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Godspell Recordings

Steve Parsons Interview by Carol de Giere

Copyright 2001 by Carol de Giere

When musician and composer Steve Parsons is asked which Godspell recording to purchase, his answer is never short. "There are so many great options and it depends primarily on personal musical tastes. This is one score that has received quite a few musical interpretations over the years, so people debate the merits of each recording endlessly."

Steve Parsons photo d1 In this interview Steve shares his "purely subjective opinions" on some of the most common English language LPs and CDs.

Since 1995, Steve has been the Musical Director for The Players Guild of Canton Canton, Ohio, where he has conducted and supervised over 50 productions, including Godspell. He is also a composer, orchestrator, and performer. Among his credits is the composition of original music and arrangements for Akklaim's best-selling video game College Slam. He created the new, official scores and parts for creator Dan Goggin's Nunsense and Nunsense A-Men. He performed as part of the "Tickestra" for 3 episodes of the animated television series The Tick. He can be reached at sparsons1@neo.rr.com.

Carol de Giere: First I'd like to ask, why do you think so many people find Godspell music appealing? Why has it survived three decades?

Steve Parsons: Well, the first and most obvious answer is: the music captures the fun spirit of the piece so effectively! While it is well-crafted pop, it never stops and demands you analyze it...that's almost a rarity in today's theatre writing. The score is allowed to serve its purpose, and doesn't get bogged down in so much compositional craft that it seems calculated and stale. Secondly, the Godspell songs are written in a harmonic language that has remained the backbone of pop music, even today. Alex Lacamoire told me that in updating the sound for the recent tour, it was difficult (and unecessary) to completely change the harmonic structure, because it all still works.

de Giere: Some of the oldest recordings are still available because they have been released on CDs. Do you recommend the early American recordings for today's audiences?

Parsons: For pure nostalgia and a sense of history, the original album can't be beat. It features a high-energy cast simply having fun with the material and backed by the original band, including the hit version of "Day by Day" as performed by Robin Lamont. The only drawbacks are a number of inconsistent vocals, and a strange audio mix that "clips" the sound of the band's performance numerous times. It must also be remembered that this is very much a 70's recording in feel and musical style, so it may not sit well with some tastes.

The movie soundtrack from 1973 is probably the best of the first wave of Godspell CDs, containing a "best of" the North American casts, and a much improved musical presentation. The original four-man arrangements are used, augmented by strings on "Save the People," trombones on "Turn Back, O Man," ARP synthesizer on "Alas For You," and several other enhancements that expand without overwhelming. The vocals, notably led by the effective Victor Garber (plus David Haskell and Robin Lamont reprising their original performances) are strong and colorful. Lynne Thigpen's rendition of "Bless the Lord" is one of the best ever recorded, energetic and soulful, while "By My Side" is plaintive and haunting.

de Giere: How does the movie version differ from the stage play recordings?

Parsons: A few differences from the stage show: "Prepare Ye" directly segues into "Save the People," "Turn Back, O Man" appears before "Bless The Lord," "We Beseech Thee" is replaced by "Beautiful City," and the Finale segues into the closing credits version of "Day by Day." The major complaints one could have about the recording are the shift in running order and the missing numbers, but the performances make up for these problems. It could also be seen as too "polished", but that's pretty typical of movie soundtracks!

de Giere: What about international recordings. What differences do you notice?

Parsons: The original Australian recording (released in 1972) is a strange CD, similar in style to the original cast album, but containing a lot of quirky differences. The disc starts with the shofar solo as expected, but then John the Baptist's "Prepare Ye" vocals contain a multitude of rolled "rrrrrrrr"s that almost border on camp. The remainder of the vocal performances are no more or less consistent than the original cast, but the musical direction is very uneven, with odd tempos and some vocal harmonies altered or left out completely. "Prepare Ye" and "By My Side" in particular suffer from this strange treatment, and never seem to build the way they should. The album concludes with a "Day by Day" reprise, similar to the OC. The original London recording, not yet available on CD, is a similar experience to the US recordings but contains the performances of Jeremy Irons, David Essex and Julie Covington before they were established names. This fact alone makes it an interesting curiosity!

de Giere: What about a 70's version of "Tower of Babble"?

Parsons: One feature on all of the 70's recordings is the absence of the opening Tower of Babble sequence. While this may seem odd, the fact that the original cast album was aimed towards the pop charts made it desirable to start with the more radio-friendly "Prepare Ye." In hindsight we see that this tactic worked quite well, as both the album and "Day by Day" became chart hits, and captured an audience far beyond the realm of a typical cast recording.

de Giere: When did Godspell leave the acoustic realm?

Parsons: Technically, there was some usage of early synthesizers on the movie soundtrack back in 1973. I would say that the first real use of this technology on a widespread basis probably came in the 80's, when synths took over a lot of the mainstream pop sound.

de Giere: Do you like what happened to the music when electronic instrumentation was added?

Parsons: Godspell and synths is a hot topic. Personally, I love to hear new arrangements of ANY material, not because I dislike the original, but due to the fact that listening to anything over and over can become a little dull. Nothing like some fresh color here and there to liven up a familar friend! Having said that though, there are a number of recordings (the 1994 UK Tour, for example) that have gone too far...

de Giere: I'd love to hear your comparison between the two most recent American recordings: The 2001 Tour (DRG) and the 2000 Revival (Fynsworth Alley).

Parsons: A comparison isn't easy, given the totally different approaches, but I can give you some thoughts. The 2000 Off-Broadway recording captures what I will call an "updating of the original Godspell." What I mean by that is that they didn't really change the basic arrangements per se, but they added some modern performance interpretation and color. The musicians played it like a band of today with modern guitar sounds and the use of a synth instead of piano and organ. If you notice, even when they changed a certain musical feel, like the reggae beginning of "Bless the Lord", it complements the original rhythms of the piano line. In all of the productions I have done, that's the approach I used...have fun and play around with the material, but keep the basic familiar parts.

Now, conversely, the 2001 Tour CD is quite an experience! Some people have incorrectly labeled it the "techno Godspell," but that's a huge misnomer. It does use some elements of techno in the Opening and "Turn Back, O Man", but the rest is very much a current pop-rock sound.

It's kind of funny that people complain about the overabundance of synths, because the keyboards are used pretty traditionally. I think that the guitar effects are what's being mistaken for "techno" keyboards most of the time.

Alex Lacamoire (the orchestrator and music director) did something in this version that I have had to do in my productions: namely, clarified the vocal harmonies. The originals are confusing to read, and have lead to a lot of poor interpretations over the years. Schwartz's vocal parts sound best when put in a tight, "belt" range, and this disc lets you hear them right where they need to be.

I would have to say my favorite musical moments on this disc are "Save The People" with its fun new guitar line, "Bless The Lord" with some nice keyboard parts and funky processed guitar, "By My Side" with a great minimalist folk piano accompaniment, and the great gospel version of "We Beseech Thee."

I also have to mention "All Good Gifts", because of the simple but effective cello part.

Finally, I have to say that I like both of the new Godspell recordings for a very important reason: because they break the show out of a period piece status and make it "speak" again. Godspell was written in a 70's folk/pop style because that was what made it edgy and relevant to young people of that era. In today's society, we have seen technology become commonplace in music and entertainment, so the show's wonderful message of community needs to have an appropriately contemporary vehicle to reach its audience. It's still the same message, but the clowns have differently painted faces!