What a difference from 1971.
When Jesus Christ Superstar opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on October 12th of that year, dozens of Christian fundamentalists were outside brandishing their picket signs.
Billy Graham said that the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice show “bordered on blasphemy and sacrilege.” Dr. William A. Marra – then the host of the radio show Where Catholics Meet — didn’t temper his feelings with the word “bordered”; he out-and-out used the words “blasphemous” and “blasphemed.”
They and plenty of others objected that the musical stressed Jesus’ humanity over divinity. Jesus was shown to fear the impending suffering and death. That the resurrection wasn’t part of the show angered many, too.
Others didn’t like that the apostles at The Last Supper sang that they were “sinking in a gentle pool of wine” (read: getting wasted) or that they proclaimed that “When we retire, we can write the gospels so they’ll all talk about us when we’ve died.” The remark implied that their motivation is to keep Jesus in the public eye so that they’ll have their own piece of fame as biographers.
The American Jewish Committee and the Anti‐Defamation League of B’nai B’rith also bristled. Because the musical reiterated that the Jews were Christ-killers, they feared an anti-Semitic backlash.
Then was then and now is now. The property has become so mainstream that Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert will be the Easter Special on TV. It won’t be narrowcast on some arcane cable station, but on the NBC network, where it’s anticipated to get more rating points than complaints.
And if you miss it or forget to record it, Masterworks Broadway is offering a new soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert.
It should be both quite a show and a recording. First off, John Legend plays Jesus. His birth name is John Roger Stephens – but considering all he’s achieved, he was wise to choose “legend” as his stage name.
That he’s won an Oscar, Golden Globe, Tony (for co-producing Fences) and ten Grammys is one thing – nay, thirteen things – but at the risk of being blasphemous, he’s almost typecast as Jesus, because he’s quite the philanthropist. Not only has he done plenty of benefit concerts – many rock stars do that – but he’s also diligently worked in the trenches with charities that have served Hurricane Katrina victims and impoverished Somalians.
Mr. Legend’s greatest challenge will be the dynamic “Gethsemane” which could be described in its power as the grandson to Carousel’s “Soliloquy.” Here Jesus beseeches his Father to spare him. But, as Mary Flynn sings in Merrily We Roll Along, “God don’t answer prayers a lot.”
Playing Mary Magdalene is Sara Bareilles, who did double-duty by writing the score to Waitress (which just passed its 800th performance) and has also pinch-hit as the show’s star from time to time.
Bareilles rose to prominence is 2007 with her Top Ten hit “Love Song,” so that should give her some traction and right to soar with “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” For that matter, she should do well by “Everything’s Alright,” given that that’s the state of her career.
The pivotal role of Judas goes to Brandon Victor Dixon, who’s no stranger to playing villains; he spent a year portraying Aaron Burr in Hamilton. He gets one of the most fascinating lyrics in musical theater history in his heavenly opening number “Heaven on Their Minds.” In expressing aloud what he’d like to say to Jesus he sings “And I’ve been your right hand man all along.” Well, that’s news to most Christians, for the party line has always been that Peter has had that distinction. Could Judas’ seeing Peter leapfrog over him be one reason for the betrayal? Tim Rice does get us thinking.
Tony nominee Norm (The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess) Lewis plays Caiaphas, the high priest who also gets a galvanizing moment. For another of Rice’s masterstrokes was the way he had him convince Judas to betray Jesus. Rice had made Judas reluctant to do the deed even for thirty pieces of silver until Caiaphas told him to “Choose any charity. Give to the poor.”
And that’s how they got him to commit. This way Judas could take the money ostensibly to donate it to the needy; accepting it under those circumstances made him seem like a good guy. The priests had to make him accept the money; if he didn’t, he might renege on betraying Jesus — and they couldn’t have that. Caiaphas comes out looking good, too, for he seems to have the needs of the poor on his mind.
So will there be protests this time around? Let’s put it this way: I saw an excellent production of JCS at the University of Cincinnati-College Conservatory of Music last month. I was told that this was the biggest box-office success the school had had in years – and that no one had lodged an objection. The audience, in fact, was mostly made up of seniors who were teens who had bought the concept album when it was first released.
Hard to believe that we’re fast approaching the 50th anniversary of Jesus Christ Superstar, with the title song released as a single in September, 1969. Then in 1970, the two-record concept album debuted at number four on Variety’s Top-Selling Albums chart. Rarely did any recording make the Top Ten the first week it entered the list, but here was JCS en route to selling more than twelve million albums. It of course resulted in that Broadway production that wound up running almost two years despite the negative publicity.
Although many Broadway observers in the late ‘60s predicted that Hair would be the Broadway game changer, the dialogue-less British musical that started with JCS would rule unchallenged for years and years.
Yes, the American musical has made a terrific rebound in recent years: Billy Elliot is the only British import this century to win the Best Musical Tony, and it followed a traditional Broadway musical template rather than the Lloyd Webber-Rice model.
Still, the British musical has hardly disappeared, for since Evita began previews on September 10, 1979, there has never, ever, ever been a week where a Lloyd Webber musical hasn’t played on Broadway – an astonishing streak of more than 38 years. He’s the only composer to see one of his shows set a longest-running-show-on-Broadway record (via Cats) and then break it himself with another of his shows (via The Phantom of the Opera).
For JCS, The Drama Desk Awards gave Lloyd Webber a prize for “Most Promising Composer.” To say he made good on the promise is an understatement.
The soundtrack will be available for download and streaming everywhere on April 6th. The CD will be available on April 27th. Click here for more.