Remembering Godspell Original Cast Member Herb Braha

by Carol on 05/17/2016

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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