Songs from Musicals: #27, “Turn Back, O Man,” from Godspell

Honorable mentions: “Tower of Babble,” “Bless the Lord”

Unless I discover that Boublil and Schonberg stole a theme from “Mars, the Bringer of War” or something, I’m willing to bet that this is the highest-rated song with roots in Gustav Holst. Virtually every sung lyric in this song is originally found in the lyrics by Clifford Bax, who wrote the words for the hymn that Holst originally wrote. Stephen Schwartz keeps the lyrics – saving the most religious ones for Jesus – but pumps up the music, swanking it appropriately for whichever woman is playing sexpot in the production and making her way from the back of the auditorium to the front.

I’ve linked to a revival cast rather than the original or the film version: like Ravel’s Bolero, it improves with a slightly faster tempo than the original. It juxtaposes the soloist’s part with Jesus’ more, which is another improvement; the soloist gets the jazz, the trumpeting statement of mankind’s waywardness, while Jesus gets an introspective, quiet moment to think on a similar topic. “Turn Back, O Man” is phrased not unlike the way a sermon is phrased: thunder at the beginning and end, with a little bit of soft speech to convey meaningfulness, or depth, or, best of all, prayerfulness. The second act of Godspell is lousy with those moments, probably because the Book of Matthew is likewise lousy with them towards the end. The vast majority of the clowning in Godspell is done in the first act, as are most of the songs. One measures the first act of this show in volume, which is almost unsparing; songs like “By My Side,” “Beautiful City,” and “On the Willows” practically crawl compared to “Day by Day” or “Bless the Lord.” “Turn Back, O Man,” is the one of the first songs in the second act, and the first taste of real sourness in the show; aside from the whole crucifixion thing, Jesus also screams for two minutes in “Alas for You,” and even the parables are a little darker. I’m a sucker for tonal shifts. I enjoy how subtly “Turn Back, O Man”, which is almost as high energy as first act finale “Light of the World” and almost as funny as “All for the Best,” casually tosses sin and despair and worry into Godspell. Without it, the other songs in the second act seem out of place, rather than conforming coolly to the gradual descent that we expect from the Easter story.

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