(Chris Wiegand’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/10. Photo: ‘I dance like a duck’ … Jeremy Irons, right, as Judas in London; the musical’s first commercial staging in New York was 50 years ago this month. Photograph: Reg Wilson/Rex/Shutterstock.)
‘Religious groups didn’t like Jesus wearing a Superman shirt or the lack of a resurrection. So we told them the curtain call was the resurrection – when Jesus runs on and takes a bow’
Jeremy Irons, actor
Godspell opened in London in November 1971 and ran at the same time as Jesus Christ Superstar. It was the Rolls-Royce to our Ford Fiesta. I was 23, had just left the Bristol Old Vic company and was auditioning for everything. There were 30 of us lined up along the stage for the audition. I was on the end and taller than everyone else. I knew the Americans loved a level chorus line so I kept trying to sink down. I’d already done a few musicals including The Boy Friend and Oh What a Lovely War. But I’ve always said I sing like an actor and dance like a duck.
I knew Godspell was St Matthew’s Gospel told by a company of clowns. That was enough for me. I was cast in the dual role of Judas and John the Baptist. David Essex was Jesus. He was the variety boy, the lovable, cheeky one. As usual, I was the chap you’re not quite sure about. On the first day John-Michael Tebelak, the writer, asked all the actors to write a list of everything we could do – play the guitar, juggle, whatever. He took the lists and said he’d try to get it all in the show. That meant we all looked amazingly talented. I played my fiddle and planned to ride the unicycle, but when I found out we had a raked stage I wasn’t too keen.
There was a wonderful freedom. My understudy went on one night so he could have a crack while I went out into the audience to make notes on the show. We were a very democratic company and would give each other notes in the interval – sadly, that is unusual in theatre, that actors have the trust of each other like that. During Godspell I realised, on the stage, that this was a business I’d sort of wandered into instinctively and put on like a glove – and it fitted completely.
John-Michael was a great big cuddly teddy bear – a sort of hippy, bearded, fuzzy guy. We weren’t particularly religious but every night before curtain-up we’d do a huddle and say the Lord’s Prayer. If you do that show without a real respect for God and for Christianity, it doesn’t work. You have to imbue yourself with that spirit – and that’s what John-Michael gave us.
Stephen Schwartz, composer and lyricist
John-Michael Tebelak was a drama student at Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh who had thought of becoming an Episcopal minister. He went to a service one Easter and felt it missed the joy, energy and revolutionary quality of Jesus’s teachings. So he married theatre and theology together with the first version of Godspell in 1970. It had a book – based on the Gospel According to St Matthew – by him, songs by cast members and music from a student band. Students from Carnegie Mellon performed it, then took it to fringe venue La MaMa in New York.