“Turn Back, O Man” as motet and showtune

Early this week I was searching the Hymnary database for hymns based on or referent to Sunday’s lectionary reading from Ezekiel 18, where God calls on his people to “repent and turn from all your transgressions, lest iniquity be your ruin” (v. 30b), and the very similar passage later in the book: “As I live, declares the Lord GOD, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:11).

One of the search results was “Turn Back, O Man” by the English poet and playwright Clifford Bax. Written in 1916, it doesn’t explicitly reference World War I, but it’s likely that that was the intended subtext.

Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.
Old now is earth, and none may count her days,
Yet thou, its child, whose head is crowned with flame,
Still wilt not hear thine inner God proclaim,
“Turn back, O man, forswear thy foolish ways.”
 
Earth might be fair, and people glad and wise.
Age after age their tragic empires rise,
Built while they dream, and in that dreaming weep.
Would they but wake from out their haunted sleep,
Earth shall be fair, and people glad and wise.
 
Earth shall be fair, and all its people one,
Nor till that hour shall God’s whole will be done!
Now, even now, once more from earth to sky
Peals forth in joy the old, undaunted cry,
“Earth shall be fair, and all its people one.”

The tune it’s set to in hymnals, OLD 124TH, is by Louis Bourgeois and is from the 1551 edition of the Genevan Psalter. Gustav Holst arranged the tune as a motet (a polyphonic, unaccompanied choral composition) in 1916 and in fact is the one who approached Bax with the request for a new text.

Here is a performance by the University of Texas Chamber Singers, from their 2008 album Great Hymns of Faith:

When I read the first line, it sounded familiar, and I was reminded that the song (with a much different tune and style!) opens the second act of Godspell. This 1971 musical created by John-Michael Tebelak and composed by Stephen Schwartz is based on Jesus’s teaching ministry as told in the Gospels, especially Matthew’s. (The show’s title is the archaic English spelling for “gospel.”) In addition to Jesus and John the Baptist/Judas, the cast consists of eight nonbiblical, “holy fool” characters who use their own names and sing and act out the parables and other sayings.

Tebelak, who wrote the play as his master’s thesis at Carnegie Mellon, was studying Greek and Roman mythology when, in his last year at school, he started reading the Christian Gospels in earnest and was enraptured by the joy they exuded and compelled by their emphasis on community. He tells the story of how on March 29, 1970, in pursuit of knowing more, he attended an Easter Vigil service at a church in Pittsburgh, wearing his usual overalls and a T-shirt—and he was frisked for drugs. “I left with the feeling that, rather than rolling the rock away from the Tomb, they were piling more on,” he said. That experience motivated him to write Godspell.

Tebelak’s Godspell was produced at Carnegie Mellon in late fall 1970, featuring an original song by cast member Jay Hamburger (“By My Side”) and a handful of old Episcopal hymns played by a rock band.

After leaving university, Tebelak took the show to New York City, where prospective producers suggested a new score and brought in Stephen Schwartz for the job. The rescored show, which retained Hamburger’s single song contribution, opened May 17, 1971, at the off-Broadway Cherry Lane Theatre and became a hit.

Six of Godspell‘s eighteen song texts, including the chart-topping “Day by Day,” are actually taken straight from the Episcopal Hymnal. Schwartz liked the idea of dusting the cobwebs off some of these stodgy hymns and giving them new melodies with a catchy seventies pop vibe that would leave audiences singing them as they exited the theater.

“Turn Back, O Man” is one of those. It’s sung by Sonia, the sassy character with a put-on sensuality, a role originated by Sonia Manzano (of Sesame Street fame). Here’s the scene from the 1973 film adaptation directed by David Greene, with “Sonia” played by Joanne Jonas:

Isolated from the rest of the musical, this song seems completely irreverent and unbefitting the serious nature of God’s call to repentance. Its zaniness and sense of play, punctuated by Jesus’s pensive delivery of the third verse, is on a par with the tone of the whole—and that unique approach to telling the gospel works, I think, really well overall in Godspell, bringing to mind how “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Cor. 1:25). The characters embody the countercultural aspect of Jesus’s teachings, which appear ridiculous, clownish, to the rest of the world.

“The characters in Godspell were never supposed to be hippies,” Stephen Schwartz clarifies.

They were supposed to be putting on “clown” garb to follow the example of the Jesus character as was conceived by Godspell’s originator, John-Michael Tebelak, according to the “Christ as clown” theory propounded by Harvey Cox of the Harvard Divinity School (among others). . . . Because the show was originally produced in the hippie era, and because the director of the Godspell movie somewhat misinterpreted the characters as hippie-esque, that misunderstanding has come to haunt the show a bit.

In this particular song, performed by a hammy character in a feather boa, the lyrics entreat hearers to give up their “foolish ways,” going on to suggest that what is truly foolish is living as if asleep—building “tragic empires,” chasing empty dreams. Though endowed with the flame of reason and conscience, humanity at large, generation after generation, keeps rejecting God’s will, hence the lack of global unity and gladness.