Chatt State’s Rex Knowles and Sherry Landrum are featured in a new book
In her recent book, The Godspell Experience (Scene 1 Publishing, 2014), Carol de Giere brings to life the backstory of one of America’s best-loved musicals. The founders of our city’s beloved Chatt State Professional Actors Program, Sherry Landrum and Rex Knowles, were members of the original touring cast of “Godspell” back in the early 1970s.
Since then, the two have gained a wide range of theater experience in California and New York before establishing the PATP 12 years ago. Six years into the program’s development, they produced a hugely successful run of “Godspell,” based on their firsthand memories, including all the original choreography, and supplemented by notes given directly from composer Stephen Schwartz himself.
The couple credits this success to the genius of the play itself, as well as to a solid collaboration between Chatt State’s theater and music departments. De Giere mentions Landrum and Knowles by name intermittently throughout her book, and gathered a few of their firsthand stories, along with the accounts of other cast members, to help pull her readers into the vivid memories created on the road during this colorful, warmly received production.
I was recently able to speak with Rex and Sherry about the new book.
The Pulse: What are some of your favorite memories from your years touring with “Godspell”?
Sherry Landrum: A favorite for me was performing the song, “All Good Gifts.” It includes this really simple choreography where I was following the character Gilmer as he played his recorder. I’ll just never forget the feeling of that song.
Rex Knowles: I just remember the pride that comes from doing a show that receives standing ovations after every performance. We performed in 49 of 50 states—we only missed Alaska because of a cancellation. The show was so special that it touched the souls of audiences around the whole country. What other show does that? Also, in San Fransisco—I performed “Bless the Lord” as a guy, when usually it’s a female solo (laughs). It went well…I had a fun time and so did the cast.
TP: What does the book get right about your memories from your road experience?
RK: I think she really did capture the feeling. Carol spent time asking us about our memories, so she included the feeling of living on the road for a year. When we read it over it was clear she had done her research.
[A prime example of de Giere’s deft handling of personal theater anecdotes is tucked into the chapter, “Godspell Worldwide,” where she includes one of the couple’s more challenging experiences that took place during a show in Memphis. She quotes Landrum’s memory of a protestor walking directly onto the stage and condemning the cast and audience to hell. He had to be ushered away by the stage manager.]
SL: There’s no way she could’ve captured every single story. I have a feeling every member of the casts of any of the “Godspells” could’ve done a book about their experiences. I actually tried to do a documentary about my experience, and still have the super-8 footage in storage! Carol did a good job of sampling to give a feel for the crazy things that went on: the people who protested, the serving of wine and crackers to audience members at intermission, etc.
TP: How has your experience with “Godspell” shaped your careers in theater?
RK: You know, to be in a national tour, that got us up to San Francisco, and continuing our careers in LA helped. We gained so much practice through being on stage every night, and in such a great show! Strong writing [by John-Michael Tebelak who wrote the script and directed “Godspell”’s first productions] and hugely supportive audience responses really got us motivated to continue working in theater.
SL: To me the show made a spiritual impact. Quoting St. Matthew night after night truly helped set the foundation for me personally. How can you not be changed by that?
TP: What has your response been over the years when you catch an amateur production of “Godspell?”
SL: Like with all musicals, a lot of people try to spice it up with variations on venue, which sometimes works...it can be interesting. We’ve been somewhat more critical of others’ versions that leave out the joy and take the story in a darker direction. But even with all the various directorial choices, it’s “Godspell.” It’s always a fascinating show.