Godspell, the musical version of several biblical parables with music by Stephen Schwartz and book by John-Michael Tebelak, was a spectacle perfectly suited for its times. It was a hippie version of the Bible, complete with a clown concept, and it was jam-packed with great, hummable songs. Having originated at Carnegie Mellon University, it debuted in 1971 off-Broadway in New York City at the La Mama Experimental Theatre Club on the Lower East Side before moving to the Cherry Lane Theatre and the Promenade Theatre—it closed in 1976 after a whopping 2,124 performances.
The Toronto production of Godspell opened at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1972, with an expectation of running for just a few dozen performances. It was a massive hit as well, closing more than a year later after 488 performances. That production is legendary for the budding young talent in the show—including Victor Garber (Alias, Titanic) as Jesus as well as future comedy stars Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Gilda Radner, Dave Thomas, and Martin Short. The show’s musical director was a sassy young fellow named Paul Shaffer.
Dave Thomas and Eugene Levy in Godspell
Radner, of course, would achieve national fame a few years later when she joined the inaugural cast of Saturday Night Live, while Levy, Martin, Short, and Thomas ended up as the core of an experimental sketch comedy show called SCTV.
There’s an exhaustive website dedicated to the production, and it’s chock full of details. Short and Radner dated during the run, but Short ended up marrying Gilda’s understudy, Nancy Dolman. The show was Gilda Radner’s professional stage debut. Dave Thomas was not in the original cast, but he joined the show near the end of its run.
Godspell original cast program
Levy later reminisced about Gilda Radner:
The first image of Gilda was at the final audition for “Godspell.” We were all there. They’d narrowed it down to about 80 people. I just remember this girl getting up on stage and singing “Zippity Do Dah” as her song. I remember thinking, “Oh, this poor girl. She’s so cute, but what a terrible song!” [laughs] And the entire room by the end of the song just fell in love with her, she was so adorable. We always referred to her as the “Zippity Do Dah” girl in the beginning. She was charming and sweet and loved to laugh. She went out with Marty Short for most of the run, and Marty was my roommate, so we were all hanging out. I just remember her always being up and loving to laugh.
In 2011 Martin Short and Paul Shaffer were on Seth Rudetsky’s SiriusXM show “Seth Speaks.” After essaying “It’s Raining Men,” Short and Shaffer decide to close the show with a rousing rendition of “Save the People” from Godspell.