The Original Women of “Godspell” Are Still All Mighty!!

Posted: August 2, 2011 in Broadway, Culture, Entertainment, Film, Music, New York City, Nightlife, Performance, Theater, Theatre, Uncategorized

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.

  1. Douglas says:

    A beautiful and insightful piece, Andrew. Reading this was like sorting through the scripts and notes of the original productions of this now-iconic work.

  2. Just reached part two of your new book (All for the Best) and am so enjoying it! What a treat to learn more about the people and the backstory from a play (and movie) that is a classic and timeless and that had such an impact in my life. Thanks for your hard work that has provided the rest of us with an opportunity to go back in time and vicariously enjoy the experience with the cast and crew!

    Kindest Regards,


    • Rick Shutter says:

      No mention of the original musicians ? We broke some ground with this show-created most of our parts – interacted with the cast and more….

      • Ricky, I completely understand and appreciate your comment. The Godspell Four (as you and Steve and Jesse and Richie are known to fans of the show and the film) were an indisputable part of the history. But my focus with this article was strictly on the women, not just the five actresses but also Nina. I took much more liberty with the book and mentioned everybody. Anyway, nice to know that you read it. Be well, my friend.

  3. I just came upon this. Thank you for this monumental piece of writing. Lynne Thigpen was my client and friend for over 20 years. Every time I see her name in print, I want her back – I miss her so damned much. She and Larry used to have the greatest and grandest Christmas parties. We would keep our calendars totally free of obligations until Lynne announced the date of their Christmas party so this time of year is hard for those of us who are alumni of that magnificent event. Lynne was at the center of my life for so long that it is still hard for me to accept that she is no longer here.

    • Rozanne, I’m thrilled that you would comment and that Lynne was such a big part of your life. I barely knew her at all, I only met her once or twice, and I’ve never been lucky enough to meet Larry, but she just radiated with brilliant light. If the world could just have one more day to enjoy her, we’d all be so very lucky. God bless. And thank you for calling this a momentous piece of writing; I worked very hard on it and the book as well, so that means a lot to me.

  4. heidimassey says:

    I was doing a search for Lamar Alford because when I was in Boston doing an internship at the ADL, we brought up the Morehouse College cast of Martin, Lamar’s play, to perform. It was a wild weekend, and of course everyone fell in love with Lamar. I was wondering what had happened to him. I had always been a huge fan of Godspell and still have my original album. Had no idea he was in it until I read this piece. WOW! I would so love to connect to Lamar today because of so many different things and am so sad that he died so young. Glad to hear he touched so many lives. He was pretty incredible.

  5. Thom Trick says:

    Thank you for this insight into the evolution of such an incredible work of art. I have never had the opportunity to see a live production of “Godspell,” but I was exposed to the film very early in my life and returned to it in the last 18 months, in my late forties, as I embarked on a major internal transition, from a life studying many different esoteric traditions, to one of being committed to a very personal inner practice of meditation and expression of external helpfulness…a focused study of interdependency.

    Raised in an evangelically Christian household, the allegory of the Christ has always loomed heavily over the moral map of my consciousness. Watching the film, “Godspell” several times a week, during a most troubling period in my physical context, allowed me to retain a place for best messages of the gospels, invigorate my passion for this planet and dispense with the more judgmental aspects of the Christian tradition.

    I am ever grateful to these women you’ve interviewed (and everyone involved, including you)…even those who were not part of the film-version…for planting a seed so long ago that only matured when I was ready to incorporate the force of this work in a practice that might somehow matter. Thank you again for taking the time to write such a thorough article that helped me understand how profound an experience this was for those so directly involved in it’s inception and evolution.

    Bless the friends and families of all those lost since this began, especially those who have been close to Merrell Jackson. His wide smile and lilting voice will always be associated with the most important message of Christ to me…and to another Christian hero of mine (Mr. Francis of Assisi) : to consider the lilies, to understand that worry avails us nothing. only to do, to care, to make the most of “god’s” great gifts of life, breath, food and the opportunity to recognize the reality of not who we are, but what exists among us. many blessings.

  6. Jeremy Davidson says:

    Odd not to mention Merrell Jackson when you ask the subjects of your article to comment on cast members who died. He was huge, at least in the film and soundtrack.Not to have them mention him gives the impression he wasn’t liked.

    • Yes, that might have been construed as an oversight on my part. But he’s certainly mentioned often and very affectionately by the entire cast in my book about the filming, as I’m sure you well know.

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