PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Godspell — J.C. and the Gang

News   PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Godspell — J.C. and the Gang
 
Meet the first-nighters at the opening of Broadway's new production of Godspell.

Hunter Parrish; guests Mary-Louise Parker, Victor Garber, Ari Graynor, Gavin Creel and Andrew Rannells
Hunter Parrish; guests Mary-Louise Parker, Victor Garber, Ari Graynor, Gavin Creel and Andrew Rannells Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

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Godspell, the cleverly misspelled musicalization of Gospel of Saint Matthew (by way of John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz), materialized Nov. 7, and a new tribe of believers went immediately into a circle — Circle in the Square.

Praise the lord, and pass the love beads or whatever passes for revolutionary accessories these days. Forty years have elapsed, somehow, since this affable rabble first pitched their tent before the public — 34 years since they pitched it on Broadway.

Yet the participants who re-enact the parables of Jesus gamely — very gamely — try to close this generational gap with topical throwaways. Scattershot throughout are references to Charlie Sheen, Steve Jobs, Lindsay Lohan, Muammar Gaddafi ("Too soon?" comes the after-thought), Donald Trump, Facebook.

Since tribes usually travel in circles, it's fortunate they have settled snugly into Circle in the Square to play out their Bible tales and Judeo-Christian traditions. "It was really the only theatre I wanted to do the show in," declared Ken Davenport, who, for the first time on Broadway, is lead producer. "Godspell is about a community of people, and I wanted the audience to feel like they were a part of this intimate, unique community. That's what Circle does."

His director, Daniel Goldstein, who staged the show at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 2006, couldn't agree more. "I'm really proud of the design and where we are. We wanted the experience of doing the show to feel like it could never happen any place but where it is, and that's what we worked really, really hard on."

The space, like the show itself, invites invention — and rarely has Circle revealed so many sides, like a stage that turns into water for Jesus to walk on or trampolines for more buoyant numbers. And scattered to the four corners of the Circle is the band, embedded in the audience, save for a conductor-pianist in a sunken hole on stage.

"The estate of John-Michael encourages invention — that's what the show is meant to do," the director said. "If you allow the DNA of what the show is supposed to do — tell the stories really clearly — then it can stand up to as much invention as you like."

Such license to kill extended to the book (which is not credited on the Playbill title page and is obviously a group effort). "We made that up in the rehearsal room — the cast and me and my choreographer," he admitted. "I could point to specific things and tell you who did what, but it's really done as a company so we all take credit."

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Christopher Gattelli saw his job as undercover choreographer: "My goal with the show was to make it look like I wasn't present so it was hard because the whole show, for me, had to look like the cast created it [as they did the script]. It was like I had to hang my ego up at the door and let them help to create and tell stories."

Something of a physical dead-ringer for Jersey Boys Tony winner John Lloyd Young, Gattelli tactfully tried to duck the stock question of what he's doing next. "TBD," he said, "I was supposed to do Funny Girl but that got postponed" — Randy Graff and Noah Racey had been lined up to play Mrs. Brice and Eddie Ryan, too! — "and Newsies may or may not happen, so spring is in flux. We'll see." As for the new news on Newsies, he had one encouraging thing to say: "I'm not allowed to say anything about that show."

After 40 years, Schwartz has become conditioned to the jubilant Godspell-bound response. "I saw the show the last week when we were freezing, and I think it kinda hit where it is," he said. "Tonight, I think, wasn't any different from every other show, now that the show has got to its level. This is what happens every night. The audience just goes crazy, and that's been happening since they really got it together. There's something ineffable about the Godspell experience. When the show is really firing, there's a whole experience that includes the audience. The audience becomes part of the show and part of the community. When that happens, it's very exciting for an audience."

In his billing — "Music and New Lyrics by Stephen Schwartz" — the word "new" does not refer to this revival but to his original lyrics. "I wrote the music — save for 'By My Side,' which is by Peggy Gordon, one of the original cast members — and I wrote the lyrics that didn't come from the Episcopal hymnal," he always qualifies. "Some of the lyrics like 'Save the People,' 'Day by Day,' 'Bless the Lord,' 'All Good Gifts,' 'Turn Back, O Man' and 'We Beseech Thee' are from the Episcopal hymnal."

The rest is the work of Tebelak, who, at 22, created it in a two-week writing frenzy to meet the deadline for his masters thesis project at Carnegie Mellon University. He died at 35 of a heart attack in 1972, so, inevitably, Schwartz was asked what the show's conceiver and original director would have made of its current resurrection.

"I think he would have felt really good about this production," Schwartz replied. "It really captures his intentions. It was such an imaginative leap that John-Michael made. To think you can take this material, which is so familiar and has been around for 2,000 years, and invigorate it with such joy and such humor and have it be hilarious and heartbreaking — that's what I think he achieved in the original, and I'm very happy with this production because I feel it captures that same atmosphere."


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Another surefire constant for Godspell is that it's a star-starter, a veritable incubator for new talent. Whenever it's done, stars step forth almost without fail. Its last Off-Broadway revival, at the York Theatre, produced Memphis' Chad Kimball and A Catered Affair's Leslie Kritzer. The time before that, at the Lambs Theatre, yielded The Little Mermaid's Eddie Korbich and Runaways' Trini Alvarado. But star-launcher of all Godspells was the first Toronto company, alums of which came to glitter up the opening and visit younger versions of themselves backstage.

As befits Jesus, Victor Garber rated the prize for the Godspell graduate who came the greatest distance to be at the opening. He flew in the night before from Turkey where he finished "Argo," the Ben Affleck movie about the Iran hostage crisis in which he plays Canadian ambassador Ken Taylor.

"I'm thrilled to be here," Garber declared cheerfully. "Listen, I'm with my oldest friends in the world. We were in Godspell together in the legendary Toronto company. The fact that Paul Shaffer, Andrea Martin, Eugene Levy and Martin Short are all here is some kind of a miracle."

Garber went an extra Godspell inning — into the 1973 film version. "I was the only one from Toronto in the movie," he noted, adding modestly, "but they all went on to become much bigger stars. That was a life-changing experience for me."

Short, who, like Garber, did the Sid Caesar role(s) in Broadway revivals of Little Me, admitted he might sing along with the show. In fact, "I'm going to take over if they let me. It was my first Equity show in Toronto, Ontario, in 1972 — in June, we opened with Victor Garber, Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin. I played Geoffrey the Imp — and I haven't changed much. Paul Shaffer was musical director. It was spectacular. I was so amazed that Stephen Schwartz was 26 at the time. If [Toronto] wasn't the first production after New York, it was one of the first. He went up there and did just amazing, creative things. He cast these people. Many of them became known along the way. He had a rehearsal pianist he didn't like, and he fired him and asked Paul Shaffer, who played for a girlfriend, would he take over, and Paul said 'Sure,' even though Paul didn't read music. He had a brilliant eye." Edgar Lansbury, who produced the original Godspell — in fact, who invited Schwartz to write the score for it — and has his financial oar in this revival, admitted he never imagined he'd be seeing the show on Broadway 40 years after the fact. "But the material is there. It's all there. Forty years later, and it still applies."

Interviews were done with the newbie cast on the second floor of Planet Hollywood while producers and guests partied a floor above. They arrived helpfully wearing the first name of the characters they played, which, true of one of the Godspell conceits, just happened to be the name of the actor in the role.

Telly Leung
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Explained "Telly" (Telly Leung), a conspicuous scene-stealer: "Godspell is a set of parables and a set of songs. How we approach those parables and get in and out of them is based on the individuality and the creative spirit and the rehearsals of that particular group. When I got to create my Telly track, they said, 'Well, Telly, what do you do? You do impressions and you sing and you play piano and you speak Chinese. Good. We're throwing all that in the show.'"

Leung's "big moment" is a rapid-fire movie montage in the parable of The Prodigal Son, and it was only recently fell into place. "I will be very honest with you," he leveled. "Because the show is improv-based from an improv ensemble, we had nothing going into previews. We really had nothing. We said, 'We have an audience in three days, and we have no idea how to approach this parable. What do we do?' So I went home and I went on YouTube and I found The 100 Top Movie Moments of All-Time, and I said, 'How do I fit The Prodigal Son into these movie moments?' Stephen Schwartz in rehearsal one day had thrown out there, 'Do you guys do impressions? Maybe an impression here would be good.' I said, 'You know what would be great? Let's do ten impressions in a row.' There's a Katharine Hepburn in there, Peter Finch in 'Network,' Christopher Lloyd from 'Back to the Future,' Jimmy Stewart from 'It's a Wonderful Life,' a little bit of Sally Field in there, Barbra Streisand from 'Yentl,' a little Marlon Brando in there. There were more, but we whittled them down on the way to make it economical."

Celisse Henderson credited the jubilation of the evening to the team effort that went into it. "It was a dream — that love that was in that room, in this company. I don't know if you can feel that energy. It's built out of pure love. Every single person loves each other so deeply. We have such a great connection. The chemistry is unbelievable with each other. It's just perfect. We get along really well. Y'know, on our days off, we've hung out with each other. We don't have to be around each other, but we still go and hang out with each other. I think you have to. In order for this to work, you have to be committed to each other, and we are."

That's vigorously dittoed by Lindsay Mendez. "It's so fun to have the opportunity to create in the room. Everybody kinda brings out their best tricks and talents, and we were really given that opportunity. I love 'lip-talking' while George Salazar talks for me. It's such a great gag, and it goes into 'Bless the Lord,' and it sets up the number so well."

At one point in the show, Julia Mattison sidled up to a paying customer and said with sultry undertow, "How do you like my opening night?" She wasn't kidding. "This is my very first Broadway show," she trumpeted. "I was in college in May, so this is a whirlwind. I just graduated, so to come into this — I know how rare it is. I'm appreciating every single moment." Interestingly, she got her first opening night the old fashioned 42nd Street way — as a replacement understudy.

"I've actually been doing this since the start of previews so I had a chance to get to know, and grow into, the role, which has been amazing. Still, I was being thrown in and it was last-minute going in, but it has been a treat to do it for this many weeks."

The treat must end in four days when Morgan James returns to the part. She made the party and the press rounds without a discernible limp. "I was injured two tech performances before the first preview," the actress said, "but I count myself very lucky that I've never been injured before, never even pulled a muscle."

Morgan James and Wallace Smith
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Double-cast as good disciple/bad disciple (John/Judas), Wallace Smith arrived to the press area still euphoric from the evening's activities. "It was the magical Broadway opening night that I have always dreamed of," he announced. "I couldn't ask for a better group of people to be around — our director, the producer, just the legacy of the show and all of the people who came out tonight who have done Godspell years ago. To see them backstage was unbelievable. They were all backstage with us. They were like one of us. It's been a beautiful night. I'm happy the show is here. I feel like it has a place in the hearts of people, and it's the gospel of today, which is the message we want to make sure gets out."

Nick Blaemire, returning to the scene of the crime (Circle in the Square, where his musical Glory Days had its solitary glory day), does a terrific job of "We Beseech Thee," but it falls short of his favorite moment. "I love being a part of that number and it's a huge honor to be able to sing it," he said, "but my favorite moment is listening to 'Beautiful City' every night because in that moment it's like, 'Okay, we've accomplished our goal of becoming a family and becoming a unit.' In that moment, we sit down and create this table out of dry ice and water and light, and I really feel like I'm part of something magical."

As for the "Nick" he plays, "I would say it was a magnified version of me. It definitely is a ton of me. I feel like I go through a complete journey every night, from the most cynical part of me to the most open, aware and hopeful part of myself. I leave the theatre every night feeling that, and I get to go home with me, which is great."

Two mothers hath the Christ of this occasion, Hunter Parrish, both in the audience for his opening night: his real one and his "Weeds" one, Mary-Louise Parker, who went out of her way to make sure Mrs. Parrish met the press. Andrew Rannells, representing The Book of Mormon, showed up in support of director Goldstein. And, for Andre De Shields, it was a something of a sentimental journey: "I knew somebody who was in the original company, Lamar Alford, back in '71 when it opened at the Cherry Lane, and a dear friend who played Judas in the film, Merrell Jackson," he explained. "Neither one of them is with us anymore, so I come in their spirit and to have a wonderful time tonight."

Then there were those who showed up for the fun of touching base with the 40-year-old musical: David Stone (producer of the Schwartz show at the Gershwin, next door, Wicked), former Circle chiefs Ted Mann and Paul Libin, producer Daryl Roth, Post person Michael Riedel, Other Desert Cities' Judith Light (rather radiant with post-opening relief — she still won't read her raves), Hair Tony nominee Gavin Creel, the Jonas bros who aren't Broadway-bound (Kevin and Adam), "As the World Turns" favorite Colleen Zenk, "Law and Order" mainstay S. Epatha Merkerson, The Addams Family's Adam Riegler, actor-playwright Zach Braff and his wife in last year's Trust, Ari Graynor, now the wayward bride in Relatively Speaking, Marisa Von Blicken from "The Glee Project" and Angela Bassett down from The Mountaintop but, like Rita Wilson, not posing for the paparazzi.

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