In the Beginning
Though the iconic Jesus Christ Superstar “brown album” became a fixture in teenagers’ basements and church youth groups alike in the early 1970s, creators Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice didn’t intend to release their third collaboration as a recording. The pair, then 22 and 26, respectively, already had one theatrical success in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, but they hit a brick wall with their take on the Messiah.
“Nobody would put it on stage,” Lloyd Webber said in behind-the-scenes documentary The Making of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ “I mean, every single producer in London said, ‘You have to be joking. This is the worst idea in history.’”
The Greatest Story Ever (Re)Told
As the title suggests, Lloyd Webber and Rice relate the story of the last week in the life of Jesus Christ, from his entry into Jerusalem through his Crucifixion. According to Elizabeth Wollman's book The Theater Will Rock, the idea was given to Lloyd Webber by an Anglican minister who suggested telling the story of Jesus in a way that “modern youth could identify with.” It also tapped into Rice’s long-standing fascination with the fallen disciple Judas Iscariot.
Lloyd Webber and Rice looked to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, focusing on the human story involved. “We did not set out to portray Jesus Christ as God,” said Lloyd Webber in The Making of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’ Rice added, “He had to be human, he had to be a man with human failings or else the story doesn’t mean anything. If he was just a god, or if he knew he was God, then what’s the suffering? What’s the agony? Where’s the dilemma? Where’s the sacrifice?”
After failing to secure a stage producer, Lloyd Webber and Rice began shopping their rock opera to the music industry. Armed with a 45-rpm single of “Superstar” sung by Murray Head, they found a buyer in MCA-Decca. The label had recently released The Who’s Tommy to great success and were looking to strike concept album gold a second time—and they did.
Accompanied by electric guitars, drums, bass and keyboards, Jesus Christ Superstar was “an experiment with rock opera,” Lloyd Webber told The New York Times. The album, featuring Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan as Jesus, Murray Head as Judas and Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene, hit British shelves in the fall of 1970 and “sunk like a stone,” said Rice, but eight days later it was released in the U.S. and took off immediately. Jesus Christ Superstar reached #1 on the Billboard chart in 1971, spawned hit singles like “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” (which charted in two different versions, by Elliman and Helen Reddy) and sold more two and half million copies.
From Galilee to the Great White Way
Riding the wave of the album’s success, the stage adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar earned the largest advance in Broadway history ($1.2 million) and landed on the covers of both Time and Life magazines. Watershed musical Hair had greased the wheels for rock properties when it debuted on Broadway three years earlier, and producer Robert Stigwood enlisted Hair-helmer Tom O’Horgan to direct and “conceive” the piece for the stage. (JCS fun fact: O’Horgan’s frequent assistant Harvey Milk worked on the project before leaving for San Francisco, where he became the country’s first openly gay politician.)
On October 12, 1971, Jesus Christ Superstar opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre (now, fittingly enough, the Times Square Church). It starred Jeff Fenholt as Jesus, Ben Vereen as Judas and Yvonne Elliman reprising her role as Mary Magdalene. Press coverage of the opening night reported picketers outside the theater, holding signs bearing the show's title, but with “Superstar” replaced by “Lamb of God” or “Our Hope.” Despite the protests and middling reviews—Clive Barnes of the New York Times compared it to one’s first sighting of the Empire State Building: “Not at all uninteresting, but somewhat unsurprising and of minimal artistic value”—the show ran for 711 performances.
Even so, the creators themselves weren’t crazy about it. “It was no secret that we didn’t like the Broadway production of Superstar,” Lloyd Webber told the Times several years later. Nevertheless, productions followed from Paris to Brazil, a hugely successful West End mounting opened in August 1972, and Norman Jewison signed on to direct a film adaptation on location in Israel in 1973.
Fire and Brimstone
Jesus Christ Superstar’s early success came in spite of serious objections to Lloyd Webber and Rice’s treatment of the Gospels. The album was initially banned by the BBC for being sacrilegious, but the major objections—from many different religions—didn’t arise until the show hit stage and screen. “We were accused of being anti-God, anti-Semitic and various other things,” said Rice. “But we weren’t, and we knew we weren’t.”
When the film came out, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, released a statement saying “the movie's sharp and vivid emphasis on a Jewish mob's demand to kill Jesus can feed into the kind of disparagement of Jews and Judaism which has always nurtured anti-Jewish prejudice and bigotry.” The Broadway production was also criticized for being anti-Semitic, while Catholic and Baptist organizations denounced the sympathetic treatment of Judas and the intimation of a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
But as the saying goes, all publicity is good publicity. “By and large they helped us,” Rice said of the protestors. “Because if you see a front page protest about something, it makes you more intrigued to go and see it.”
Short-lived Broadway revivals of Jesus Christ Superstar surfaced in 1977 and 2000, but it wasn’t until Lloyd Webber and Rice followed the buzz to the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2011 that they finally saw the show as they always knew it could be.
Stratford Festival artistic director Des McAnuff was one of those teenagers who had found himself in awe of the original Jesus Christ Superstar album. “[Lloyd Webber and Rice] took the notion of a rock musical 10 steps further than anyone before them had done,” he told Broadway.com. “My friends and I would ride around the Toronto suburbs blasting 'I Don’t Know How to Love Him,' a song that still chokes me up. In short, Jesus Christ Superstar is a show I’ve been thinking about for a very long time.”
The Stratford Superstar began generating Broadway buzz soon after its opening in June of 2011, fueled in part by visits from both Lloyd Webber and Rice. The composer called it “the best acted version of the show I have seen in the 40 years of its existence,” and the only one to successfully convey the love triangle between Jesus (played by Paul Nolan), Judas (Josh Young) and Mary Magdalene (Chilina Kennedy). Fueled in part by this approval from the creators, Stratford’s Jesus Christ Superstar moved first to McAnuff’s former stomping grounds at La Jolla Playhouse then to Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre.
As JCS moves forward to its latest Broadway bow on March 22, 2012, the streets of Broadway are free of protestors. Rock musicals are now de rigueur, and religious-inspired artworks are less shocking than they were 40 years ago. This Star, it seems, just keeps rising.