Original Off-Broadway Cast, 1971 (Bell-Arista) (5 / 5) With music and new lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and a book by John-Michael Tebelak based on the Gospel according to St. Matthew, Godspell was for many years a perennial on the stock, amateur, college, and high-school theater circuit. The show’s wonderfully tuneful songs have a simple beauty that makes them sound like old friends even upon first meeting. The cast of this original recording is strong, so it’s surprising to realize that not one of these performers went on to a significant musical theater career. Stephen Nathan sings the role of Jesus in an oddly smoky but appealing voice, and David Haskell is excellent as Judas/John the Baptist. Robin Lamont’s lovely recording of “Day By Day” became a popular hit. Lamar Alford sings the thanksgiving anthem “All Good Gifts” with a throaty tone that some listeners may not enjoy, but the song itself is glorious. Another beautiful song is “By My Side,” written not by Schwartz but by cast member Peggy Gordon with Jay Hamburger; it’s given a moving rendition by Gordon. Joanne Jonas, Gilmer McCormick, Jeffrey Mylett, Sonia Manzano, and Herb Braha round out the talented cast. The excellent band consists of Steve Reinhardt on keyboards, Jesse Cutler on acoustic and lead guitar, Richard LaBonte on bass, and Ricky Shutter on drums and percussion; these first three gentlemen sing the heartbreaking “On the Willows” as Jesus and his disciples say their final goodbyes to one another. Godspell is one of the very best of the seminal rock musicals of its era. — Michael Portantiere
Original London Cast, 1972 (Bell-Arista/no CD) (2 / 5) Because the tune stack and the arrangements are virtually the same, this Godspell sounds very much like the Off-Broadway cast album, except for the singers’ British accents. The company includes Jeremy Irons, who later became a movie star and only rarely returned to musical theater (e.g., as Henry Higgins in a studio cast recording of My Fair Lady and as Fredrik in a New York City Opera production of A Little Night Music). Another future name in the company is Julie Covington, who would go on to sing the title role on the concept recording of Evita. Jesus is the strong-voiced David Essex, and Marti Webb is also in the cast. Several lines of dialogue help to give this long out-of-print LP a certain theatricality. — M.P.
Film Soundtrack, 1973 (Bell-Arista) (4 / 5) With several of the performers and all of the musicians from the original Off-Broadway production on hand, augmented occasionally by strings and trombones, this recording also sounds a lot like the first one, with a few notable differences. As Jesus, Victor Garber has a sweeter voice than Stephen Nathan. Lynn Thigpen sings “Bless the Lord, My Soul” with a more authentic gospel style than Joanne Jonas, and Merrell Jackson’s “All Good Gifts” is a significant improvement on Lamar Alford’s rendition. One new song has been added: the joyous “Beautiful City.” Set on deserted Manhattan streets, the Godspell movie is rather hard to watch today because it prominently features the World Trade Center in its opening shot and in the “All for the Best” number. But this recording definitely has its pleasures. — M.P.
Off-Broadway Cast, 2000 (Fynsworth Alley) (4 / 5) Here’s a terrific recording of a very well-sung, hilariously funny, deeply moving production of Godspell that started out Off-Off-Broadway under the aegis of a group called the Third Eye Repertory and later had an Off-Broadway run in the Theater at Saint Peter’s Church. The show boasted a wonderful cast, intelligent direction by Shawn Rozsa, and sensitive musical direction by Dan Schachner. Barrett Foa’s clear, strong, youthful tenor is well suited to the role of Jesus. As Judas/John the Baptist, Will Erat adapts his full, rounded, legit voice to a pop/rock idiom impressively; he was wisely handed the haunting “On the Willows” to sing in this production. Other highlights: Catherine Carpenter’s “Day by Day” is warm and sincere, Capathia Jenkins’ “Turn Back, a Man” is great fun, Shoshana Bean’s “Bless the Lord” is a roof-raiser, and Eliseo Roman deserves a special nod for his gorgeous singing of “All Good Gifts.” Foa leads the cast in a beautiful ballad version of “Beautiful City” with some new lyrics that are eerily and movingly prescient of the 9/11/2001 attacks on the World Trace Center in NYC: “Out of the ruins and rubble, out of the smoke, our of our night of struggle, can we see a ray of hope?” — M.P.
National Touring Cast, 2001 (DRG) (1 / 5) In place of the original guitar-and piano-based arrangements, there’s a whole lotta synth going on in this cast album of a 2001 Godspell tour. That approach works well in the opening “Tower of Babble” ensemble, but some listeners will soon find themselves yearning for the simpler, more natural and melodious sounds of previous recordings. Scott Schwartz — son of Stephen Schwartz, and the director of this production — wanted the flavors of alternative rock and folk-rock artists to be evoked by Alex Lacamoire’s new orchestrations and arrangements. Whether or not that goal was achieved and the score is better for it is a matter of opinion. Joe Carney shows off a strong, sexy voice as Jesus, but he can’t seem to find the beat at the top of “Save the People,” and he sounds off pitch in “Alas for You” — although that may be partly the fault of the weird, shifting harmonics in the new arrangements, which similarly work against the other cast member in other numbers. Jessica Carter has a lot of trouble zeroing in on the correct notes in “Turn Back, O Man,” and she annoyingly sings “whose head is crowned with flames,” rather than “…flame,” thereby wrecking the rhyme with “proclaim.” One of the best cuts on the recording is a terrific, uptempo version of “Beautiful City” led by Carney and Michael Yuen, but overall, this is the least commendable of all the Godspell albums. — M.P.