Saturday, August 23, 2008

Jack Bristow Was Jesus!

Victor Garber at 25 in his Jesus clown get up
To understand this post, you need to know that I was a big fan of the musical Godspell back in the '70s (yes, I was a teenager then). I think I only saw the movie once, but my family had a tape of the soundtrack and I knew all the lyrics. To top it off, Daughter Number One and I were in an informal production of it one summer.

So it's understandable that when I saw a DVD of the movie for sale at a cheap price, I picked it up. Imagine my surprise when I realized that the Jesus character is played (and sung!) by Victor Garber, whom I know much better as the father of Jennifer Garner (Sydney Bristow) on Alias.

Lynne Thigpen in her Godspell costume, looking very young
Also featured in the film was Lynne Thigpen, an actress whose career I became aware of in the early '90s when she was on L.A. Law. Later, I saw her frequently on Where in the World is Carmen San Diego? Thigpen died suddenly in 2003 at the age of 54.

I spent a bunch of time on IMDB while I was watching Godspell, trying to figure out what the other actors had been up to since 1973. Many of them were in no or a very minimal number of films or television shows. Merrell Jackson, the 20-year-old tenor who sang the song "All Good Gifts," died in 1991 at the age of 39. Jeffrey Mylett (the one with the recorder and slide whistle) died in 1986 at age 37. David Haskell, who played John the Baptist, died in 2000. So four out of the 10 actors in the film are dead, one from HIV/AIDS, one from a cerebral hemorrhage, one from brain cancer, and one from undisclosed causes. Whoa.

In this watching, the music seemed as good to me as ever (although I obviously have a major sentimental attachment to it, so my opinion may not be worth much), but the script that attempted to tie it together was pretty corny and silly. It's definitely a period piece.

However, I still strongly recommend it because it's shot on location all over New York City, and there's one incredible location shot after another. Central Park (of course), including the Delacorte Theater, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, the docks, and I'm sure many others that a native New Yorker would recognize that I did not.

Most amazing of all is the fact that the song "All for the Best" is shot on top of the World Trade Center, which was still under construction at the time. First you see the cast dancing away with Manhattan as a backdrop:

Cast dancing on a rooftop with Manhattan in the background
Then the camera, which must be in a helicopter, pulls back to reveal the edge of the roof (and the construction cranes).

Cast on edge of roof shot from the side
And then it keeps moving back until you see the twin towers. Neither is complete, but the one on the right has a bit more work still to finish than the one on the left.

Camera pulls back in helicopter shot to reveal the Twin Towers
You can see all this for yourself in a clip of "All for the Best" that's available courtesy of copyright violation on YouTube.

One final note... Lynne Thigpen and Victor Garber were on the same episode of Law & Order in 1995. I think he was the suspect and she was the judge, so they probably got the chance to shoot some scenes together. Still more proof that Law & Order is the Kevin Bacon of television shows.


Barbara said...

I saw the movie about a gazillion times when it came out. Back when train fare was cheap, my sister and I spent several visits to NYC finding as many locations as we could. The movie really was part love letter to the city, and we shared that love as only a couple of upstate naifs could.

Before the movie I saw the show on (was it off- or off-off-?) Broadway, where they actually served wine after act one ended with the line "let's have some wine!"

Despite this familiarity, when I bought the VHS cheap about 4 years ago to show to my son, it was only about 2 seconds before the camera pull-back to show the towers that I remembered where they were. I wish I had had more time to brace myself, but I watched the scene multiple times.

I also was in an informal production, singing "Oh Bless the Lord." The irony of being in a religious school production...of a musical about love and goodness...while that musical was not yet legally available for amateur production...let's just say that it took a few years to sink in.

I have followed Victor Garber's career since then, and you'd think by now that I could get over him being the bad guy.

As for Lynne Thigpen, I had such respect for her abilities and loved her in everything. From "Luna" in "Bear in the Big Blue House" to "Ella" in "The District," she did it all with power and style. I miss her.

And the music really is pretty good, even if it is only an early effort from the man who went on to give us "Pippin" and "Wicked." Oh, who am I kidding: I still love this music.

Daughter Number Three said...

Thanks for writing, Barbara!

Did you see it at the Cherry Lane Theatre (where it ran until 1971) or the Promenade (1971-1976, when it moved to Broadway)? (I'm getting these names from the Wikipedia, although the Cherry Lane was used as a location in the movie.)

Another thing I found out today that I hadn't heard before was that Godspell started as a master's thesis project at Carnegie Mellon University (which is still known for its excellent musical theater program), and that most of the actors also came from CMU, as did Stephen Schwartz himself.

One final thing I learned is that "By My Side" is the only song that was retained from the pre-Schwartz score. I always liked that song, too.

I did miss hearing "We Beseech Thee" and "Learn Your Lessons Well"... although they aren't my absolute favorites, I guess.