Godspell is a series of a parables, most of which are based on the Gospel of Matthew; three of the parables featured are only in the Gospel of Luke. The end of the musical covers several events from the passion of the Christ. In his original concept, John-Michael Tebelak came up with the idea of a clown troupe that follow Jesus around from the "Christ as a clown" theory, set forth by Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School. Tebelak used Cox's book, Feast of Fools, in particular, the chapter, "Christ the Harlequin," as a basis for this choice.
Godspell, with book and original concept by John-Michael Tebelak and music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, originated in 1970 as a play and Tebelak's master thesis project at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He took the show with much of the original student cast to New York for a two-week run at the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club in 1971. This production caught the attention of several producers who wanted to open it Off-Broadway. In the transition, they hired Stephen Schwartz to write the music. It subsequently opened Off-Broadway at the Cherry Lane Theatre on May 17, 1971. It transferred to the Promenade Theatre only three months later and closed on June 13, 1976, after 2,124 performances.
The first Broadway production of Godspell opened only a week later on June 22, 1976, at the Broadhurst Theatre. The production transferred to the Plymouth Theatre and then the Ambassador Theatre, where it closed on September 4, 1977.
In 2000, Godspell was once again revived Off-Broadway and ran for two months. A second Broadway revival played the Circle in the Square Theatre in 2011. The production ran from November 7, 2011, to June 24, 2012.
The musical has achieved significant success in other countries. A production opened at the Roundhouse Theatre in London in 1971, where it eventually transferred to another theatre after a very successful run. In 1972, a Toronto production opened, drawing entirely from local performers, and set what was then a record run of 488 performances. The musical recently celebrated its 40th anniversary with a production at the Union Theatre in London.
- "Day by Day" has become a popular standalone song. It became a well-recognized single from the original cast album in 1972 and spent fourteen weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at the #13 position. The song has been covered by several different bands and was performed/referenced in various films, including Meet the Parents and Wet Hot American Summer.
- The original cast album was on the Billboard Hot 100 for Pop Albums, peaking at the #34 position. The album also received gold certification on December 12, 1972 (sold more than 500,000 copies).
- The musical has been referenced/parodied in a multitude of television shows, ranging from Ally McBeal to The New Adventures of Old Christine and King of the Hill.
- Although Stephen Schwartz is credited for writing the score for the musical, the producers decided to keep one song from the original show. The song, "By My Side," was written by Carnegie Mellon students, Jay Hamburger and Peggy Gordon, and was the only piece to carry over into Schwartz's score.
- Schwartz wrote the song, "Beautiful City," in 1972 as a part of the film adaptation, later rewritten in 1993 after the Rodney King race riots.
- A film adaptation of the stage musical was released in 1973. It featured many members of the original cast and utilized well-known sites around New York City.