Superstar that is, the musical that put Broadway titans Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber on the map
The London songwriting team of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber first hit biblical paydirt in 1968 with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, a 22-minute cantata commissioned for a children’s school performance.
It so delighted the audience, the two soon found themselves fleshing it out to album length; in later years it would expand even further into a full stage show.
It was then suggested that tackling the grander story of Jesus would be a logical next step for them. At first they hesitated, then decided to take a philosophical approach to the subject, inspired by a Bob Dylan lyric: “You’ll have to decide, whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side.” Exploring that question would put a modern, even challenging, spin on the Greatest Story Ever Told. Which perfectly suited the era, a time when the Baby Boomer generation was coming into its own, questioning the values of the old order.
VIDEO: Murray Head performing “Superstar”
A demo of a questioning song by Judas, “Superstar,” was enough to secure them a deal for a single with MCA Records. Lloyd Webber already had grandiose musical visions, describing his planned arrangement for the song as “a fusion of symphony orchestra, soul brass section, gospel choir and rock group with a bluesy lead vocal … in other words nothing fancy.” Rice’s lyrics cast Jesus’ crucifixion as a media event: “Did you mean to die like that, was that a mistake/Or did you know your messy death would be a record-breaker?” Actor Murray Head stepped into the role of Judas Iscariot, backed by, among others, members of Joe Cocker’s Grease Band, the Trinidad Singers, vocalist Lesley Duncan, and a full symphony orchestra. Released in November 1969, the single generated enough interest to continue with the project.
So Jesus Christ Superstar began life as a concept album. There was, as yet, no stage show. “Overriding everything was that we were telling our story in sound — and sound alone,” Lloyd Webber says in his memoir, Unmasked. “We had none of the visual element of theatre and film to fall back on. A cast-iron musical and dramatic structure was the key.” Pacing was important, to hold the listeners’ interest. Lloyd Webber set the stage by using the overture to unveil the broad musical scope of the work, and the range of the instrumentation, in just two minutes. Since there was no dialogue, the lyrics had to carry the whole story.
And with only their voices to emote with, the singers were of paramount importance. Murray Head quickly signed on to reprise his role as Judas. Colin Blunstone, lead singer of the Zombies, was briefly considered for Jesus, but his label refused to let him do it. Lloyd Webber dismisses as nonsense the rumor that John Lennon was ever considered for the part (“Even today this fabricated rubbish persists as fact”). Instead, the songwriters were introduced to Deep Purple’s lead singer, Ian Gillan, by the group’s manager. As soon as they heard what Lloyd Webber calls Gillan’s “primal scream,” they knew they’d found The One. Lloyd Webber was so excited, he promptly rewrote the section where Jesus kicks the moneylenders out of the temple to take advantage of that scream (check out the final result in “The Temple” at the 1:50 mark).
While visiting a Chelsea club to check out a possibility for Pontius Pilate, Lloyd Webber and Rice instead discovered a visiting American, Hawaiian-born Yvonne Elliman, accompanying herself on acoustic guitar. As Lloyd Webber recalled, her “quirky, youthful, sexy and highly individual” voice immediately won her the role of Mary Magdalene. Another American, Barry Dennen, whom Lloyd Webber had seen as the MC in the London production of Cabaret, was deemed to have the precise diction needed for Pilate. Rice’s friend Mike d’Abo, new lead singer of Manfred Mann, took on the always crowd-pleasing role of King Herod.
Concert productions, Broadway and London shows, and the film of Superstar were to come. But the original studio cast album, released in October 1970, remains the definitive version of Jesus Christ Superstar, because it has the very best vocalists. Gillan’s standout moment is undoubtedly “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)” — check out that scream at 2:27! — but his delivery is passionate throughout, regardless of the volume. Like a rock star, his Jesus is constantly facing demands on all sides, from his entourage, his public, and his detractors (not to mention his Father). There’s a few upbeat moments (e.g. the glory of “Hosanna”), but most of the time, Gillan’s voice is laced with an undercurrent of melancholy, the sadness of a man who fears his message isn’t getting through. “If you knew all that I knew/my poor Jerusalem/You’d see the truth/but you close your eyes,” he sings, turning away from the zealots who want him to take on Rome.
VIDEO: Ian Gillan performs “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)” from Jesus Christ Superstar
This, of course, is the main problem for Judas, who sees Jesus’ growing celebrity as something to reject: “You’ve begun to matter more than the things you say,” he warns in the opening number, “Heaven on Their Minds.” Judas is the show’s most interesting character, because he’s the most conflicted. He piously wags his finger at Mary Magdalene for buying “fine ointment” when that money should’ve gone to the poor, and taunts Jesus before he leaves the Last Supper to betray him (“What if I just stayed here/and ruined your ambition?/Christ you deserve it!”) even as the agonies of that betrayal tear him apart. Head’s raspy voice gives his songs a rawer edge, heightening the emotion (and he’s not a bad screamer himself).
“King Herod’s Song” is a moment of comedic relief, well-placed before the descent into the horrors of Judas’ suicide and Jesus’ trial and execution. Mary Magdalene’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” is beautifully performed by Elliman, and has such a beguiling melody, you might overlook the typically pensive lyric from Rice (as Lloyd Webber observed, “Tim can never write ‘I love you.’ It’s always, ‘I love you, but….’”). The song is later used to devastating effect when Judas takes his own life. Dennen’s Pilate has a keen sharpness that’s perfect for the tense drama of the trial, climaxing as he snarls, “Don’t let me stop your great self-destruction/Die if you want to you misguided martyr.”
For all the fuss at the time of its release about the blasphemy of setting a Bible story to rock music, Jesus Christ Superstar has a conventional structure that has served it well over the years (the only change to the show has been the addition of the song “Could We Start Again Please?”). Orchestral instruments had been used in rock songs before, but never on such a scale, sustaining a narrative for nearly 90 minutes. Rice’s lyrics reached for a greater depth beyond the surface platitudes that were the usual fare in biblical dramatizations. Even the cover of the US album, two golden angels facing each other in a circle, became what Lloyd Webber calls “the first mega logo in musical theatre history.”
If there wasn’t a pandemic, Jesus Christ Superstar would probably be playing in a theater somewhere in the world today. But the strength of the work is that it doesn’t need the visuals. Between them, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber created a musical that’s as bold, as daring, and as thrilling today as it was a half century ago, when Judas and his backing band first posed the question, “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ/Who are you? What have you sacrificed?”
Sanna ho, sanna hey, Superstar.