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Casting a Spell–Working with composer Stephen Schwartz on Godspell

(Photo: Wicked and Godspell composer Stephen Schwartz (left) and ACT artistic director Daniel C. Levine at the ACT office.)

You arrive at ACT of CT, and a smiling usher shows you to your seat. House lights dim, and the show begins. For the next two hours you are transported to a different time. You meet new characters, you experience a range of emotions, and you leave the theater exhilarated and with a smile. That is the magic of theater! In fact, it was Stephen Schwartz’s “magic” that so inspired me as a child that I said, “I have to be a part of that!”

Stephen Schwartz wrote the music and lyrics to the mega-hit Broadway musical Wicked. He also wrote, among other works, Godspell, Pippin, The Baker’s Wife, Working, and lyrics to the films Pocahontas, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, The Prince of Egypt, and Enchanted. He has won Academy, Grammy, special Tony, and Golden Globe Awards. He and his talented wife Carole are longtime residents here in Ridgefield. Simply put, Stephen is one of the most important and prolific theater icons of our time.

To honor him, ACT of CT decided that one production per season, for the first three seasons, will be a dedicated Stephen Schwartz show. Last season, we produced and presented Working.
In February, ACT will put on Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell.

When a professional theater like ACT wishes to produce a musical, we must contact the licensing agency and apply for rights to the show. It is very expensive. Our production of Evita, for example, cost us $39,000—that is just for permission to present Evita, and does not account for any of our production costs (which total around $300,000 per production). The language in the licensing contract is very clear: You may not make any changes to the storyline, text, music, dialogue, lyrics, and you may not delete or add any material.

However, when ACT produced Working, because of our close relationship, Stephen gave me permission to re-conceive the show. That’s a big deal and rarely happens. Stephen and the licensing agency that represents Working liked our production so much that the very show Ridgefield audiences got to see first will likely be a new licensable version! This truly helps put ACT (and Ridgefield) on the map.

Now we turn our efforts to Godspell. Pre-production for our musicals begins about six months before the first day of our three-week rehearsal period (yes, just three weeks of rehearsal!), which for Godspell meant this past August. During these months of pre-production our designers are hired (scenic, lighting, costume, props, sound), and the creative team is formed (director, choreographer, music director). Actors are the last to be hired—usually just eight weeks before the first day of rehearsal. As Stephen reminded me as we began our collaboration on Godspell, “Dan, you’ve got to cast the show really carefully. Remember Victor Garber, Martin Short, Andrea Martin, and Gilda Radner were all Godspell cast members!”

So, what am I doing with Godspell? I got the idea this past April when Notre Dame in Paris burned. I saw those flame-filled images and something clicked. What if I set the ACT production of Godspell in an abandoned church? What if this church was in midtown Manhattan and was slated to be demolished tomorrow to make room for condominiums? What if nobody had stepped foot in this condemned holy place for a decade, save for a group of homeless who had been squatting there for six months? What if the condo developers cared more about their project than for the discarded souls trying to survive in this wrecked sanctuary? I started to explore these ideas with Stephen.

Godspell was crafted in such a way that the show is open to interpretation. Says Stephen: “The show is recreated every time it is put on, based on what take the director imagines and what the cast comes up with during rehearsal.”

Godspell begins with a song called “Tower of Babble,” in which several philosophers’ beliefs are in conflict with one another. This leads to chaos and violence. At the height of the violence, Jesus arrives and brings “a different way of looking at life that could ultimately unite them all.”

With my concept, this opening song doesn’t really “fit.” It would be a challenge to have “Tower of Babble” begin the story in the way that I want to tell it. I’d been struggling with this for weeks.
I asked Stephen for some help. After my impassioned description of how I’d like the ACT production to begin, Stephen said, “You’re right, Dan. With what you want to do, ‘Tower of Babble’ really doesn’t work.”

I thought to myself, “Shoot, I guess I’m going to just have to re-think this entire thing.”

And then Stephen said the most remarkable thing, “If you are going to go with this concept, Dan, then really go for it. Don’t just touch upon it and back away. Go there! You have my permission to cut ‘Tower of Babble’ from this production.”

Wow! I walked Stephen to the front door of the theater and said, “Thanks, Stephen, that was really helpful!”

Stephen replied, “It’s great work, Dan, I’m really excited for this.” As I walked back to my office to continue outlining some of my ideas for my vision of the show, I smiled and thought, “Stephen Schwartz is leaving the theater that I co-founded, is allowing me to tinker with his show, and told me that I am doing great work. This is a good day.”

It is an odd (and excellent) feeling when a hero and role model becomes a friend and colleague. I quickly disappeared back into my office and spent the next seven hours refining my concept for the upcoming show here at ACT.

Stephen Schwartz’ Godspell, directed by Daniel C. Levine, takes the stage at ACT of CT from February 6 to March 8.

As director of ACT’s production of Godspell, Daniel C. Levine regularly tweaks the script, even drawing stage layouts to help visual how his concept of Stephen Schwartz’s enduring story will take form on the ACT stage here.



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