choreography, we were moving all the time. On the film set we did some improvisation, but the time frame was limited because we always had a crew on hand that was working by the hour. And on film, you have to hit marks, stay still while the cinematographer does his thing, and WAIT!  Wait always between set ups. In retrospect I think the film was pretty good, but overall didn’t capture the intimacy of what cast and audience most often felt during a live performance.  So I don’t believe that the show transferred well to screen. But then again, I don’t like many movie musicals.” McCraty says, “It was so very different. I was playing a mashup of Joanne and Sonia, because Sonia had a contract with Sesame Street. So my best friend, Lynne Thigpen, and I split the roles. It was an awesome experience, the city, the cast, my first film choreography credit, etc. And I especially loved the crew, who taught me a lot about photography.” McCormick’s experience wasn’t quite so celestial, however. “It wasn’t a good time for me. I think that was mainly because of the choice of director, although I had greatly admired his work in other films. David Greene was an elderly, rather eccentric Englishman, whom I think just found himself outside his element, and justifiably so. Godspell, after all, comes out of American Street Theatre, which is very hard to translate to the screen unless you’re Martin Scorcese. The screen wants to narrow the focus, and the stage wants to expand the focus. Part of the success and charm of Godspell was its expansiveness. Nevertheless,” she continues, “I still receive fan mail from people whose lives the movie has touched or changed in some way. I know JM intended to change lives when he wrote Godspell, so all’s well!” And Gordon had every intention of doing the film until fate stepped in. “I got a wicked case of tonsillitis that took me out of the show in early June, and out of the movie too. It was a summer of healing from infection, an operation and then more recuperation. I wasn’t able to sing until late August, so Katie Hanley, who’d been a Robin clown replacement in New York when we were in LA, did part of what I did in the show and Gilmer did the rest. I recently had an interesting conversation about the film with someone and here’s the end result: JM felt strongly that the juxtaposition of two radically different images is what characterized Godspell. An empty, abandoned, urban child’s playground devoid of everything but possibly the remnants of something in the way of three planks, two sawhorses and green garbage bags that would magically transform into our prop bags. In this blighted, empty world he placed ten adolescent, innocent clowns who would not only inhabit the world, they would become and then transform the world. Now, this said, if you read David Greene (the film’s director’s) Wikipedia biography, he states that although he and JM began collaborating on the screenplay, it really wound up being all David Greene because it veered away from JM’s concept of an empty world and focused instead on a world empty of people. Now, did this work? Yeah. It did. Somehow, the emotional power of the show did translate in the juxtaposition David created. Millions of fans have come to Godspell through stock and amateur productions, but millions have also come though the movie and have been as moved as those audience members who’ve seen it live.”

What goes through their minds when they see other productions of the show today, if in fact they do see other productions of the show today?  McCraty begins by saying, “I’ve never seen another production of the show live on stage, but I do enjoy watching the different productions on YouTube. They’re all just delightful.” “I can never contain my emotions at any of the productions I see of the show,” Manzano remarks, “but one that particularly hit me hard was seeing it at LaGuardia High School, because I’d been a student there. So it was a very heavy experience.” And Lamont and Gordon attended the 2000 performance at the York Theatre together, which they both claim was “absolutely outstanding.” But McCormick has probably seen more productions of the show than anyone on earth. “Stephen musically directed all the European productions and all the road companies, so I got to see many wonderful productions over the years. I can’t even say whether or not I had a favorite.”

JJ McCraty (aka Joanne Jonas), then and now

Naturally, as with every show so full of life and long legend, the deaths of original cast members and others involved with a show from the beginning is an inevitability. Godspell’s first casualty was none other than John-Michael Tebelak, who passed from a heart attack on April 2nd, 1985 at the age of thirty-five. Shortly thereafter, Jeffrey Mylett lost his battle with AIDS on May 7th, 1986, a month shy of turning thirty-seven. The cause of Lamar Alford’s demise, on April 4th 1991 at the age of forty-seven, has never been disclosed publicly. David Haskell fell victim to brain cancer and died at age fifty-two on August 30th, 2000. And Lynne Thigpen succumbed to a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of fifty-four on March 12th, 2003. Of course, all of the women who knew them well have plenty to say. “Jeff, David’s, and JM’s deaths were very hard because these are people who were part of my teenage community at Carnegie,” Gordon explains, “and were not just good friends, but best friends. Lamar’s death was extremely painful because I found out after the fact; he’d gone back to school at Morehouse College, where he then became a teacher and mentor to many other artists, but we’d lost touch, so his death is especially painful. And Lynne…oh boy. I think sudden death is probably the worst, because it’s like an amputation without anesthesia. At least with an illness, there’s time to prepare for the loss, but Lynne’s death was sudden and very hard.” “Jeff was a beloved friend,” McCormick says. “He was a devoted follower of Meher Baba, which manifested itself in a gentle nature, good humor, a little mischief and a wonderful, insatiable curiosity. He was our daughter, Eve’s, godfather. His sudden passing was devastating in so many ways, not the least of which that he was so very young. We all took it extremely hard and he will always be missed. Lamar…oh, what a big, old kindly bear he was. A blend of child and man, in a Baby Huey body with a monster voice. For someone so big, he was able to move around the stage with such agility and lightness that it was truly surprising. He was very much loved and his loss, again, was a huge blow. Lamar sang at our wedding and thatʼs the way I’ll always remember him; that and his silly clown face. Lynne was one of my dearest friends of all time and her death was a total shock, quite out of the blue; so fast, in fact, that it took me days to believe that this strong, beautiful, generous, talented lady was really gone. I still mourn her and miss her with all my heart. There will never be another like her. David and I also went to school together but, again, not in the same class. When we started workshopping Godspell we became very close friends, which we maintained. David was the one we all thought was going to be a star: handsome, charismatic, and a fine and sensitive actor. Although never reaching stardom, he, nevertheless, did a lot of fine work in his career. He was a dream to work with, generous and non-temperamental. JM’s death touched me profoundly, as did all the others really, but his was the first. And again, no warning, just up and died one day, and so young. I think what touched me the most about his death was the thought of all the unrealized dreams that died with him; thoughts and ideas that he expressed often over the years, his head was always brimming with ideas. I often wonder what kind of things he would have written about had he lived. He often talked about Godspell as being the first part in a trilogy; wouldn’t that have been something? He was a brilliant, kind, joyful, magical man. I will always be grateful to him for the faith he had in me over many years, not only as a performer but as a friend. He will always be loved and missed.” “I was very saddened by their deaths,” Lamont recalls. “The AIDS epidemic took the lives of many friends and colleagues, and I miss Jeffrey and Lamar in particular.  We spent a lot of time together in New York.  Lamar was a hoot!  And Jeff a complicated, funny, introspective guy.  I’m also saddened by the sudden deaths of Lynne and David; very hard to take. I’d known David since Carnegie and done Working with Lynne.” Manzano concludes, “Of course we’ll always all miss everyone, but I was profoundly affected by Lamar’s death. He was so very unique.”

Nina Faso, then and now

Finally, how does each of the women predict the newest Broadway revival will fare?  “It’s hard to say,” says McCormick. “The first job the director (Danny Goldstein) will have is to help each actor discover his or her clown persona. It is a play about the transformative power by the central character, Jesus, upon the clown characters, making them one thing at the beginning of the play and quite something else by the end. I just hope the message stays in tact. Godspell is a very easy show to lose the focus at any given time through extraneous movements or cutesy play acting, and if it’s allowed to happen too much, it can definitely lessen the impact of the show itself. JM was very strict about where the focus was at every moment. I really hope it does succeed. We could use a hefty dose of hope and peace right now, eh?” Gordon is more optimistic: “Danny Goldstein, the director, has been very receptive. I gave him a DVD of a tenth-anniversary reunion production we did in LA, with the majority of the original cast and four other actors who did the show for years in New York and other companies. It was directed by JM and musical directed by Steve Reinhardt. In addition, Steve Schwartz has been very active in helping Danny. I feel he’s been given enough visual help to understand why the show was such a mega-hit internationally, both creatively and emotionally. So I’m confident that this will be a revival we’ll be proud of.” McCraty diplomatically offers, “The piece is powerful, and if done with honesty and genuine heart it should be great,” while Lamont adds, “I’m curious to see how audiences will respond. On one hand, the show is of a particular time, but on the other, it’s perfect for updating, adding new material, new bits, contemporary references. And the score is still tremendous. I hope it will be a huge success.” But Manzano simply responds, “How will it do? Your guess is as good as mine.”

Well, one must simply guess that the Broadway revival of Godspell, regardless of its overall outcome, will be guaranteed to not only touch the lives of those who already count the show among their favorites, but to reach a whole new audience of younger people otherwise unfamiliar. The possibilities remain endless for the next chapter in Godspell’s long and incredible life, and it’s safe to bet that the New York theatre scene eagerly awaits the following step towards the show’s renewed success.