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Reviving Jesus Christ Superstar

Those words were first belted out more than 40 years ago in the best-known passion play of modern times – Jesus Christ Superstar.  Four decades on, as a new production of the globally-renowned musical prepares to open in London, Faith Today looks back at its sometimes controversial history – and the role the Vatican played in making it a success.

Millions of Britons have been glued to their TV screens this summer as contestants battled it out to get what might just be the best-ever prize in broadcasting history – the chance to play the lead role in a new production of Jesus Christ Superstar.

But as viewers watched the show’s creator Andrew Lloyd-Webber, together with fellow judges Dawn French and Jason Donovan and host Amanda Holden, searching for the ideal performer to represent Christ in the most popular passion play of modern times, few will have known the crucial role the Vatican, and Pope John Paul II, played in putting the musical on the map in the first place.

Jesus Christ Superstar – The album was released by Decca Records – with rock legend Ian Gillan, Deep Purple’s lead singer, singing the part of JesusJesus Christ Superstar began life as a groundbreaking rock double-album, with music by Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, back in 1970 when the now world-famous musical duo were 21 and 25 years old respectively. And as Lloyd Webber recalls, it was far from an instant hit. ‘Nobody was interested in doing “Jesus Christ Superstar” on stage when we started, so Tim Rice and I did it as a record.’

Based on the Gospels and telling the story of the last week of Jesus’s life up to his crucifixion, the album was released by Decca Records – with rock legend Ian Gillan, Deep Purple’s lead singer, singing the part of Jesus (there’s no spoken dialogue in the show, either on stage or on record).

The album sold fast – in 1971, it was named biggest-selling album of the year, and it made number one on the album chart twice that year. But though the public loved numbers like the eponymous ‘Superstar’ (sung by Judas Iscariot) and ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ (sung by Mary Magdalene), the show was regarded as incredibly controversial in some Christian circles. Many thought its portrayal of such a human Jesus was very dubious; some even went as far as to brand it ‘blasphemous’.

But then came support from an unexpected quarter: Vatican Radio. In an unprecedented move, the station announced that it would broadcast the opera in full, and would present comments from both Lloyd Webber and Rice alongside some from Catholic dignitaries. ‘Nothing like this has ever been broadcast on Vatican Radio until now,’ a spokesman from Vatican Radio was quoted as saying. ‘But we feel this is a work of considerable importance’.

Acknowledging the support of the Vatican that the move signalled, Tim Rice said at the time that he and Lloyd Webber had been aware from the inception of their work that there might be resistance to it from some quarters, especially in Catholic countries. ‘But oddly enough, it has been better received there than in some of the Church of England areas,’ he said. ‘We think that it must be that they have heightened awareness of religious subjects – as opposed to what can only be described as apathy in England.’

Two years later, in 1973, a film version of the musical was produced. Directed by Norman Jewison, it starred Ted Neeley as Christ and Carl Anderson as Judas – and both were nominated for Golden Globe awards the following year for their parts in the movie. And though the film brought a renewed wave of criticism from some religious quarters, the reviews for the film – which was a classic of 70’s fashion and hairstyles – were generally favourable.

A film version of the musical was produced. Directed by Norman Jewison, it starred Ted Neeley as Christ and Carl Anderson as Judas – and both were nominated for Golden Globe awards the following year for their parts in the movie. As well as the movie (and a remake in 2000), there was the theatre show. Jesus Christ Superstar debuted on Broadway in October 1971 and ran for 720 performances, closing two years later after grossing £2.8 million at the box office, and winning Lloyd Webber the prestigious Drama Desk Award as Most Promising Composer in 1972.

That same year the rock spectacle came to London, arriving on the West End at the Palace Theatre to huge acclaim, with Paul Nicholas singing the part of Jesus and Jim Sharman as director. Arriving in town for the UK premiere of his ‘Fifteenth Symphony’, Dmitri Shostakovich asked to see a performance of the show – and he was so impressed by what he heard that he went straight back to see it again the following night.

By 1980, after 3,358 performances, Jesus Christ Superstar had become the longest running musical in West End history at the time and grossed £7.5 million.

But it was two decades later, in 2000, that it received its second blessing from Rome, when a production by Massimo Romeo Piparo’s Peep Arrow company was endorsed by the Vatican’s official 2000 Jubilee programme. Songs from the show were performed for John Paul II during the Jubilee celebrations – a highlight of the musical events of that action-packed year.

Earlier this summer, to coincide with the live show this autumn, the rock album was re-released as a digitally remastered double album – with the original Jesus, Ian Gillan, platinum selling solo artist Murray Head as Judas Iscariot and Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene.

The latest incarnation of the stage show is an Ontario production that debuted at Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2011 and moved on to San Diego. It won a record-breaking 11 Broadway World awards as voted for by the public, and received early reviews which propelled an early move to Broadway.Meanwhile the latest incarnation of the stage show is an Ontario production that debuted at Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival in 2011 and moved on to San Diego. It won a record-breaking 11 Broadway World awards as voted for by the public, and received early reviews which propelled an early move to Broadway. ‘These remain some of Lloyd Webber’s catchiest tunes, spanning rock to pop to operatic bomast,’ wrote the Hollywood Reporter. ‘Hearing excellent singers deliver these tunes through powerful, crisp amplification is a primal thrill,’ said the New York Post. ‘When [Paul] Nolan opens his mouth, whoa, here comes the superstar – a god of the rock kind, strutting about and casually dispatching falsetto thrills.’

On September 21 in London, at the O2, it opens yet again – and Lloyd Webber and his team will be hoping for similar reviews. Tim Minchin will play Judas Iscariot, Melanie C will be Mary Magdalene, and Chris Moyles will be King Herod. And the central role, of course, will go to the performer who’s persuaded Andrew Lloyd Webber that he’s up to perhaps the composer’s greatest role in a show that – 40 years on – is every bit as powerful as it was when it made its very first debut.

For information on the tour of Jesus Christ Superstar show – which goes on after London to play at venues from Glasgow to Cardiff and from Dublin and Belfast to Nottingham, see www.jesuschristsuperstar.com

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