As “The Wiz” and “Godspell” make stage comebacks this month, it’s time to ask: What is the sound of the 1970s?
“Highly synthesized, a little corny and cheesy,” says Elisa Rosman, musical director of “Godspell” at Reston’s NextStop Theatre. “I never got into ’70s music, because I never got into anything besides show tunes. I have cousins who yell at my parents: ‘What did you do to her?’ ”
“Studio 54,” suggests Darius Smith, musical director of “The Wiz,” which has its run at Ford’s Theatre. “And — this is bad — movies that have ’70s music and characters in hotel rooms doing cocaine.”
Vintage funk bass lines and fuzzy guitars will be back in both shows. But times change, and “The Wiz” and “Godspell” will aim to keep audiences’ ears attuned to then and now.
“You can’t totally rinse the ’70s out of it,” Rosman says.
For Stephen Schwartz’s 1971 pop-goes-the-Bible show (“Day by Day” was an upbeat hit), the small NextStop Theatre is using the 2012 update of the original orchestrations. Rosman’s six musicians include herself on keyboards, bass, drums and three guitars, with the third guitarist doubling as a second keyboardist.
“It’s really a rock band,” she says. “And now nearly every character has their own sort of crazy rock-out song where they get to riff at the end.”
In the middle of “Learn Your Lessons Well,” the ensemble used to chant the word “lamp” when Jesus mentions “the lamp of the body.” Now, Rosman says, “there’s almost a six-part harmony under that. We work really hard on getting the harmonies tight, because they’re hard.”
The staging will be set in 2018 in a coffee shop, with social media as a fact of life. Does that cue a new approach to the sound? “Only in that it sets you up for a more modern feel,” Rosman says. “Everyone’s on a device, and you realize it’s not your father’s ‘Godspell.’ ”
The “Wiz” hit that everyone knows is “Ease on Down the Road,” made popular by Diana Ross and Michael Jackson as Dorothy and the Scarecrow in the 1978 movie version. Quincy Jones handled the music on that strange, elaborate picture (Sidney Lumet was the ill-matched director), and during the bloated disco “Emerald City Sequence,” Jones can be seen playing a gold piano the length of an 18-wheeler.
The 1975 cast recording of the Charlie Smalls score puts Broadway horns and strings on top of a gospel-soul-funk-disco foundation. At Ford’s, Smith will play keyboards and conduct the eight-musician ensemble.
“I’m very pleased with the fatness and grandness of the sound,” Smith says. “If you really try to make it sit in the 1970s, it feels oddly inauthentic. It feels forced. When you put your opinion on it, that’s when it starts to lift.”
At Ford’s, the song “Funky Monkey” will flaunt a little go-go, and the show will incorporate riffs of hip-hop and beatboxing. “The ’70s thumbprint is very strong,” says Smith, who studied music history at Howard University and went to grad school in musical-theater writing at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. “The minute you hear that” — Smith makes a guitar sound, umm-wocka-wocka — “everyone’s like, ‘Shaft.’ That’s definitely there. The way we hear a Rhodes keyboard intro, you think Stevie Wonder.”
But reviving a 1970s pop musical — Smith uses the term “groove-based show” — isn’t the same as plugging in the old jukebox.
“It doesn’t feel like a blast from the past,” he says. “Even though the music is of the ’70s, it’s not trapped in the ’70s. It feels like this is us in 2018, playing songs of the ’70s. It’s that meeting of the time periods that gives it life.”