When 'Godspell' Was on Top of the World

"It was overwhelming to walk out there," recalls star Victor Garber (below, in Superman shirt) of filming atop the under-construction World Trade Center in 1972. The movie, released the following year, was adapted from the hit off-Broadway show. (Columbia Tristar)
By Jonathan Padget
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 3, 2006

It's the year that gave us a Superman on screen as never before seen -- fresh-faced and challenging us with a hero's overtones of divinity. And also the year that gave us a stirring, sweeping tribute to New York's tragic icon, the World Trade Center.

Wasn't 1973 wonderful?

Granted, a year replete with social division, political discord, economic distress and double-knit polyester may have been less than heavenly. But 1973 did yield one film, "Godspell," that shares some interesting thematic territory with two of this summer's big Hollywood whammies, "Superman Returns" and "World Trade Center."

Spend a few minutes (103, to be precise) with the DVD of "Godspell," featuring Victor Garber as Jesus in a Superman shirt, and stunning World Trade Center footage. It's a good antidote if you, too, found Brandon Routh awfully pretty but "Superman Returns" about as thrilling as leafing through an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue while a Yanni CD plays in the background. And it's not a bad tonic if you found, or fear, that Oliver Stone's heavy-handed "WTC" is less cathartic and hopeful than harrowing and unrelenting.

What you'll find in the biblically inspired "Godspell" -- a hippie-happy musical that's seen countless school, community and professional productions since its 1971 off-Broadway debut -- is a 10-person ensemble acting out parables and the Crucifixion in vaudevillian skits punctuated with catchy, mostly folk-pop ditties -- "Day by Day," "Save the People," "All Good Gifts" and "Beautiful City" among them -- by Stephen Schwartz of "Wicked" fame, in his first major theatrical outing.

Directed by David Greene and filmed in 1972 throughout New York, "Godspell" gives us a remarkable vision (and visual record) of the city and era. John the Baptist (David Haskell) walks across the Brooklyn Bridge and assembles disciples from New York's teeming mass of humanity; the characters walk away from their daily lives -- waitress, cab driver, student, parking attendant -- and follow John to a Central Park fountain, where they are baptized and joined by Garber's Jesus, who soon dons a clown-like getup complete with "S" shirt.

Until the film's final moments, when the disciples return to bustling urban life after Jesus's death (represented by his being lashed with blood-red ribbon to a fence in a junkyard), New York is made to look deserted as the cast traipses from landmark to landmark -- Lincoln Center, Grant's Tomb, Times Square, Coney Island. It's a stunning effect, downright eerie at times.

The especially breathtaking moment, now amplified to jaw-dropping proportions, comes in the number "All for the Best" as the performers give up the streets for rooftops, ultimately singing and dancing their hearts out atop the unfinished World Trade Center. It's a scene punctuated with dramatic aerial camerawork that pulls away from the cast until the twin towers stand in full view, proudly staking their brash, fresh claim on the Manhattan skyline, so far removed from the smoke and destruction burned into the mind's eye over the last five years.

Garber, the Tony- and Emmy-nominated actor known in recent years for his work on "Alias," made his film debut in "Godspell" and took a few minutes out of his shooting schedule in Los Angeles for the new Fox series "Justice" to reminisce by phone.

"It was really a magical day," he says of filming at the twin towers, and "surreal," too, taking an elevator "as high up as it was done" before having to climb through scaffolding to reach the roof. "It was overwhelming to walk out there."

Nearly three decades later, working in Los Angeles on 9/11, Garber says it took a day or two for the reality of the twin towers' loss and his connection to sink in: "It suddenly dawned on me that we were up there. I can't quite believe it. But you have the soundtrack cover, and there it is -- we're there."

When Garber was cast in the film, he was performing the role onstage in "Godspell's" Toronto company with co-stars Gilda Radner, Andrea Martin, Eugene Levy and Martin Short; it was also an early gig for Letterman's sidekick, musician Paul Shaffer, who can be heard doing exceptionally groovy keyboard work on the film's soundtrack, too. (Would the pop organ solo survive today were it not for Shaffer? Discuss.)

"Godspell" may be too dated, earnest, perky or cloying for some. It's worlds apart in tone from its theatrical and 1973 cinematic peer, "Jesus Christ Superstar" -- Norman Jewison having opted to film Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's rock opera in the Israeli desert with tanks bearing down on Carl Anderson's Judas at one point. (Does this provide another pop cultural filter for viewing international events in 2006? Discuss.) And Jesus-as-Superman on the World Trade Center would soon be upstaged by another Superman, Christopher Reeve, oh-so-gracefully flying past the twin towers in 1978's "Superman: The Movie."

But "Godspell" does capture an essence of youthfulness -- wearing your heart on your sleeve -- still drawing young new fans (particularly those who perform in those aforementioned countless productions).

"I look very different now," says Garber, 57, "and I still meet kids in their teens who stop me because they recognize me from 'Godspell.' . . . It's a great feeling for me to have been a part of that."

In "Superman Returns," Lois Lane asks, "Does the world really need Superman?" "Godspell" has long said a resounding yes; who, and where, is yours? "Godspell" says to smile big and sing and dance -- anywhere and often. And "Godspell" suggests that sometimes the most powerful and evocative memorials are the unintentional ones found where you least expect them.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company