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The ’Splainer: The stormy, surprising history of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

Rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” opened in New York on Oct. 13, 1971, at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. Stars Ben Vereen, from left, as Judas, Jeff Fenholt, as Jesus, and Yvonne Elliman, as Mary Magdalene, relax backstage after a preview performance of the show Oct. 12, 1971. (AP Photo)

The ’Splainer (as in “You’ve got some ’splaining to do”) is an occasional feature in which the RNS staff gives you everything you need to know about current events to hold your own at the water cooler.

(RNS) — On Easter Sunday, NBC will air a live broadcast of “Jesus Christ Superstar” featuring John Legend, Alice Cooper and other contemporary pop culture luminaries.

But the musical by composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice has been around for almost 50 years and has a long production history that has been both triumphant and troubled.

So what’s the back story on this British import being revisited and reimagined on television Sunday night (April 1)? Let us ’Splain …

What is “Jesus Christ Superstar”?

“Jesus Christ Superstar” is a musical play loosely based on the Gospels of the New Testament. It is a kind of late 20th-century Passion play with a late point-of-attack — just as Jesus enters Jerusalem the week before his death. The main characters are all familiar to anyone with a working knowledge of the New Testament — Jesus, Judas, Mary Magdalene, Caiaphas, Pontius Pilate, Herod and the disciples.

But “Jesus Christ Superstar” isn’t really a musical. A musical is a spoken play with sung interludes that advance the plot. “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a “rock opera” — there are no spoken sections in the original version. Lloyd Weber and Rice pioneered the form and wrote a lot of them, including “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” “Evita,” “Cats” and “Phantom of the Opera.”

Rice, the lyricist, said he was inspired by a verse in the 1964 Bob Dylan song “With God on Our Side“:

Through many a dark hour
I’ve been thinkin’ about this
That Jesus Christ was
Betrayed by a kiss
But I can’t think for you
You’ll have to decide
Whether Judas Iscariot
Had God on his side.

Judas, more than Jesus, is at the center of the drama in “Superstar.” His songs reveal a tortured soul with a divided mind about Jesus, whom he both loves and doubts and will famously come to betray.

Is “Jesus Christ Superstar” new?

Nope. It is way older than most of the audience NBC is aiming at. It was written in 1970 — when your faithful ’Splainer herself was but a mere babe — and first appeared as a concept album (remember those?) that year. The album sold over 3 million copies and was an international sensation.

One of the main reasons for the album’s success (and the fact that this 48-year-old show is still around) is the way Lloyd Webber and Rice — both from Christian backgrounds — approached the Jesus story. Instead of framing his divinity or his ministry, they focus instead on the sociopolitical factors working on him and his followers. The result is a Jesus who is a radical revolutionary fighting against the establishment — a very resonant idea in 1970.

Actor Jeff Fenholt portrays Jesus Christ in a scene from the rock-opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” in 1971. The musical opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre in New York. RNS file photo

The concept album got the full Broadway treatment in 1971. Some critics hated what they saw as an overwrought production (including a drag queen King Herod), while others lauded the in-your-face reinterpretation of the biblical story and what was then out-of-the-box casting (the African-American Ben Vereen as Judas). The show was nominated for five Tony Awards but cast and creators went home empty-handed.

But religious people loved the show, right?

Wrong.  The opening night was picketed by Christians who saw the suggestion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a physical relationship as sacrilege and thought the whole production made a hero of Judas, not Jesus.

Jewish groups were unhappy, too. The American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League worried the show’s depiction of Caiaphas and Herod as scheming against Jesus would revive charges that Jews were responsible for Jesus’ death.

Lloyd Webber and Rice, who were ages 23 and 26 at the time of the show’s Broadway opening, were upset. “If opera had to be realistic, we would not be able to have a Black Judas, or a half Japanese Mary, or a Jewish Pilate,” Lloyd Weber told The New York Times at the opening night party. “Sure, we’ve taken great dramatic license, but no major trait of character is there that was not in the gospels.”

And Norman Jewison, who went on to direct the 1973 film version, said, “My hope is that audiences will take this for what it is – an opera, not history. These kids are trying to take Jesus off the stained-glass windows and get him down on the street. Some people are not going to like that.”

So what can I expect in the new NBC production?

That’s anyone’s guess. In past productions around the world, Judas and Jesus have been played as lovers; the disciples have been depicted as a band of circus performers and a band of traveling players. Sometimes the show is done in period costume — sandals and robes — and sometimes it is done in modern dress. Several productions have featured female Judases — an added layer of psychological complexity. It’s an “anything goes” kind of show.

John Legend, as Jesus, is carried during a dress rehearsal scene from NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert.” Photo by Virginia Sherwood/NBC

But the original “Superstar” ends with the Crucifixion. There is no Easter Sunday Resurrection. Will NBC rewrite or restage the ending to leave viewers on a hopeful note?

One thing you can expect: Despite its choice of the sometimes controversial “Superstar,” NBC isn’t looking to alienate any viewers. Its Christmastime 2013 live airing of “The Sound of Music” drew more than 18 million viewers and started a network tradition of producing a live holiday musical. And that proved very lucrative — “Hairspray Live!” brought NBC $24.9 million in 2016 and “Grease Live” brought in $15.7 million for Fox in January 2016.

About the author

Kimberly Winston

Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

7 Comments

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  • I’ve always been more fond of ‘Godspell’, myself.
    I’ll take Stephen Schwartz and his catchy tunes over A.L. Webber’s pompous melodies any day.

  • Not a Q&A but decision time, this:

    TIM RICE & BOB DYLAN: “[HpO] You’ll have to decide / Whether Judas Iscariot / Had God on his side.”

    ME: I have decided. And the answer is, Satan was on Judas’ side. And since Christianity today is full of Judases anyway (including Christian Right Nationalists & all their enemies – have I left anyone out?), it’s a no-brainer to figure out where Satan hangs. My cursing congrats to Satan, therefore, for getting his final wish to be JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. Enjoy while it lasts.

  • My fav before becoming a Jesus Freak, this:

    Heaven on Their Minds

    My mind is clearer now
    At last
    All too well
    I can see
    Where we all
    Soon will be
    If you strip away
    The myth
    From the man
    You will see
    Where we all
    Soon will be
    Jesus
    You’ve started to believe
    The things they say of you
    You really do believe
    This talk of God is true
    And all the good you’ve done
    Will soon be swept away
    You’ve begun to matter more
    Than the things you say
    Listen Jesus
    I don’t like what I see
    All I ask is that you listen to me
    And remember
    I’ve been your right hand man all along
    You have set them all on fire
    They think they’ve found the new Messiah
    And they’ll hurt you when they find they’re wrong
    I remember when this whole thing began
    No talk of God then, we called you a man
    And believe me
    My admiration for you hasn’t died
    But every word you say today
    Gets twisted ’round some other way
    And they’ll hurt you if they think you’ve lied
    Nazareth’s most famous son
    Should have stayed a great unknown
    Like his father carving wood
    He’d have made good
    Tables, chairs and oaken chests
    Would have suited Jesus best
    He’d have caused nobody harm
    No one alarm
    Listen Jesus, do you care for your race?
    Don’t you see we must keep in our place?
    We are occupied
    Have you forgotten how put down we are?
    I am frightened by the crowd
    For we are getting much too loud
    And they’ll crush us if we go too far
    If we go too far
    Listen Jesus to the warning I give
    Please remember that I want us to live
    But it’s sad to see our chances weakening with every hour
    All your followers are blind
    Too much heaven on their minds
    It was beautiful, but now it’s sour
    Yes it’s all gone sour
    Ah ah ah ah ah
    God Jesus, it’s all gone sour
    Listen Jesus to the warning I give
    Please remember that I want us to live
    So come on, come on, listen to me
    Ah ah
    Come on, listen, listen to me
    Come on and listen to me
    Ah ah

  • I was never comfortable with Judas’ role. Based on the Bible narrative I would think the authorities could recognize and locate Jesus themselves. It is my opinion that the gospels were written to fit the prophecies in the Hebrew scriptures – one of which called for the betrayal and pieces of silver.

    I’ve never heard of a liberal Hollywood biblical movie ever being accepted by conservative Christians so I would predict this revival will also fail to please.

  • Worth talking about. Thanks for this: “the gospels were written to fit the prophecies in the Hebrew scriptures – one of which called for the betrayal and pieces of silver.”

    I kinda agree, having thought about this, replaying the scene-by-scene events as Matthew, Mark, Luke & Johnny tried to pin & pen them down. How would I do it? I’d ask myself.

    1st, I guess, I would shuffle all the noted cards on the table, sequence them.

    2nd comes the challenge. I got Jesus’ words and everything. I pictured all the settings. But all these gotta be significant – but what. Hold on, let me see that. Those scrolls of Hebrew scriptures. Then it hit me. This passage here in Psalm. In Isaiah. In Exodus. In Malachi.

    3rd comes the brainstorming. No way. What are the odds these scattered, arbitrary passages point to them words, them scenarios?

    4th, I’d ask my buddy, Jim Johnson. Hey Jim what’s all this to you, man? They “fit”, alright. But do the prophecy passages “fit” the fulfillment passages? Or do the fulfillment passages “fit” the prophecy passages? Like a 100% (give and take), dude, either way, know what I mean?

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