For the entirety of the Ford’s Theatre 1972-1973 season, the theatre produced only one production, Godspell. This unorthodox choice turned out to be a stroke of programming genius on the part of Founding Executive Producer Frankie Hewitt, coupled with a bit of serendipitous timing.
Based primarily on the Gospel of St. Matthew, Godspell was written by Stephen Schwartz and John-Michael Tebelak. The musical opened off-Broadway in May 1971, and while it was still early in its long and successful initial off-Broadway run, Hewitt helped secure a production that would run simultaneously at Ford’s. Regional theatres, especially those with only one performance stage like Ford’s Theatre, almost always run multiple shows within their seasons. Sometimes there are shows which they revive or remount, like the Ford’s Theatre production of A Christmas Carol, but it is incredibly rare and quite risky for a theatre to eschew programming multiple shows in favor of just one.
However, this production of Godspell, which began in April 1972 as part of the 1971-1972 season, proved to be a hit with a wide range of audiences. Newspaper columnist Nick Thimmesch of the Los Angeles Times Syndicate covered the one-year anniversary celebration of the production, noting how “Hewitt wisely observed that Godspell had electrified the Washington area and vitalized Ford’s Theatre.
Schoolchildren came by the thousands. Priests, ministers and rabbis sang enthusiastic praise. A small group of young Jewish pickets showed up, were invited in and wound up exuberant over the show and agreeing there was no need to protest.”
The show ran for an astounding 18 months, from April 1972 to September 1973, and played to sold-out crowds, entertaining as many as 300,000 patrons. Perhaps appropriate for a theatrical venue that was initially a Baptist church in the early 1800s. This particular production also turned out to be an uplifting show during a time when Washington, D.C., audiences craved something positive. The show opened just two months before one of the biggest Washington scandals ever broke: Watergate. Thimmesch said in his article that the Ford’s production of Godspell was a “real ‘upper’ … in our town which is presently in a dark ‘downer’.”
Thimmesch paid particular attention to how “that revolting household word, Watergate, was scarcely heard during intermission or at the happy party afterward. … The Watergate curse was off, for the evening anyway, because Godspell is so alive, happy and powerful. For more than a year now, Godspell has turned Ford’s Theatre into a temple of theatrical religious celebration, causing record audiences to feel joy, clap their hands and leave with a marvelous feeling that there’s nothing like loving your neighbor.”
The production also starred an Oscar and Golden Globe winner at the start of his professional career. Dean Pitchford, just 22 years old and in his first professional regional performance, starred as Jesus. Pitchford would go on to win both an Oscar and a Golden Globe for writing the title song from the movie Fame. He has since been nominated for multiple Tony, Oscar and Grammy awards for his writing on many other musicals and movies—including the mega-hit Footloose, for which he wrote the script and co-wrote several of the hit songs.
The success of this unprecedented run of a show at a regional theatre helped solidify Ford’s as a key player in the American theatrical scene, a mere four years after the theatre began producing shows for the first time since 1865.
Patrick Pearson is Director of Artistic Programming at Ford’s Theatre and a freelance director. Patrick has his MFA in Directing from California State University, Fullerton.