While leaving church, the longhaired, bearded theater student was stopped by a policeman and frisked for drugs. Tebelak was clean but felt persecuted. That fateful morning inspired him to write a joyous musical about another persecuted man, Jesus, based on the gospel according to Matthew.
In Cleveland, I saw a touring show of "Godspell" shortly after it opened off-Broadway in 1971. The religious righteous picketed outside the theater. They had heard Jesus was being portrayed as a clown. My mother took me to that show, and after the standing ovation, we left and drove by John Michael's house and I cried all the way home. I was in awe of what Tebelak had accomplished at such a young age. He had managed to take a cast of talented young actors, put them on a bare stage and interpret the teachings of Jesus through an inventive mix of storytelling, mime, gymnastics, magic tricks and song. The lyrics were taken from old hymns and set to simple melodies by fledgling composer Stephen Schwartz ("Pippin," "Children of Eden," "Baker's Wife"). "Godspell" was an immediate hit and my friend became an instant millionaire. Resident companies performed "Godspell" in major cities across the U.S.
It played around the world in Paris, Amsterdam, Hamburg and Melbourne. The London production ran nearly three years. After five years of sold-out performances off-Broadway, "Godspell" made its way to Broadway in 1976. All told, the musical ran more than 2,600 times on- and off-Broadway.
Some 25 years later, I took my kids to Virginia Beach to see "Godspell." No one was picketing outside the theater this time. John Michael Tebelak, who had died at age 36 from heart failure, would have gotten a kick out of seeing his play performed at Founders Inn, owned by the Christian Broadcasting Network. In this production, cast members, including Jesus, were dressed in army fatigues, some carrying weapons. My son and daughter, who had grown up listening to my "Godspell" album, thought the show was "awesome." They hugged me afterward and told me not to cry.
A week ago, I attended the preview of "Godspell" at Swift Creek Mill Playhouse. I was pleased to see that under the direction of Tom Width the spirit of the play was still intact. Tebelak's goal of spreading the holy word in a relevant, joyous and often silly way was being honored. Audience members took delight in seeing Jesus (Paul Deiss) and Judas (Joe Pabst) performing a soft-shoe together, in the sight of John the Baptist (also Joe Pabst) dousing sinners with a squirt gun, and in the rest of the cast playing dozens of roles from good Samaritans to harlots, from the faithful to flocks of sheep. To keep each production relevant, Tebelak always gave directors artistic license. Why else in a play about Jesus would the audience be chuckling at references to the Powhite Parkway, Barney and a White House intern?
While the cast members did an admirable job of playing out the parables, they also sang their hearts out. Debra Wagner, Fernando Rivadeneira and Brian Vaughan each delivered show-stopping numbers. The audience awarded the whole cast with a standing ovation. When John Michael died, I wrote to his parents (his father was my seventh-grade phys-ed teacher). I shared with them the silly things we did in high school, some of which ended up in the play.
I also told them something they already knew. John Michael Tebelak was a genius, a gifted, tenderhearted man. How fortunate we are that he left us an enduring and inspirational play. In years to come, his youthful spirit will live on, anytime a performance of "Godspell" lights up a stage. S
The Swift Creek Mill's "Godspell" runs through April 6 at Swift Creek Mill Playhouse, 17401 Jefferson Davis Highway in Colonial Heights. Tickets cost $29.75-$31.75 with buffet dinner and $20.75-$23.75 for show only. 748-5203
Swift Creek Mill spreads "Godspell's" playful religious message in a relevant mix of storytelling, mime, gymnastics and