Credits: Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. Lyrics by Tim Rice.
Summary: A “rock opera” that depicts the last days of Jesus’s life, from his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday leading up to his crucifixion on Good Friday, as told from the perspective of the apostle Judas Iscariot.
Jesus Christ Superstar had its start as a concept album, recorded in London in 1970. Although the album was hugely popular, the Broadway production which followed (in 1971) only ran for 711 performances. The show was better received in London, where it opened in 1972 and ran for eight years. A movie version came out in 1973, directed by Norman Jewison (who also directed the movie of Fiddler on the Roof). Since then, JSC has become a global phenomenon, performed in over 40 countries and grossing more than $190 million dollars!
Awards: Nominated for five Tony Awards in 1972, but it didn’t win any.
Why This Musical: Although Jesus Christ Superstar can seem dated today, in the 1970s, it was ground-breaking. Unlike most musicals of the time, it was sung-through, with no dialogue, and it mixed a rock score and modern lyrics with an age-old story. As one might expect, a musical based on the Passion of Jesus sparked quite a bit of controversy. Many Christians objected to Judas, who functions as the show’s narrator, because they thought he was portrayed too sympathetically. Others felt the musical was anti-Semitic, given that the villains of the piece included a group of Jewish priests. The Broadway production was such an overblown spectacle that it received scathing reviews; even Andrew Lloyd Webber, who composed the show, called it a “vulgar travesty.” However, the London version of the show, which was scaled down, was very popular and ran for years. JCS eventually went on to become a part of the musical theatre canon, sparking numerous revivals, touring shows, and arena-style productions.
The 1973 movie was critically well-received, although it also sparked protests from various religious groups. The framing device – a troupe of actors who arrive in Israel via bus – was unique, and it allowed for low-key costumes and a bare-bones set. The decision to shoot the movie on location, in the Israeli dessert, also gave it an authentic feel.
My Connection: In my post on Wicked, I mentioned “gateway musicals,”—a term for certain shows that spark a lifelong passion for musical theatre. For my nineteen-year-old daughter’s generation, that musical was Rent. For today’s younger theatre-goers, it might be Hamilton. But my gateway musical was Jesus Christ Superstar. Although I grew up listening to musicals (particularly the works of Rodgers & Hammerstein), and I often sang along with them, my 14-year-old reaction to JCS was more like an obsession. I listened to the record non-stop, put on mini “performances” of the entire soundtrack with my brother, and often lapsed into daydreams in which our community theatre decided to do the show and cast me in the role of Mary Magdalene. It didn’t hurt that all the kids in my high school theatre class were equally obsessed, and we frequently sang the songs and choreographed the dance numbers in class.
When the revival movie house in my town offered a double bill of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar during Easter break, I was beside myself with excitement. Despite the great score and cool NYC setting, Godspell was a little too weird for me, but I loved JCS. I was a little disappointed at the casting of Jesus; to me, Ted Neeley seemed whiny compared to Ian Gillian, who sang the role on the London concept album. I thought the rest of the casting was marvelous, though. Carl Anderson was powerful and sympathetic as Judas, and Josh Mostel was a perfect, over-the-top King Herod.
Over the years, my passion for JCS has faded somewhat, although I usually try to watch the movie once a year, right before Easter. I had a chance to see a community theatre version of the show in 1996, and it was decent, but by no means memorable. If I’d had the chance, I would have loved to have seen the 2012 Broadway revival, just to see JCS reinterpreted for a 21st century audience.
Where to See It: The movie version is available on DVD (I found it listed at Wal-Mart and Target) and Google Play has it available for streaming. The show is performed a lot by professional and amateur theatre groups, so it’s not hard to find a local production.
“Heaven on Their Minds”
“I Don’t Know How to Love Him”
“King Herod’s Song”
Final Thoughts: Even though Jesus Christ Superstar doesn’t have the same impact now as it did in the 1970s and 80s, it’s a great example of musical theatre from that era. Definitely give the soundtrack a listen or catch the movie if you have the chance.