These are personal accounts of the Toronto production of “Godspell,” as told to Joshua Chong and Michael Crabb. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
To label the original Toronto company of “Godspell” as star-studded would be a gross understatement. Nay, heresy.
The production was nothing short of legendary: the stuff of Canadian theatre lore. But no one knew that when Stephen Schwartz’s musical opened here June 1, 1972.
The show was already an off-Broadway hit before its Toronto run. An uplifting musical about hope and joy founded in the teachings of Jesus Christ, its popularity owes much to the childlike innocence of its exuberant characters. They sing, dance and act their way through the parables and, in the process, unite as a community rooted in compassion, love and shared respect.
“Godspell” began with the late John-Michael Tebelak. The playwright and director was working on a master’s thesis about the gospels at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Mellon University when he was turned away from an Easter church service and frisked by an off-duty police officer because he was wearing overalls over a T-shirt.
He later wrote, “I left with the feeling that, rather than rolling the rock away from the tomb, they were piling more on. I went home, took out my manuscript and worked it to completion in a non-stop frenzy.”
By the time “Godspell” hit Toronto, Schwartz had written a new score for the off-Broadway version and it had been performed in Melbourne, Australia, and London, England.
The Toronto company was a motley crew of relative unknowns, plucked from an open casting call. Many were fresh-out-of-university 20-somethings, not a professional credit to their name.
They were unassuming, bright-eyed youth, dressed as hippies and belting parables from the Gospel of Matthew eight times a week for what was supposed to be a short summer run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre.
But that fated production of “Godspell” — marking the 50th anniversary of its opening night next week — altered the landscape of the entertainment industry and launched the careers of artists who would reach the pinnacle of achievement in almost every entertainment sector.
Among them: Martin Short, Gilda Radner, Victor Garber, Jayne Eastwood, Paul Shaffer, Andrea Martin, Howard Shore and Eugene Levy.
Collectively, members of Toronto’s “Godspell” production would go on to win three Oscars, six Grammys, nine Emmys and three Tony Awards. Four have also been awarded the Order of Canada.
Never in the history of Canadian theatre has there been a single company whose members would go on to find such success.
Martin Short, Jeffery
Opening night at the Royal Alex was amazing. I never had that kind of opening night. You don’t know if you are going to freeze or you’re going to be better than you ever were. And if you were better than you ever were, then you had a future in show business. I think we all felt that.
The first audition for “Godspell” was mainly singing. If you could sing, you made it to the callback, which I think was at the Masonic Temple, but Eugene thinks it was at a different church.
For the callback, you started by singing. We then waited around for another hour, and then they asked us in groups to improvise a parable from the Bible. Eugene was in my group. He took over and became the director of it. That’s probably why we got into the show.
The original plan, when we first booked the show, was we were going to play the Royal Alex, and then we’d go to Chicago and then to Boston. That encompassed the yearlong contract that we originally signed. But it was such a hit in Toronto. We had to leave the Royal Alex and that’s why we moved to the Bayview Playhouse.
Each production of “Godspell” across North America was different with respect to the impressions we actors did. So, someone like Gilda would do a Lily Tomlin impression when perhaps no one else could in the other productions. The creative team leaned on the talent of the actors. They wanted these actors who were not polished, but raw with talent.
It was a very hip show. If we went to a restaurant, there’d be a headline in the Toronto Sun saying, “Godspellers attend such and such a restaurant.”
We enjoyed each other’s company. Everyone got along. Everyone loved each other. Everyone partied together and hung out with each other during the day.
Eugene and I lived together at 1063 Avenue Rd. We didn’t party there every night. But if there was going to be a cast party, it would probably have been there.
This was the first show I did out of school. Meeting these fabulous, brilliant people, who would not only become my friends but my family, was an amazing experience.
I met my future wife (Nancy Dolman) for the first time in this production. I was with Gilda during that time — we were together until ’74 — but I had a crush on Nancy, who was Gilda’s understudy. She was so beautiful. She owned this clothing store, and she would come in with this kind of velvety cape and long, blond Joni Mitchell hair.
And my wife’s brother was married to Andrea Martin and they had two sons. Her sons are my nephews.
It was an amazing experience creatively, but also life-changing.
Victor Garber, First Jesus
“Godspell” was a life-changing event for me. I came to it in 1972 with a certain amount of experience. I grew up in London, Ont., and first trod the boards as a child actor at the Grand Theatre.
By my late teens I was performing as a folk singer. I then joined a new Canadian sunshine pop vocal group called the Sugar Shoppe that became quite well-known and even made it onto “The Ed Sullivan Show.” I was also part of the Canadian Rock Theatre. We released an album and toured across North America. I sang “Save the People” from “Godspell” for months on the road. Avril Chown and Nancy Dolman were also part of Canadian Rock Theatre and went on to perform in “Godspell.” Singing Jesus and knowing something about the show is really what got me the role in Toronto. I was sort of set for it.
Sadly, I did not remain for very long, a month or so perhaps. I was cast as Jesus for the film of “Godspell” and off I went to New York. I can’t say I particularly enjoyed the experience. Film was new to me. But I fell in love with New York and everything about it. I knew it was where I wanted to live and work. It was “Godspell” that got me there.
I think all of us in the cast I worked with knew we were part of something special. I was just so excited to be part of it and performing at the Royal Alex. I think it was probably only a year or so before that I’d worked there for a while as an usher to make some extra cash.
Everyone in that cast had something unique about them. I suppose you could say that of any show, but I was very aware that I was among the funniest and most creative people I could imagine. In some ways, I felt the odd man out because there I was as Jesus shepherding all these genius comics. I just knew I was amongst really brilliant people. It was glorious to be part of that group.
You can never predict the future and so none of us, however ambitious, could foresee how our careers were about to unfold. But I think what really piques continuing interest today is that so many of the cast went on to have great success and become famous. It’s a rare occurrence for a single show to spawn so much talent.
“Godspell” still resonates as a show. Although it is in one sense religious, it is the antithesis of organized religion. It’s simply about the teachings of Jesus. The themes — kindness, humility, compassion, loving your neighbour — can be found in so many religions and have a universal message.
It still resonates for me personally and has especially during these dark times we’ve all been living through. I’ll be walking down the street and something from the show will somehow pop into my mind and bring me comfort.
Paul Shaffer, musical director
For a lot of us, “Godspell” was our very first shot in show business. We really were having as much fun as a person could ever have. Everyone was so amazingly talented and funny. And it was as if everyone had found their best friend. We hung out incessantly and we talked about nothing but the show 24/7. I couldn’t imagine having more laughs or more fun.
The audition was an open call in Toronto and everybody in town showed up. I wasn’t there to audition. I was just accompanying Avril Chown — whom I had just met shortly before those auditions on a tour of these missile bases in northern Quebec, entertaining up there — and my then-girlfriend.
Avril sang “Bless the Lord,” a song from the show. We learned it together off the cast album. And my girlfriend sang a Dusty Springfield hit. Avril ended up getting a role, but my girlfriend did not. Stephen Schwartz, the musical’s composer and lyricist, happened to be in town for final auditions. After he heard me play, he asked me to accompany the rest of the auditions that day. By the end of the session, he said, “Can you get a band together and conduct the show?”
In a day, I went from being a recent college grad trying to get my feet wet in the industry — I had just graduated from the University of Toronto — to being full-on in show business.
In the rehearsal room, I was surrounded by some of the funniest, most talented people, as has been proved by the longevity of their careers. When I left town in 1974 to go to New York City and work for Stephen Schwartz in a show called “The Magic Show,” I assumed there would be people of that calibre or even better. And that just wasn’t the case. Perhaps there were people with even more finely honed ambition in New York, but there was nobody more talented or funnier than those kids I met in “Godspell.”
When we opened at the Royal Alex, I was so naive. I didn’t know what was going on and I was just enjoying it. But the show certainly felt like the next big thing. I barely remember anything from those few weeks at the Royal Alex because things were moving so fast. It wasn’t until we moved uptown to the Bayview Playhouse that I started to calm down and understand what was going on. We became a company then and settled into our routine of eight shows a week.
Before the show, we always went to Mount Pleasant Lunch, a restaurant near the theatre. That became a pre-show hangout spot. After then, after the show, the cast would often gather at this house at 1063 Avenue Rd., which Martin Short and Eugene Levy rented together. It wasn’t Party Central but, then again, maybe it was. We would talk about that evening’s performance: everything that went wrong and stuff like that. Sometimes, Marty had a cassette recorder. He would just leave it on the coffee table, press record and say, “Let’s be funny.” As 22-year-olds, we would just make each other laugh.
And these things would happen regularly at that house. We all still think of it so fondly today.
Every night during the show, I always looked forward to hearing Gilda Radner sing “Learn Your Lessons Well.” The musical was such that she had a lot of leeway with that song. It was open to her interpretation. And every night, she just wrang the emotions out of the audience.
And then there was the comedic duo of Martin Short and Eugene Levy. Each show, they would act out a parable at the end of the first act. They were close friends back then — and still are to this day — and that was so evident when they acted together.
Throughout the yearlong run of the production, people were trying things comedically all the time. Maybe we got a little too far sometimes.
Everyone was in clown makeup for the show and the Jesus character had a heart painted on his forehead. One night, I painted a heart on my forehead. I, along with the band, was not only onstage but on these raised platforms, maybe eight feet high. At the end of Act 2, there was this solemn depiction of the crucifixion and my head appeared over the top of the piano with this heart on my forehead. The cast was laughing and trying to keep the audience from seeing.
And as another example, there was an entr’acte, where we would reprise Gilda’s song, but the company would do it. Martin Short was doing it for a while and then eventually he just started doing it as Frank Sinatra instead. This was for the eternal enjoyment of all of us. And it lasted until either Stephen or the worldwide stage manager of “Godspell” came to town and finally stopped us. After that, we certainly learned our lessons well.
I better stop talking. It’s going to sound like we were so unprofessional. Aside from that, we were absolutely professional all the time.
Stephen Schwartz, composer and lyricist
The Toronto company was particularly joyful to work with because they were so incredibly funny and inventive. It was definitely our funniest “Godspell” production. It’s sort of extraordinary, when you look at that list from the original cast, how many went on to become famous comedians and comic actors.
“Godspell” auditions are unusual. All the actors are brought in at once, and they are formed into groups and asked to create an improv based on a parable that they’re given. We would observe how they work together. It was very impressive to watch the group that ultimately became the Toronto cast. It was very clear how funny they were right away.
I knew a little bit about Victor Garber before that production. Some months before, he had done a cover album of “Godspell” with a bunch of other singers and musicians. So I knew him from that, but everybody else was just these kids who came to the open audition.
Victor ended up being cast in the 1973 “Godspell” movie as Jesus. David Greene, who directed the movie, went to see all the companies that were playing and built his cast out of that. I think he recognized right away that Victor would translate well to film. His face and his whole persona worked well onscreen, as has been demonstrated by the fact that Victor has successfully done many films, as well as stage shows, since “Godspell.”
In addition to his beautiful singing voice and his enormous humour, there’s a kind of glow about Victor — just the way he moves through life. He still has that quality and I think it’s inherent within him. And bringing that to the role of Jesus really elevated the Toronto company.
Considering how many individuals in that company became stars, it’s lovely how they stayed in touch and remained friends with one another. When “Wicked” opened on Broadway, they came together (to see it) as a group, as opposed to individually. It’s really lovely to see.
Jayne Eastwood, Sonia
At age 25, imagine, I was one of the older ones in the cast. I already had a career. In 1970 I had a leading role in what’s now regarded as an early masterwork of Canadian film, Don Shebib’s “Goin’ Down the Road.”
Just think, if that had been made in Hollywood and the kind of success it was in Canada, I’d probably have been shooting for the stars in the movie world. But as a Canadian performer you just go for whatever you see is up there. So I auditioned for “Godspell” and I’m really glad I got it. I didn’t know much about the show. I just heard that it was a big musical. I’m not really a great singer, but I can crank out a song, and I sort of was auditioning for musicals at that time.
It was an open call and lasted all day. There were lots of people, probably a hundred or more. Everyone had to do a song. I remember I asked my friend Mike Kirby, a lovely Canadian actor, to accompany me on the guitar. I sang “If My Friends Could See Me Now” from “Sweet Charity,” and I got down on my knees and did a whole Al Jolson thing with it. And I’m not bragging, but this was a lovely thing that happened. I overheard Stephen Schwartz say, “She’s fabulous.” So that was good.
Anyway, if you got past your song you could stick around to audition. Then they would put you in a group and you’d have to improvise one of the parables. I was with Eugene and Marty, who I’d never met. Gradually, they would narrow it down. I remember finding a phone and calling my then boyfriend to say, “I’m still here. I may get this.” It got more and more exciting.
The rehearsals were hilarious. There wasn’t a lot of angst in the rehearsal. It was just kind of fun, right from the get go. There was so much laughter but, at the same time, the cast was extremely professional. And we worked very hard. “Godspell” is not an easy show to do physically. It’s actually quite draining.
Looking back, it’s interesting to me that although we were all pretty strong individuals there was zero competitiveness. We all really respected each other. Everybody had their own fabulous part that they loved and they just did the best they could. Then, after a show, we were like a bunch of reprobates, partying with each other every night to the detriment of a lot of our former relationships.
I don’t think any of us imagined “Godspell” was going to be such a sensation in Toronto mainly because we didn’t know that much about the show. But I think the people who produced it were pretty confident. I mean, after New York it had already had successful productions in Melbourne, London and I think Washington, D.C., maybe more. The producers knew they had a hit on their hands.
It was altogether a magical experience, but I get bored easily and didn’t stay beyond about six months. I think Gilda stayed a bit longer. But I’m still friends with everybody. We’re really kind of pretty sentimental about each other.
Rudy Webb, Lamar
“Godspell” definitely was a career milestone for me. I don’t think I would have been involved with musical theatre otherwise and musical theatre has been the major part of my career.
I’m from Bermuda. I come from a family of singers. I already had a sister in Toronto I could live with so I moved in 1960, in my late teens, to further my education. I began hanging out at the Bluenote Club on Yonge Street. One night I got up the courage to sing. A member of a group called the Counts Five was there and he asked me to sing with them. We went on tour to various clubs and music hops in Ontario.
After trying various occupations, I came to the realization that singing was what I did best. A friend told me there were to be auditions for a show called “Godspell.” I had done no theatre up to that point, but I guess my singing must have impressed them because I won the role of Lamar.
My relative lack of theatrical experience meant I felt rather insecure at the time and was focused on whether I was performing well enough. The director just told me to play it straight and be myself. I was, however, very aware of the incredible talent of the other cast members, especially their comedic sensibilities.
We really hadn’t expected the show to do so well. Some people thought it was blasphemous because of the clownlike costumes and the way we came across as flower children. But the people who bought tickets clearly loved “Godspell” because we got standing ovations every night from sold-out houses.
Audience members always came to the stage door afterwards for autographs. When they gushed about how much they loved the show, I remember Marty would often say, “But who did you like the best?”
Marty was hilarious. I remember him remaining onstage during intermission when audience members were invited up for “communion,” and he would be doing impersonations of Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Bette Davis and other celebrities.
I was the only person of colour in that Toronto cast. Originally Jo Ann Brooks was hired for the role of Robin — in the off-Broadway original the characters of the “disciples” were named after the actors who played them and we inherited their names in Toronto — but Jo Ann had to withdraw for personal reasons and Andrea Martin famously stepped in.
No one in the cast made me feel uncomfortable about being the only Black person in the show, but they were not unaware. After “Godspell,” I was opening in a show at the Teller’s Cage. On opening night I received a telegram from Marty. It read: “You’re a credit to your race.” I still have that telegram.
After we transferred to Bayview Playhouse, we were all invited to attend a performance of “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” at the Royal Alex. It’s a musical review about the African-American experience. I was sitting next to Gilda, and she turned to me after one of the songs about the oppression of Black people and said, “Rudy, I’m sorry.”
The Toronto production of “Godspell” — as well as “Hair” before it — showed that Canadian performers and crew were just as talented as their counterparts on Broadway. This provided New York producers with the confidence to mount future productions here with entirely Canadian casts. This was monumentally meaningful to Canadian theatre.
Marlene Smith, company manager
I’ve been involved behind the scenes with many shows over the past 50 years or more, and without any hesitation I can say I never had as much fun as I did working on “Godspell.”
The funny thing is, I almost turned the job down. I had a husband and four young children to look after and help only one day a week. I didn’t see how I could do it. It was the wonderful producer and manager Marvin Krauss from New York who talked me into it. He was like a mentor to me. I learned so much from him. My official title was company manager, but in those days you did just about everything.
“Godspell” opened as part of the Mirvish subscription series at the Royal Alex, but I don’t think anyone quite expected the show to take off the way it did. Ed Mirvish had another show coming in that September so Marvin had to transfer it to the Bayview Playhouse where it ran for another year almost.
The musical “Hair,” which I’d worked on earlier, had become a huge sensation before the Toronto production. Because of the subject matter, “Hair” had stirred up a good deal of controversy. People knew a lot of the songs already. I don’t think it was like that with “Godspell.” People didn’t know that much about it. Although Victor Garber had been making a name for himself as a folk-rock singer, I think it’s fair to say the cast were really a bunch of young unknowns. But, oh my word, did that change fast.
We had a week of previews, which built some excitement, and there was a decent amount of advance press coverage. But opening night was an unimaginable sensation. I still don’t think I’ve experienced such an ovation. It just exploded. Audiences loved the show with its very human and relatable themes. And they loved the cast, its sheer exuberance and, of course, amazing talent.
It was really those marvellous young people that made working on “Godspell” such a delight. They were having fun doing it, but they were also really professional. They took the job very seriously. A few of them already knew each other, which helped, but they were very much individuals. I mean Marty, he had so much energy all the time. Andrea could be a handful but the nicest kind of handful. Dear Gilda, such a huge personality. It was sad when she left. She gave us all a T-shirt that said, “I made it through six months of Godspell.”
Rudy had this gorgeous voice, but he was the quiet one offstage, not a big partier. Rudy was a bit older and I think already married with a kid. Paul Shaffer I remember was also a little shy but such a sweet, humble guy. He just loved being a musician.
And then of course Victor. He wasn’t with us for very long because they whisked him away to make the “Godspell” movie in New York. Victor was just perfect for the Jesus role: a great actor; a wonderful singer; a strong stage presence and drop-dead gorgeous. He was always the nicest person, a total gentleman.
Naturally, we had some moments. One night Gerry, who was Judas, got accidentally stabbed with a flagpole that was being waved about. He played the rest of the show bleeding, but he said he didn’t even notice. I guess if he felt he was dying I think he’d have let us know. Everybody was so upset about it afterwards.
Then there was the Sunday afternoon during the Bayview run when a gas furnace exploded and blew out the two back rows and a lot of the lobby. It was about two hours before the start of a matinee. It’s a miracle nobody was killed. There was just one kid in the box office who escaped unharmed. The theatre was good about getting repairs done as fast as possible, but we still lost 10 days. I remember phoning Marvin in New York right away. “The theatre blew up,” I said. He replied: “I’ve never had that happen before. I wonder if we have insurance for it.”
Really, that cast was so easy to deal with. We had lots of parties back at our house on Roxborough. I suspect the ones over at the house Eugene rented on Avenue Road were wilder. There was a party around Christmas at our house when Marty said: “Let’s go carolling. If we get any money we can give it to charity.” “Great idea,” said I. So off we went around Rosedale. You should have seen the looks on people’s faces when they realized who these young people were. And, of course, they sang so beautifully.
There were times when I felt a bit like a Mother Superior. Those kids were young and there was a lot of loving going on, so to say. My husband was a family doctor and he joked that I got more night calls than he did, dealing with various romantic maladies.
The extraordinary career paths of those Toronto “Godspell” performers, the contributions they’ve made not just to Canadian theatre but to comedy in North America are now part of history.
There have been many productions of “Godspell” around the world, but there’s a good reason Toronto’s has become legendary. I feel so blessed to have shared in the experience.
Gordon Thomson, third Jesus
I was the third Jesus in the production. Victor Garber was the first and Don Scardino the second. I don’t think I auditioned and I was given a week to learn the part. I was just thrown in. Our wonderful understudy, Robin White, played the role of Jesus the week after Don left, before I took over.
I was paid $234 a week to do the show at the Bayview Playhouse.
I wore Victor’s shoes for the entire six months of my run. Don did as well, I guess. They were so cheap. They couldn’t give me a pair of shoes that fit!
In my last performance in the middle of a song called “All for the Best,” I tore cartilage in my right knee. I still have a scar. I really couldn’t move for the rest of the show, but it was the best rest of the show I ever did because I had my breath. I wasn’t gasping after the numbers.
Jesus is a very busy role. You’re onstage for the entire show, except intermission. It was a two-hour, high-intensity aerobics class, eight times a week.
After an extremely happy six months, I left, and Gilda Radner gave me an autographed doll, signed by the whole company. It was the most wonderful memento that I’m very lucky to still have.
You couldn’t help but fall in love with Gilda instantly. She was enchanting, honest, open, vulnerable and funny. She was just a magical individual.
And Andrea, what a sensational actress she is. And Martin Short, with his great imitations of Frank Sinatra, alongside Eugene Levy’s brilliance. I was five years their senior, but they were so buoyant and a pleasure to work with.
The six months I spent with that production was the most intense working period of my life, but also the most artistically satisfying.
David Mirvish, son of the producer
It’s one of the great misfortunes of my life as a theatre producer that I wasn’t involved at all with the Toronto production of “Godspell.” I was immersed in the art world at the time and focused on representing the work of the artists I was showing at my gallery.
I do know that my father had a blast presenting the show in Toronto at his beloved Royal Alexandra Theatre. He relished every moment of it.
“Godspell” was a major event for the city, especially as it showcased local talent. There was also controversy around the show because it dared to tell this sacrosanct story in the language, music and imagery of youth at the time. There were even picketers in front of the theatre on opening night, protesting that the show ended on the crucifixion and did not include the resurrection.
This production did not come out of nothing. It grew out of the local arts scene. Coming off of Canada’s centennial celebrations, there was a blossoming of talent in every artistic discipline — music, theatre, dance, opera, film, visual and literary arts, and publishing — all exploded to create a hotbed of young talent.
I remember meeting Victor Garber a few years before he was in “Godspell.” He was studying with Robert Gill at U of T, and my mother was involved with the drama society at Hart House at the same time. She would invite Victor home for dinner some nights. That’s what it was like back then. Everyone was working together to create a vibrant local arts scene. “Godspell” was one of its early successes that launched many extraordinary careers.
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