Good News on This Day in History

Today is the 50th anniversary of the opening of Godspell—a musical that would soon become a worldwide phenomenon.

Drama student John-Michael Tebelak wrote the show initially as his master’s thesis at Carnegie Mellon University, and directed the performances for years, both on- and off-Broadway.

The scenes are based on parables in the Bible, mostly from the Gospel of St. Matthew, and focus on the effect that Jesus had on others. One of the songs, Day by Day, reached No. 13 on the Billboard pop singles chart—and the album won a Grammy for Best Score From an Original Cast.

When it opened, the show was not well received by the public—depicting biblical characters as hippie flower children, but the producers fought vigorously to keep the controversial show open—and those efforts paid off.

The off-Broadway hit continued for 2,124 performances, closing in June 1976—and jumped to Broadway that year with Tebelak retained as the director. It was also made into a 1973 movie.

Merle Frimark, the theatrical publicist for Godspell when it opened at the Cherry Lane Theatre in New York City, told GNN this week, “Today, the show continues to delight audiences around the world, a stunning feat for this small off-Broadway show with such humble beginnings.”

She said that future iterations of the musical would ‘discover’ soon-to-be stars, including Jeremy Irons, Gilda Radner, Eugene Levy, Martin Short, Paul Shaffer, and Andrea Martin.

The South African production even broke the apartheid barrier in 1973 by insisting on keeping the cast multiracial. WATCH The Original Cast perform a medley at the Grammys… (1971)

PHOTO credit: Godspell creator/director John-Michael Tebelak (center) with original cast in 1971 – by Martha Swope©New York Public Library

The award-winning music was composed and produced by Stephen Schwartz, and the original cast included Lamar Alford, Peggy Gordon, David Haskell, Joanne Jonas, Robin Lamont, Sonia Manzano (who went on to play Maria on Sesame Street), Gilmer McCormick, Jeffrey Mylett, Stephen Nathan, and Herb Braha (Simon).

San Francisco Examiner wrote, “GODSPELL makes a strong plea for selflessness, brotherly love and an end to materialism and hypocrisy.”

“A frisky, exhilarating little show…a crackling musical funhouse” – NY Magazine

The Boston Globe quipped that it “rattles the soul like a tambourine…it’s HAIR with a halo.”

MORE Good News on This Day:

  • The first Kentucky Derby was run–a horse race in Louisville, Kentucky known in the U.S. as “The Most Exciting Two Minutes In Sports” (1875)
  • The Watergate hearings began in the United States Senate and were televised with gavel to gavel coverage by PBS (1973)
  • The World Health Organization took Homosexuality out of its list of mental illnesses (1992)
  • Marriage became legal for same-sex couples in Massachusetts (2004)
  • Trains from North and South Korea cross the 38th Parallel taking a small symbolic step towards a possible Korean reunification — the first time that trains have crossed the Demilitarized Zone since 1953 (2007)

67 years ago today, the US Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, unanimously deciding (9-0) that US public schools could not be racially specific. The lawsuit was filed by the Brown family, black Americans in Topeka, Kansas, after their local public school district refused to enroll their daughter in the school closest to their home, instead requiring her to ride a bus to a blacks-only school further away.

Their victorious lawyer, Thurgood Marshall, later became the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court. The final ruling stated that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal,” and therefore violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. (1954)

Joan Baez and Dylan in 1963 – Rowland Scherman, CC license

And, 58 years ago today, the first Monterey Folk Festival opened in Monterey, California. The 3-day festival featured a 22-year-old Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter Paul and Mary. It later morphed into the Monterey Pop festival, which in 1967 showcased the first major live performance in America of Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Ravi Shankar, and Janis Joplin. This show was also the first time Otis Redding played to a huge predominantly-white audience. (1963)

Also on this day 51 years ago, Thor Heyerdahl the Norwegian adventurer and researcher set sail from Africa on a papyrus reed boat to sail across the Atlantic Ocean. The boat, Ra II, was modeled after the ancient Egyptian design to demonstrate the possibility that widely separated cultures of ancient peoples could have made long sea voyages, creating contacts between societies.

Ra II photo by Bahnfrend, CC license

With a background in zoology, botany, and geography, Heyerdahl had previously gained notoriety for his Kon-Tiki expedition of 1947, in which he sailed 5,000 miles (8,000 km) across the Pacific Ocean in a hand-built raft from South America.

Heyerdahl deliberately chose a Ra crew representing a great diversity in race, nationality, religion, and political viewpoint. He chose men from Egypt, Japan, Morocco, Mexico, Italy, the USSR and USA to demonstrate that on their own little floating island, people could co-operate and live peacefully. Only Heyerdahl and American Norman Baker, had sailing and navigation experience, but they successfully sailed to Barbados using the Canary Current. The Ra II is now in the Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo, Norway. (1970)

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