Jesus Christ Superstar opens (1971)
It was on this date, October 12, 1971, that the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar opened on Broadway in New York’s Mark Hellinger Theater. Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice were hardly household names at the time – they initially couldn’t get backing to put up a show, so they raised money by recording an “original cast” album first.
The plan worked, the album made money, and the show wowed critics like Douglas Watt of the New York Daily News, who wrote, “Jesus Christ Superstar is so stunningly effective a theatrical experience that I am still finding it difficult to compose my thoughts about it. It is, in short, a triumph.”
From album to stage to silver screen, the property polished the coined term “rock opera,” to which opera fanatics objected, and captured the imaginations of a rebellious younger generation, to which tradition-minded parents objected. But it wasn’t pure calculation that earned Jesus Christ Superstar its enduring popularity – it has been revived twice on Broadway and is a favorite of regional and amateur theater, as well – but something more.
As history, of course, the story of Jesus fails because there is so little extra-Biblical evidence that such a man existed, he might as well be a legend. But being a legend does not prevent Jesus from being a heroic and popular figure, as he is portrayed in the Webber-Rice musical. Theater requires audience suspension of disbelief in the first place. After that, the catchy tunes and clever lyrics work their way into your head, and the sympathetic characters stand next to you, as if they were people you know.
In fact, Jesus Christ Superstar doesn’t so much convert you as seduce you. Who among us can’t relate to wearying of responsibility and just letting go, as in the song sung by Mary Magdalene?
Yes everything’s fine
And we want you to sleep well tonight
Let the world turn without you tonight
Who among us can’t relate to seeing a friend heading down a dangerous path, and wanting to save him from himself, as in the song sung by Judas Iscariot?
Listen Jesus I don’t like what I see
All I ask is that you listen to me
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
—”Heaven on Their Minds”
Who among us hasn’t been in love with someone unreachable, as in another song sung by Mary Magdalene?
I don’t know how to love him
What to do, how to move him …
I don’t know how to take this
I don’t see why he moves me
He’s a man
He’s just a man
—”I Don’t Know How to Love Him”
And, finally, who among us as Freethinkers hasn’t expressed a slightly sarcastic skepticism toward an obvious charlatan, as in the song sung by King Herod?
So if you are the Christ
Yes the great Jesus Christ
Prove to me that you’re no fool
Walk across my swimming pool
—”King Herod’s Song”
The conflict in the story is Jesus with his own doubts about divinity, but also Judas and his conscience. Judas betrays his friend to stop him from going too far with this divinity thing. Making of Judas a villain has always been an incomprehensible element in the Christian story. Without Judas, there would never have been a Christianity. That’s because Jesus would never have been sacrificed, as so many mythical redeemer-gods before Jesus have been sacrificed. Although, in this case, we’re expected to believe it really happened.
Jesus Christ Superstar closed on 1 July 1973, after 711 performances. The show might be enduringly popular because, unlike Godspell, it doesn’t try to convert you by scaring you with eternal punishment. Besides, there are no miracles and there is no resurrection, the two least believable parts of the Jesus myth. Instead, even if you don’t have heaven on your mind, you won’t mind the music.
Original Broadway Cast:
Judas Iscariot played by Ben Vereen
(played by Murray Head in the recording, Carl Anderson in the 1973 film)
Jesus of Nazareth played by Jeff Fenholt
(played by Ian Gillian of the rock group Deep Purple in the recording, by Ted Neeley in the film)
Mary Magdalene played by Yvonne Elliman
(she was perfect for the recording and the film, as well)
Caiaphas played by Bob Bingham
(reprised the role in the film)
Annas played by Phil Jethro
(played by Kurt Yaghjian in the film)
Simon Zealotes played by Dennis Buckley
(played by Larry T. Marshall in the film)
Pontius Pilate played by Barry Dennen
(reprised the role in the film)
King Herod played by Paul Ainsley
(played by Joshua Mostel in the film)
Peter played by Michael Jason
(played by Philip Toubus, aka Paul Thomas, in the film)
Reporter/Leper played by Ted Neeley
(who played Jesus in the film)
Originally published October 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.