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Godspell in Toronto, 1972

Godspell Toronto "Prepared the Way" For Many a Star
By Shawn McCarthy

First published in The Schwartz Scene

A little over 30 years ago a major storm hit the city of Toronto Canada. Not quite a tornado but an equally powerful phenomenon called GODSPELL touched down at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in May 1972 forever changing the theatrical landscape. The smash hit Stephen Schwartz musical ran for well over a year to cheering crowds and nightly standing ovations. This type of response wasn't unusual for the show, which, by that time had resident companies in several major cities in North America in addition to many touring productions.

Gilda Radner who was reatured in Godpell TorontoWhat was unusual though were the number of extraordinarily talented performers in the Toronto show who would go on to become well known members of the entertainment establishment. These included: Andrea Martin ("My Big Fat Greek Wedding", "Hedwig and the Angry Inch") Victor Garber ("Titanic", "Alias"), the late Gilda Radner ("Saturday Night Live") Martin Short ("Prince of Egypt", "Father of the Bride"), Eugene Levy ("A Mighty Wind", "American Pie") and even the musical director Paul Shaffer ("The Late Show with David Letterman"). [Enjoy Gilda on SNL: SNL - Best of Gilda Radner - DVD]

In September of 1992, the original cast reunited at Toronto's Elgin theatre to put on a benefit performance to raise money for research into a cure for ovarian cancer, which tragically took the life of Gilda Radner. The Canadian Broadcast Corporation documented the event and interviewed the stars off stage concerning their audition experiences for the original production

Andrea Martin was one of 500 people to audition for the show and in fact didn't make the first cut. Devastated, she retreated to a local spa for several days to console herself. One day at the spa, wearing not a stitch, she was paged to pick up the phone. The producers on the line let her know that the girl they'd cast as Robin ('Day by Day') had to be let go and Andrea now had the part. Her performance was reportedly outstanding causing one local newspaper critic to describe her rendition of Day by Day as 'downright glorious'.

Short and Levy's audition experience went a somewhat different route. They had become friends while attending McMaster University and thought they'd try out for the hit musical. They both made the call-back list, but Eugene was first to be signed while Martin had yet another audition to complete. It was down to Martin and another actor for the part of Jeffrey ('We Beseech Thee'). Levy recalls Short 'going way way over the top' at the audition for Stephen Schwartz, so much so that he felt Martin had really blown it. Instead however, Schwartz had been completely blown away and gave him the part right on the spot. Upon hearing the news, Levy and Short literally started screaming and jumping up and down, and ran out the side door of the theatre into an alleyway where they continued to jump and shout for joy.

The late Gilda Radner made it into Godspell skipping across the stage singing a bouncy rendition of "Zippity Doo Dah". Radner projected a warmth and childlike sense of fun that became her hallmark. ("SNL" executive producer Lorne Michaels described this as her "Muppet Factor" in the book The Second City by Donna McCrohan.) In the show, she sang and danced her way into audiences' hearts with her snappy version of "Learn Your Lessons Well." She also made her way into the heart of one particular cast member - Martin Short - and two began dating during the run, according to McCrohan.

London Ontario born Victor Garber had perhaps the most experience of any of the Toronto GODSPELL cast when he auditioned. He had previous musical theatre experience including a production of "She Loves Me". He was also a member of the singing group The Sugar Shoppe who'd appeared on "Ed Sullivan" and "The Tonight Show". Godspell Victor GarberGarber had seen a production of GODSPELL while in L.A. and decided to audition for the Toronto show. At his audition, he 'wowed' everyone and even received a standing ovation reported Levy at the 1992 reunion. He also got the lead and was cast as Jesus. Film director David Greene too had been wowed when he saw Garber perform on opening night and cast him as the lead in the movie of GODSPELL, which was to be filmed later that year. [Hear Victor Garber on the Godspell Soundtrack Godspell: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack]

The musical director for the Toronto production got his role circuitously. Paul Shaffer had been asked by his friend Avril Chown to play for her at her audition for the show. Chown, who was going out for the role of Joanne ('Bless the Lord'), had the off-Broadway cast recording and together with Shaffer they learned the song. After Chown sang at the audition, the show's composer asked, "Who was that playing for you? I like the way he plays" and soon after offered Shaffer a position as the show's musical director and keyboardist. (Chown also got the role of Joanne.) Shaffer's association with the composer would continue a few years later when he played keyboards for the Broadway production of Schwartz's THE MAGIC SHOW.

After many months of dazzling audiences in the consistently sold-out show, Martin Short, Gilda Radner, Andrea Martin and Eugene Levy (who played Jesus after Victor went to NYC to star in the movie) left and became part of the newly formed Toronto branch of Chicago's SECOND CITY troupe. This in turn would catapult each of them to stardom via television and eventually film.

Radner made a huge splash on the original "SNL" playing a host of characters and starred in her own Broadway show called, appropriately enough "Gilda Live". In the 80's she appeared in several movies including "The Woman In Red" starring her husband Gene Wilder. Sadly, she passed away in 1989 after a long battle with ovarian cancer.

Short, Levy and Martin went on to fame in the cleverly satirical "SCTV" series and continued their careers in various movies and television appearances. Short can be currently seen opposite Jason Alexander in the L.A. production of THE PRODUCERS and in his own series "Primetime Glick". Levy has kept busy appearing in many recent films including "American Pie I and II", "Bringing Down the House" opposite Steve Martin and "A Mighty Wind". Andrea Martin has gained the reputation of being a scene-stealer drawing critical praise in diverse rolls such as Aunt Voula in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" and Aunt Eller in OKLAHOMA! on Broadway last season. [For sketch comedy of Martin, et al, see SCTV - Best Of The Early Years | or SCTV - Volume 1-4 (Boxset) - 4 Pack ]

Shaffer, who after a year of playing in the band for THE MAGIC SHOW, became the keyboardist for "SNL" and even appeared in the show's sketches on occasion. However, he became a household name because of his 20 plus years as David Letterman's musical director and sidekick. He once accompanied Gilda Radner when she was a guest on Letterman's NBC Late Night show. She came out, sat beside Letterman at the desk and launched into "Learn Your Lessons Well." Letterman and the audience seemed quite smitten.

After the movie of GODSPELL and for more than two decades, Victor Garber enjoyed a very successful career on Broadway and has been seen in over 50 movies. In the 1997 he appeared in the box office smash "Titanic" where he played Thomas Andrews, the designer of the ill-fated vessel. Currently he's starring in the popular ABC spy-adventure series "Alias". [Alias - The Complete Collection ]

When Toronto Sun theatre critic George Anthony reviewed GODSPELL just over 31 years ago he described the cast as being 'exceptionally brilliant'. I'm sure he would never have guessed just how many of them would become "stars" and permanent fixtures in the entertainment world. But there they are, still shining brilliantly.

Read the complete story of Godspell in Carol de Giere's book The Godspell Experience: Inside a Transformative Musical with a Foreword by the show's composer, Stephen Schwartz.

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