From blasphemy to beloved: How Andrew Lloyd Webber rocked the rock musical genre
From blasphemy to Broadway to banned to broadcast television, few pop-culture titles have generated the kind of buzz Jesus Christ Superstar has generated along the road to its current 50th anniversary national touring production.
A decade after its last major tour, this iconic musical phenomenon is back, buoyed by a jaw-dropping 2018 reimagination that aired as a live concert on NBC and left many critics saying the high-energy staging had set a new standard for live theatrical broadcasts.
“What could have felt like a dated rock opera was more like an uproarious arena concert filled with screaming fans,” wrote Deadline critic Dino-Ray Ramos.
That Emmy Award-winning effort essentially cast the live audience as the so-called 50,000 screaming Jesus fans that Simon sings are ready to “ride into Jerusalem” and effect the greatest revolution in world history. That ambience is more in line with the kind of energy composer Andrew Lloyd Webber first had in mind when he and Tim Rice dared to imagine the final weeks in the life of Jesus Christ through a decidedly late 1960s rock ’n’ roll lens.
“Superstar was written like a radio play, because that was the closest thing we had available to us,” Webber told Rolling Stone magazine. “I think it works best when it’s closer to a rock concert.”
The new national tour, helmed by acclaimed director Timothy Sheader and cutting-edge choreographer Drew McOnie, captured a similar live energy as well, and subsequently won the 2017 Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival.
From the start, Superstar was slammed as blasphemous. Imagine the audacity of a new rock musical that dared to tell the story of Christ’s downfall from the sympathetic perspective of his chief betrayer?
The writers couldn’t find a producer at first. “We were told it was the worst idea in history,” Lloyd Webber later recalled. So he and Rice transformed their stage musical into a two-record concept album that was released in 1970, just after The Who’s own two-record celebrity opus, “Tommy.”
But Rice was more inspired by the Bob Dylan anthem “With God On Our Side,” which features Judas in its penultimate verse. Rice was fascinated by the idea of Judas not as a craven back-stabber but rather a close friend struggling with the implications of Jesus’ growing popularity.
“From a very young age, I had wondered what I might have done in the situations in which Pontius Pilate and Judas Iscariot found themselves,” Rice wrote in his autobiography. “How were they to know Jesus would be accorded divine status by millions and that they would as a result be condemned down the ages?”
When the legendary concept album hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts behind songs such as “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” “Gethsemane,” “Heaven on their Minds” and the title tune, a Broadway staging went from impossible to inevitable. American fans had begun staging unauthorized live performances in churches and theaters around the country.
But what bowed on Broadway in 1971 was polarizing. Webber himself called that first (of four) Broadway productions “brash and vulgar” — and he was not alone. The show was banned in South Africa and protested by everyone from the American Jewish Committee to the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith to evangelist Billy Graham. (Though Graham did acknowledge that “if the production causes young people to search their Bibles, to that extent it may be beneficial.”)
One of the major criticisms of Webber and Rice was having Judas come back from the dead to sing the title song, without taking a stand on the possible resurrection of Jesus.
But if you look closely at the final shot of the 1973 film, said Ted Neeley, who played Jesus in the film (and on stage for the next 40 years), you can see a mysterious someone walking in the desert. “And let me just say: Those who have eyes to see will see that mysterious someone,” Neeley told The Denver Post during a 2008 tour stop in Denver.
‘Mr. Jewison, not only do I appreciate your beautiful rock-opera film, I believe it will bring more people around the world to Christianity than anything ever has before.’ – Pope Paul VI
“The reason for that shot is that Norman Jewison and myself took issue with the fact that Tim and Andrew felt the piece needed to end with a crucifixion, showing no suggestion of possible resurrection and ascension,” Neeley said. “So when Norman made the film, that mysterious appearance is to suggest that life does go on, that there was resurrection of the spirit.”
Ironically, Jesus Christ Superstar has found favor with Catholic popes across the decades. Jewison, who directed the 1973 film, arranged a special screening for Pope Paul VI. Neeley quotes Paul VI as saying: “Mr. Jewison, not only do I appreciate your beautiful rock-opera film, I believe it will bring more people around the world to Christianity than anything ever has before.” And the current Pope Francis said he enjoyed a recent stage production of Superstar in Rome.
From its birth, Superstar reflected the rock roots that defined a generation. It has been credited (and blamed) for ushering in Broadway’s decades-long “British invasion” that brought such mega-hits as Cats and Les Misérables. And as time has passed, it has proven to be one of those musicals that demands to be re-interpreted again and again, as it has been for its 50th anniversary tour.
Portions of this report were compiled from news sources.
John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine in 2011. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.
Jesus Christ Superstar: Photo gallery
Jesus Christ Superstar: Ticket information
Jesus Christ Superstar, an iconic musical phenomenon with a world-wide fan base, is set against the backdrop of an extraordinary series of events during the final weeks in the life of Jesus Christ as seen through the eyes of Judas. Reflecting the rock roots that defined a generation, the legendary score includes “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” “Gethsemane” and the title song. In celebration of its 50th anniversary, this new production comes to North America appealing to both theater audiences and concert music fans. This production pays tribute to the historic 1971 Billboard Album of the Year while creating a modern, theatrical world that is uniquely fresh and inspiring.
- When: Performances November 26 through December 1
- Where: Buell Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
- Written by: Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice
- Directed by: Timothy Sheader (Crazy for You, Into the Woods)
- Choreographed by: Drew McOnie (King Kong, Strictly Ballroom)
- Tickets: Available by calling 303-893-4100, in person in the Helen Bonfils Theatre Complex at 14th and Curtis streets or, online by clicking here:
- Groups: Call 800-641-1222
Noteworthy Superstar casties through the ages:
- Yvonne Elliman: Broadway and 1973 film
- Sara Bareilles: NBC Live in Concert
- Jenna Rubaii: 50th anniversary national tour
- Murray Head: 1970 concept album
- Ted Neeley: 1973 film
- Billy Lewis, Jr.: 2017 Arvada Center staging
- John Legend: NBC Live in Concert
- Aaron LaVigne: 50th anniversary national tour (pictured right)
- Ben Vereen: Broadway originator
- Carl Anderson: 1973 film
- Tony Vincent: 20o0 Broadway (DCPA Theatre Company’s The Twelve)
- James Delisco Beeks: 50th anniversary national tour