Exactly 10 years ago this week at Pittsburgh’s Carnegie-Mellon University, the curtain went up on a musical by 22-year-old master’s candidate John-Michael Tebelak. The staging, which served as his thesis, was scheduled to run three nights only, but word of mouth forced a few extra performances. The work was called Godspell.
On the day Tebelak received his degree, his adaptation of the Gospel according to St. Matthew opened an off-Broadway hit. Since then Godspell has become a film and moved millions all over the world, but no one more than Tebelak himself. The graduate student who first created it as “a protest against organized religion” has chosen to become an Episcopal priest.
As a candidate for Holy Orders at the Institute of Theology at New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, he already serves wine at communion and is entitled to wear a modified clerical collar (though he doesn’t and says he never will). But postulants are not permitted to celebrate the Eucharist, which Tebelak declares is his prime reason for seeking ordination.
One result of Tebelak’s long-running play was the popularity of the so-called Godspell Mass, a melding of modern-day Christian liturgy with contemporary music. A Godspell Mass, directed in 1977 by Tebelak at St. John the Divine, was so successful he was invited to stay on as the cathedral’s resident “dramaturg,” an ancient term for drama director. In any case, his theological studies don’t curtail his other calling—to the stage. “My intention is to help people,” he says. “And I can do that best through theater.” His latest directorial effort, a musical about survivors of a nuclear holocaust, titled KA-BOOM!, just premiered off-Broadway.
Tebelak’s affinity for the stage surfaced early. Growing up in Berea, Ohio, where both his parents were teachers, John-Michael started acting in regional companies at the age of 9. At 14, he moved backstage and eventually worked as an assistant designer in summer stock around Cleveland. He enrolled in Carnegie-Mellon’s esteemed drama department and worked on the side as a set painter for an ordained entertainer, the host of PBS’ Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In his junior year, Tebelak recalls, “I began to read the Bible. That’s when I first saw the joy and beauty of the work.” The actual inspiration for Godspell came on Easter Sunday, 1970. It was a snowy morning in Pittsburgh, and Tebelak attended a sunrise Mass where “the priest mumbled into his microphone and everyone mumbled their responses back. It was totally lifeless. There was no joy in the Resurrection and the spirit of Christianity.” That summer he wrote Godspell and collaborated on its original rock score (which was then revised for the off-Broadway run by a more experienced composer, Stephen Schwartz, a Carnegie-Mellon alum).
Ironically, the play’s box office triumph discomfited Tebelak. “In December,” he remembers, “I was just a student. The following May I was the toast of New York. People began to treat me differently, and there was some resentment of my success.” He retreated to a house in rural Connecticut that he acquired with some of his $1 million-plus in royalties. As he had since he was 12, Tebelak visited a psychiatrist for weekly therapy. “I think I’ve cured five doctors now,” he jokes. He currently goes to confession once a week, but in a very relaxed Episcopalian style—”One of the deans and I just sit across from each other, have a martini and talk.”
Until 1977, when he decided to seek the priesthood, the playwright (a term he objects to, since the libretto comes largely from the Bible) made a career of staging Godspell. Two of the 25 different companies even played the Vatican, and Tebelak himself obtained a private audience with Pope Paul VI.
Now Tebelak lives in a one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side and is something of a loner. “I think I am married to my work,” he says. His present labors include counseling parishioners at St. John the Divine. He’s effective, he reasons, “because I’ve had many problems myself.” An ongoing one is his ambivalence about the hierarchy he is now joining. “I work through the organized structure of the church,” he says, “but it is not ideal.” In the unconventional gospel according to John-Michael, redemption is just as likely to occur in a theater as it is in a cathedral.