herb-braha-2godspell-album-cover-originalcastHerb Braha originated the role of “Herb” in Godspell. Fans of Godspell’s original cast album will remember Herb’s spoken lines at the beginning of the song “Light of the world.” Braha passed away on February 6, 2016, at age 69. (During his acting career his stage name has been listed variously as Herb Simon or Herb Braha.)

As a funny, kind, supportive person, he was greatly beloved by all the members of the early “Godspell family.”

Stephen Schwartz  knew him from their studies at Carnegie Mellon University in the 60s. Herb graduated the same year as Stephen: 1968 (Stephen as a directing major, Herb as an acting major). Both of them moved to New York City after graduation to try to make their way in show business. And they were both drawn into the Godspell fold once the student production moved to New York City.

Herb was one of the ten actor friends who said yes to Tebelak’s personalized casting call for Godspell at Café La MaMa in the East Village in February and early March of 1971. He and all but two others were then cast in the updated version at the Cherry Lane Theater that opened May 17, 1971.

Tebelak had called Braha because he remembered his performances at Carnegie. Braha once explained, “I did a lot of comedies at Carnegie and some offbeat things in the Studio Theatre, which John-Michael saw and really liked.” Braha was living in New York and had just been offered his first paid acting job in Boston when Tebelak phoned him. “I was really in a quandary,” Braha recalled. “The director in Boston said, ‘You’d be crazy going to do this showcase in New York.’” But when he went down to Forsyth Street to meet with John-Michael privately, he decided in favor of Godspell.

After acting in New York and in movies and television for some years, Braha started a costume-related business, Richard the Thread, providing fabrics for shows and movies. According to Variety, the company’s clients have included productions ranging from stage plays and opera to the Pirates of the Caribbean and Iron Man franchises.

I first met Herby when he invited me to interview him in his Richard the Thread office in Los Angeles when I was there in 2003. He had preserved a copy of the simple program for La MaMa that he shared. He also knew Tebelak well enough to have conversed with him about his directing ideas and he was able to explain some of his influences, such as from the director Peter Brook. Some of this material is presented in my books Defying Gravity and The Godspell Experience. Years later we planned a phone interview to gather more details for the Godspell book. He answered the phone playfully, “Your Hollywood agent.” He was always very supportive of my work.

Herb really emphasized the importance of the rehearsal process for the show and the power of developing trust with the fellow actors. “Let’s say you’re going to do Death of a Salesman,” he said in that phone call. “You learn your lines, you get on stage, the director moves you here and there and you do it and you try to be good. But Godspell was far more creative…. Whatever the actor did on stage had to be organic to whatever the rehearsal produced. You couldn’t place an idea in an actor’s head.”

As an actor in Godspell, he was particularly inventive with vocal imitations and with physical clowning. He loved performing in the show, exhausting as it was, and was a fan of the score. He remembered, “Once that music started you were on a non-stop train and so if you ever felt tired before the show, or you ate too much blueberry pie, you completely forgot about it and you were on the train. There was no stopping.”

Having been in the original cast directed by Tebelak, Herb was an advocate of the approach taken with the clown concept and clown makeup. One of my favorite comments from my interviews with him was about the use of clown makeup. “Once you became a clown and you put the makeup on each other, it gave you the freedom to do just about anything. You were transformed in that seminal moment when I put makeup on whomever and they put make up on me, all of a sudden we could do anything; we were fearless.”

He will live on in our hearts as a beloved, fearless clown. And we have his voice on the Godspell cast album. “You are the light of the world…”

My thanks to Herb for his help with The Godspell Experience.

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Stephen Schwartz and Godspell  History

In 1971, twenty three year old Stephen Schwartz launched his legendary songwriter career with Godspell—a show that quickly became a box office hit in productions around the world. The original cast album went on to win two Grammy Awards, and the single of  “Day by Day” rose high on the Billboard popular music charts.

Stephen Schwartz and the company of Godspell summer 1971 - photo courtesy of Jesse Cutler

PHOTO: Stephen Schwartz (behind the cake) and the company of Godspell from the summer of 1971. Photo courtesy of guitarist in the band, Jesse Cutler.

One reason the newbie’s “first” score worked so well is that Godspell wasn’t actually Schwartz’s first musical. He had contributed to three musicals and an opera in college at Carnegie Mellon University where he studied directing. The shows were all mounted as part of a student club, and so Schwartz gained valuable experience working with actors and getting feedback from audiences.

One of those college shows was an early version of Pippin. Schwartz decided to pursue developing it, writing new songs after college. With these songs, he was able to sign with an agent, Shirley Bernstein, in 1969. She helped him showcase drafts of Pippin‘s score to New York producers. Edgar Lansbury and Joe Beruh were among the producers who were impressed with Schwartz’s talent (even though they didn’t want to stage Pippin). In March of 1971, when Lansbury and Beruh decided to produce Godspell at the Cherry Lane Theatre, they ask Stephen Schwartz if he could write a score.

After Godspell, Schwartz contributed lyrics to Leonard Bernstein’s show Mass (thanks to a connection from Shirley), and wrote scores for Pippin, The Magic Show, Wicked, and many other musicals. The colorful story of Schwartz’s career is covered in the biography Defying Gravity: the Creative Career of Stephen Schwartz, from Godspell to Wicked. (And to be complete, before Godspell, Schwartz did receive a Broadway credit for the title song to Butterflies are Free, a play with music. But Godspell was his first musical.)

Godspell History

Godspell‘s development history is revealed in The Godspell Experience: Inside a Transformative Musical. Chapter 7 of The Godspell Experience introduces Schwartz, Lansbury, and Beruh as they begin work on Godspell. Chapter 8 can be read here as a “sample chapter” in PDF form. This chapter brings readers into the collaboration between John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Scwhartz. It covers the days when the Godspell cast from the off-off-Broadway production at Café La MaMa started learning the new songs in preparation for the official opening at the Cherry Lane Theatre, May 17, 1971. Here’s a glimpse at how a group of twenty somethings — Tebelak, Schwartz, band members, and the cast — perfected the show that we now know as Godspell.

Sample Chapter 8 from The Godspell Experience – PDF file (Read online or download)

 

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The Godspell Movie Origins

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When John-Michael Tebelak was first piecing together the college production of Godspell, he remembered a harvest song in the Episcopal hymnal that is sometimes performed at Thanksgiving services with other music: Hymn 138, “We Plow the Fields, and Scatter.” Tebelak asked his friend Duane Bolick to write music to go with the words so the […]

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Magic for Godspell

When John-Michael Tebelak developed the idea for Godspell, he focused on Jesus as a teacher and didn’t include Bible stories about miraculous healing. But Tebelak and the other show creators did want to enhance the production with stage magic, such as the appearance of something new coming out of nowhere in a seemingly miraculous way. […]

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