‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at 50: What Was the Buzz?
It was the spring of 1970, and Yvonne Elliman, an 18-year-old singer and guitarist from Hawaii, had just finished performing at a London nightclub when a breathless young man rushed the stage.
“You’re my Mary Magdalene!” a wide-eyed, 22-year-old Andrew Lloyd Webber announced.
“I thought he meant the mother of God,” Elliman, now 69, said in a recent phone conversation, explaining that she had been unfamiliar with the biblical story. “He was like, ‘No, no, no, no, it’s not the mother, it’s the whore.’”
They had a laugh, and she went on to sing the part in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the seminal rock opera by Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, for the concept album, the first arena tour, the original Broadway production and the feature film.
The musical, which opened 50 years ago on Oct. 12, 1971, turned the story of one of history’s most notorious executions into a splashy spectacle. In doing so, it married rock and musical theater, ushering in Broadway’s British invasion of the 1970s and 1980s and paving the way for shows like “Les Misérables” and “The Phantom of the Opera.”
But the nearly 90-minute concept album came first in 1970, because, as Lloyd Webber recalled recently to The Telegraph, no producer wanted to put “the worst idea in history” onstage.
“We never knew how it was ever going to get staged,” Lloyd Webber, 73, said in a recent phone conversation. “So it wasn’t a collection of rock tracks or something put together. It had to be read to you and you could understand — the dramatic context of the whole thing had to be the recording.”
Jeff Fenholt in the Broadway production. The rock opera portrays Jesus as simply a man, who loses his temper, doubts God and gets caught up in his own celebrity.Credit…Getty Images
Though the album fizzled in England, the rock opera with a full orchestra and gospel choir took off in America, climbing to No. 1 on the Billboard charts by February 1971. A year after its release, the initial album had sold 2.5 million copies in the United States.
“We were staggered by the success,” Rice, 76, the show’s lyricist, said in a video call from his home in Buckinghamshire, England. “MCA let us make a single — two unknown guys — with a huge orchestra and a rock section. And with rather a controversial title. And it worked.”
A national concert tour followed in 1971, and audiences packed stadiums to hear Elliman (Mary Magdalene), Carl Anderson (Judas) and Jeff Fenholt (Jesus) belt out hits like “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” “Heaven on Their Minds” and “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say).”
“It was crazy,” Elliman said. “I was asked to go to a hospital and put my hands on a girl who’d been in a car accident. I didn’t know what to say — I held her hand and sat with her. But a few weeks later, her parents wrote to me that she got better immediately after me seeing her.”
At last, they got the green light: Broadway.
Tom O’Horgan (“Hair”) was tapped to direct after Lloyd Webber missed a telegram from the director Hal Prince, who had expressed interest. “The one person I’d have loved to have seen do it would have been Hal Prince,” Lloyd Webber said in the interview. “Would it have turned out differently? Would it have been good? I don’t know.”
The show, which narrates the last seven days of Jesus’s life through the eyes of one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, opened at the Mark Hellinger Theater on 51st Street to an audience that included Lloyd Webber, 23, and Rice, 26. But in a joint interview with The New York Times later that month, both men practically disowned their director.
“Let’s just say that we don’t think this production is the definitive one,” said Lloyd Webber, who in later years would call O’Horgan’s $700,000 staging a “brash and vulgar interpretation” and opening night “probably the worst night of my life.”
Reviews were mixed. Dick Brukenfield of The Village Voice praised Lloyd Webber’s “energetic music” but noted that the ocular dazzle — the sets included a large special-effects “chrysalis,” a bridge of bones, and a giant set of dentures — distracted from the story. “It looks like a record that’s been reproduced onstage with visual filler by Tom O’Horgan,” he wrote.
The New York Times critic Clive Barnes panned the production, writing that it “rather resembled one’s first sight of the Empire State Building. Not at all uninteresting, but somewhat unsurprising and of minimal artistic value.”
Cries of “Blasphemy!”
Opening night attracted crowds of leaflet-bearing Christian and Jewish protesters, who regarded what The New York Times writer Guy Flatley called “the strutting, mincing, twitching, grinding, souped‐up ‘Superstar’” as theatrical sacrilege.
“Going into the theater it’d be ‘Blasphemy! Blasphemy!’” said Ben Vereen, now 75, who played Judas.
Lloyd Webber added: “I’m not convinced that Robert Stigwood, our producer, might not have actually orchestrated one or two of them. I think it might have had a much rougher ride today than it did then.”
Rice and Lloyd Webber were accused of denying the divinity of Christ and making a hero of Judas, who is the unambiguous villain in the New Testament. Jewish leaders were alarmed that the musical made it appear as if Jews were responsible for Jesus’s crucifixion, which they feared would fan antisemitism.
“We were criticized for leaving out the Resurrection,” Rice said. “But that was not part of our story because, by then, Judas was dead. And his story was over.”
Conservative Christians were also startled by the sexual overtones between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, the prostitute who finds herself falling in love with him.
“I’d get evil letters from people who said they wanted to kill Mary so Yvonne could come out again,” Elliman said.
But Rice is clear: There was never an affair in the “Superstar” story line.
“I would imagine he would have been a very attractive man and yet not somebody who was out looking for a girlfriend,” he said. “He was somebody who was charismatic and powerful. And, and this woman is slightly afraid of that, maybe afraid of what her own feelings are.”
Jesus and Judas
Jesus Christ, played by Jeff Fenholt, loses his temper, doubts God and gets a bit caught up in his own celebrity. He’s simply Jesus, the man, with all the attendant problems and failings.
“He could feel pain,” Rice said. “If he was only a god, then things like a crucifixion, which is a horrible, horrible torture and death, wouldn’t really be a problem. If he’s a man, whether or not he’s a god, he has to suffer. He has to have doubts.”
Those doubts are most on display in the “Gethsemane” rock scream, in which Jesus pleads — with a wailing G above high C — for God to let this cup pass from him.
“We wanted to have a rock tenor who contrasted with the voice of Judas,” Lloyd Webber said.
Vereen, who was cast as Judas, was nominated for a Tony Award for the role. He said the biblical account of the relationship between Jesus and Judas left him room for interpretation.
“Jesus never wrote the book, and Judas never wrote the book,” he said. “All we hear is the hearsay of these men from the disciples in the Gospels.”
Inspired by the Bob Dylan lyric “Did Judas Iscariot have God on his side?” from the 1964 song “With God on Our Side,” Rice set out to humanize the New Testament’s unambiguous villain.
“I thought, well, ‘This is a very good character, which I can expand from what’s in the Bible, because there isn’t very much in the Bible,’” Rice said. “He was a human being. He had good points and bad points. He had strengths and weaknesses.”
At first, Vereen said, he struggled to understand his character’s motivation. Then, after combing through the Bible, he came up with a theory.
“Hypothetically speaking, maybe Judas really loved Jesus more than any of the other disciples and wanted him to be the hero that ruled the country,” Vereen said. “And he felt that if he betrayed him, the Israelites would rebel and put Jesus in the role.”
A Musical Radio Play
Because the show began as what Lloyd Webber calls a musical radio play, meant to be listened to straight through for 90 minutes without any visuals “on a turntable, in those days,” he said, he had to come up with strategies to keep the listener’s attention.
“A lot of that has to do with how you plant themes and how you deal with them,” he said. “My idea for the overture was to introduce every ingredient that I could think of within the musical palette we were going to hear through the rest of the recording.”
And then those themes recur, one by one, as when the whole of the overture is mirrored in the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate, or when a song reappears with a twist, like “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” To Mary Magdalene it’s a love song about Jesus; when it returns as a motif sung by Judas as a lament, the lyrics change: “He’s not a king, he’s just the same/As anyone I know/He scares me so.”
“Judas understood Jesus, and he obviously was clearly obsessed and loved him,” Lloyd Webber said. “And then at the same time, you’ve got this woman, who was also, if you follow the Bible, clearly very, very much in love with him.”
And then, of course, there’s the musical’s oddball track.
Herod, Paul Ainsley’s glitter-flecked, platform-sandaled drag queen, commands the son of God to “Prove to me that you’re no fool/walk across my swimming pool” in “King Herod’s Song (Try It and See).” The bouncy ragtime number serves as comic relief after Jesus’s gut-wrenching “Gethsemane” aria.
“It’s taking a conventional showbiz number and making it something really very, very nasty,” Lloyd Webber said. “When Herod turns around and says, ‘Get out of my life!,’ that’s a number that’s gone wrong.”
Rice said: “Musically, I think it’s a brilliant stroke on Andrew’s part. Just as everything’s getting heavier and heavier and heavier, and suddenly you have a very catchy melody. We wanted people to almost be misled into thinking, ‘Oh, well, you know, maybe it’s going to be a happy ending.’”
The Show’s Legacy
With $1.2 million in advance sales, the Broadway show sold out almost every performance for the first six weeks. But the hype quickly dimmed. It ran for 711 performances in all and failed to win a Tony Award despite five nominations, including one for best score.
But the musical’s legacy has endured, spawning three Broadway revivals (in 1977, 2000 and 2012), a 2012 Lloyd Webber-produced televised competition series to cast the titular role for a British arena tour, a 2018 televised NBC production that starred John Legend as Jesus and resulted in Emmy wins for Rice and Lloyd Webber — and now the 50th anniversary American tour, interrupted by the pandemic, that resumed performances in Seattle late last month.
“51 years since the album came out … blimey!” Rice said.
Lloyd Webber, looking back, said, “Everything I was doing was all instinct.” He added, “Yes, I’d had some amateur productions, but we’d never had anything in the professional theater — and I don’t know whether that would have influenced us for good or bad.”
He thought for a second.
“Without sounding immodest” — he chuckled — “it’s actually rather good.”