September 17, 1949|
|Died||April 2, 1985
New York City
John-Michael Tebelak (September 17, 1949 – April 2, 1985) was an American playwright and director. He was most famous for creating the musical Godspell based on the Gospel of Saint Matthew. The music was by Stephen Schwartz. Some of the lyrics are original, with others taken from either the Bible or traditional hymns in the 1940 Episcopal Hymnal.
Life and career
Tebelak originally produced Godspell at age 21 as his masters thesis project, under the tutelage of Lawrence Carra, at Carnegie Mellon University in December 1970. He had been studying Greek and Roman mythology, with the deadline for his thesis two weeks away, but became fascinated by the joy he found in the Gospels. He attended an Easter Vigil service in 1970 at Pittsburgh's St. Paul Cathedral, wearing his usual overalls and T-shirt. A police officer frisked him for drugs after the service. He wrote of this experience, "I left with the feeling that, rather than rolling the rock away from the Tomb, they were piling more on. I went home, took out my manuscript, and worked it to completion in a non-stop frenzy." Though he never completed his coursework at the university, Carnegie Mellon nevertheless awarded him a degree.
Subsequently, Tebelak directed productions of Godspell at La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, the Cherry Lane Theatre, the Promenade Theatre, and on Broadway. He was named Theatre Man of the Year by Elliott Norton of the Boston-Record American, and Most Promising Director of 1971 by the New York Drama Desk. He was also named an Outstanding Ohioan by then-Governor John J. Gilligan. John Michael Tebelak graduated from Berea High School (Berea, Ohio) in 1966.
In 1972 Tebelak directed the Broadway play Elizabeth I, the off-Broadway play, The Glorious One in 1975, and Ka-Boom in 1980. He also directed Lope de Vega's Fuenteovejuna in Madrid in 1975. He co-wrote with David Greene the 1973 film version of Godspell.
Tebelak once said that he "walked into a theatre at the age of nine and stayed there." He was a lifelong member of the Episcopal Church, possibly thought about becoming a priest, and may have attended an Episcopal seminary for a time. He was dramaturge for the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York and staged liturgical drama there. According to Rev. James Parks Morton, "whether it was a sermon series or a two-day conference on the environment, he turned it into theater."
In 1980, Tebelak was sued in State Supreme Court in Manhattan by his former live-in companion, Richard Hannum. At that time, Hannum was represented by famed divorce lawyer Marvin Mitchelson and was working with noted writer Norman Mailer on a stage adaptation about Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe called Strawhead. The lawsuit was an early effort to define the rights of cohabiting homosexual couples.
John-Michael returned to his native Berea, Ohio, to direct the 10th Anniversary production of "Godspell" at the Berea Summer Theater, Summer of 1980. He subsequently directed "Cabaret" there, Summer 1981.
Tebelak died on April 2, 1985, of a heart attack in New York City at age 35. He was survived by his parents, John and Genevieve Tebelak, his sister Trudy Williams and niece Abbey Williams.
- Castillo, Angel. (May 12, 1981) New York Times Frampton suit puts focus on cohabitation law. Section: B; Page 1.
- The Valley Independent. (March 8, 1980) Monessen. Accessed June 22, 2008.
- Lawson, Carol. (January 30, 1981) New York Times Broadway; Leach to direct musical on orphans going west by rail. Section: C; Page C2.