Original Motion Picture Soundtrack

1973: Arista ARCD-8337

  1. Prepare Ye (The Way of the Lord)
  2. Save the People
  3. Day by Day
  4. Turn Back, O Man
  5. Bless the Lord
  6. All for the Best
  7. All Good Gifts
  8. Light of the World
  9. Alas for You
  10. By My Side
  11. Beautiful City
  12. On the Willows
  13. Finale

It’s only half correct to say that I grew up with this album: it came out around when I was 7 years old, and I certainly didn’t see the film or hear the soundtrack right away, but somehow it did enter my life rather more quickly than would seem to have been likely. Whenever that happened, it certainly became a fixture of my cultural orientation—I loved it and still do.

In 1986 I was the band leader and pianist for a small local production of the musical and in doing so got to partly assuage a sense of guilt at not having been able to play the music for an even-smaller-scale mini-production at a summer camp, but in that 1986 production I was often aware of just how unmatchable this soundtrack album was (and still is). However much we might love it, we can’t even approach it in live performance…just on the band level, never mind the singers, this album’s recordings feature too-great musicians and engineering and editing for us to attempt to match, plus which the vocal arrangements improve on the scored ones given to stage productions. Paul Schafer’s organ work in the outro of “Light of the World” was an arc of beauty I could never even hope to imitate in our shows (which ran for a month and then were held over for another week, by popular demand).

Pretty much every track on this album is superb, so it’s absurd to try to celebrate one more than all the others. I just want to celebrate them all, really. “By My Side” is…well, not a “misfit,” exactly, but rather one of two tracks that don’t carry the same theme in its lyrics; it’s gorgeous and heartbreaking when one really dives in and swims in it, but the lines about naming a pebble are pretty obtuse amid all the other songs’ more straight-up lyrics (admittedly drawn from hymns).

The other inconsistent track is “Beautiful City,” which really is beautiful but stands out because it’s completely different in many aspects from all the original songs. How and why it was added (it’s not in the original stage production’s score) I do not know, but it’s somewhat bizarre here because its chorus parts are rather lush and don’t even sound like the cast who sing the rest of the songs. What I can say about it is that apparently the song has been added to “official” productions of the show…but that what’s been stapled on is the revised version of it that Schwartz reworked in reaction to the 2001 terrorist annihilation of the World Trade Center. I don’t doubt that Schwartz’s intent in that was genuine, but the relevance of the new lyrics and the sons’s overall sound are seriously questionable as inconsistent additions to an already established piece of musical theatre; and frankly it strikes me as being New York-centric self-pity indulgence. Whether or not Godspell as a musical has meat/depth (and I’m in the Doesn’t side of the spectrum, generally), it’s inappropriate to saddle it with such unrelated baggage.

Anyway—if I were to call out one track here as my favorite it would probably be “Bless the Lord”—with worthy contenders noted. Lynne Thigpen delivered a tremendous vocal on it, and it has a fun energy level that shifts in stages. “All Good Gifts” is sublimely lovely but doesn’t grab me quite as much as this. “Day by Day” is heavenly except in how long it runs (appropriate for stage and screen time but tiresome as an audio-only experience). And “On the Willows” is just gorgeous (as well as practically very hard to sing unless you can really detach yourself from the emotion of the moment, in live performance).

Having said all that, I must note the frank reality that all these tracks feature marvelous musicianship and singing but convey very little of their texts’ actual meaning. This is an album of entertainment, not of preaching or even message delivery. That’s a quirk of the musical—a flaw, arguably—that the message of the musical is conveyed more through the script than through the songs. (Which is handy, as it allows individual productions to apply their own spin on the story and material.)