Jesus Christ Superstar
ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER
TIM RICE 1971
- AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY
- PLOT SUMMARY
- HISTORICAL CONTEXT
- CRITICAL OVERVIEW
- FURTHER READING
Jesus Christ Superstar, a two-act rock opera, gave opera a radical facelift through its use of vibrant rock music for a solemn topic. Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics) created a new kind of Jesus, a prophet /rock star whose appeal stems as much from the crowd’s energy as from his own inspirational message. The album of songs, released a year before the first stage production of the play, created a market for the dramatic version, which opened to sold-out audiences who were already familiar with its songs. The play is a baroque fusion of styles, rock rhythm with ballad narrative, dramatic characterization with rollicking choreography, and operatic star performances that together paradoxically succeed in communicating a humble theme of love and acceptance. Sacred themes are fused with ancient political history and modern sensibilities into an entirely new form of theater art. To some critics the mixture was balanced, taut, and spectacularly successful, but to others, it was a travesty. Leaving out the Resurrection was considered both blasphemous and brilliant, bringing picketers to the streets to protest the piay, while critics raved its genius. Jesus is portrayed as having human qualities, doubts, and faults, yet his crucifixion becomes all the more poignant for it. The play was unique in its genesis as well, having begun its life as a record, thus putting initial emphasis on musicality over plot and staging. The first Broadway musical to have started in this way, it remains an innovative work of drama and music that has weathered well,
with a production nearly always taking place somewhere in the world.
The two young men from Britain had collaborated on earlier works before their successful enterprise with Jesus Christ Superstar and each had an impressive career in music. Andrew Lloyd Webber was born in 1948 in London of musician parents, his father a composer and the Director of the London College of Music and his mother a piano teacher. Webber followed in their footsteps from an early age, learning the piano, French horn, and violin. By the time he was six, he was designing toy theatrical productions on the playroom floor, and at age nine he published his first composition, an opera based on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. At twelve, he met his idol Richard Rodgers after sending him a fan letter. He attended the Guildhall School of Music and Drama and then the Royal College of Music. After one term at Oxford University, Page 152 | Top of Articlewhere his intention was to study architecture, he returned to London and met Tim Rice, a lover of classical music who was singing with a contemporary music group, the Aardvarks.
Rice, who was born in Amersham, England, in 1944, had attended the Sorbonne in Paris and had studied law in London, but was now a singer and lyricist, having just published his first song the year he met Webber, 1965. A mutual teacher friend asked them to collaborate on a new musical that his students could produce. The result was an early Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which went on to be produced at Central Hall in Westminster. There a London Sunday Times drama critic praised it, and the pair repackaged the play in 1972 for the London stage, where it earned them a wider audience and still more praise.
The duo’s next musical was Jesus Christ Superstar. Since they could not find a sponsor for a full production, they recorded one song, Judas’s “Superstar,” and released it to local underground radio stations in Great Britain and the United States. It became a hit single, so they recorded the entire, elaborate two-record album at great expense, making it, according to one critic, “the most expensive demo record ever.” The album, too, succeeded wildly (except in Great Britain), so that with a demand waiting for them, they were able to produce the stage rock opera to sold-out crowds and mostly enthusiastic critics. The pair went on to produce more hits together, including Evita (1978). Webber has earned six Tony awards, four Drama Desk awards, three Grammys, and five Laurence Olivier awards, mostly for best score and best musical. In 1992 he was knighted for his service to the arts. He was the first recipient of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers Triple Play award. In 1995, Webber was inducted into the American Songwriters’ Hall of Fame and also given the Praemium Imperiale Award for Music. In 1997 he was elevated to the peerage as The Lord Lloyd-Webber of Sydmonton. Tim Rice has earned Grammy, Tony, and Academy Awards for his lyrics. Rice wrote the lyrics for the Disney feature cartoon The Lion King and worked with Alan Menken to produce the lyrics for Disney’s Aladdin, among others. Rice has published over 30 books on British pop music, and runs his own book publishing company, Pavilion Books, which he established in 1981. He is also the United Kingdom’s chairman for Sports and the Arts. He was knighted in 1994 for his work in the arts and sports.
The play opens with the actors arriving in a desert, laden with their costumes and props. In the film version, a battered bus slowly makes its way across the desert into the foreground. The actors ready themselves, slipping into costume and character, preparing to give a performance of the last seven days of Christ’s life, as much for their own sakes as for the pleasure of the audience. The largest, most awkward piece to unload is the heavy wooden cross. Judas observes these preparations from afar, edgy and already aloof from the rest of the group.
Act I: Heaven on Their Minds
As Judas watches the others, he begins to formulate and to articulate to himself just what is bothering him about Jesus: his superstar status, his moving from a vehicle of God’s message to a show in and of himself. The followers think “they’ve found a new Messiah,” and Judas worries about their anger when they discover Christ is just a man. Meanwhile Jesus shares his peaceful message to an adoring crowd.
Act I: What’s the Buzz
At the house of Simon the Leper, the apostles press a tired Jesus to tell them where their group will go next, to begin a political and religious revolution, demanding, “When do we ride into the Jerusalem?” The apostles fail to notice that Jesus needs to withdraw and rest, but Mary Magdalene offers solace, saying “Let me try to cool down your face a bit.” Christ tells them that only Mary knows what he needs.
Act I: Strange Thing Mystifying
Judas cannot stand that Jesus lets a former prostitute (“a woman of her kind”) attend to him, but Christ hurls back, “If your slate is clean, then you can throw stones /If your slate is not, then leave her alone.” Mary sings “Everything’s Alright,” but Judas continues to prod, saying that the money for her “fine ointments . . . could have been saved for the poor.” Jesus admonishes Judas and the apostles not to waste their precious time, since he knows he will not be among them for long.
Act I: This Jesus Must Die /Hosanna
The next morning, the Jewish Priests convene to decide what to do about the “rabble-rouser” whose mad mob can be seen and heard singing “Hosanna! Superstar!” in the background. Annas, father-in-law of the High Priest Caiaphas, emphasizes the danger, since the Romans, who occupy their land, will surely punish all Jews for the revolutionary behavior of one man and his band of wild followers. Caiaphas decides that “like John before him, this Jesus must die.” Jesus addresses Caiaphas and the priests gently, explaining that “nothing can be done to stop the shouting,” while the ecstatic followers wave palms and joyfully anticipate their triumphant entrance to Jerusalem.
Act I: Simon Zealotes
The now rather large crowd moves in choreographed rhythm with Jesus, asking to be touched, kissed, acknowledged. Simon sees that this powerful force of “over fifty thousand” has political potential. “Keep them yelling their devotion,” he advises Jesus, “But add a touch of hate at Rome.” Perhaps they can oust the Romans and regain their land. Jesus responds with a simple gesture of peace.
Act I: Poor Jerusalem
As Jesus begins to sing, the crowd quiets and sits in a circle around him. His song expresses his worry that his followers, although they chant their adoration, do not truly understand power and glory. The end of the song shifts inward, when he both realizes and explains that “to conquer death you only have to die.”
Act I: Pilate’s Dream
Pontius Pilate is a Roman Governor disturbed by a dream he has had, in which a Galilean is martyred and he, Pilate, takes the blame. Pilate is a man usually comfortable with his station and power, but the dream leaves him unsettled.
Act I: The Temple
Moneylenders, prostitutes, wine-, goat-, and carpet-sellers have taken over the temple. Christ strides up to them and angrily turns over tables, protesting, “My temple should be a house of prayer.” After shouting for the “den of thieves” to “get out,” Jesus sinks into a reverie, summing up his three years on earth, but even in this private moment he is besieged by the sick and poor, who crowd him until he screams at them, “Heal yourselves!”
Act I: Everything’s Alright (Reprise) & I Don’t Know How to Love Him
Mary Magdalene once again soothes Jesus to sleep, and then goes into her own reverie about her conflicting feelings, both platonic and romantic, for this man.
Act I: Damned for All Time
Meanwhile, Judas, in anguish but armed with resolve, offers to betray Christ’s whereabouts to the priests, who give him thirty pieces of silver for his service. The priests plan to have Jesus arrested and turned over to the Romans for execution.
Act II: The Last Supper
The apostles indulge in the Last Supper as a meal and not as sacrament, until Jesus sings, “This is my blood you drink /This is my body you eat.” But their blank faces tell Jesus that they will forget him after he dies. His announcement that one of them will betray him raises protests from all but Judas, who takes it up as a challenge to do so. Judas departs, the apostles drift off to sleep, and Jesus sinks into lonely contemplation. He begins to question his fate, to question God and his own earthly mission. As his resolve fades, he accuses God, “You’re far too keen on where and how but not so hot on why.” But getting no cosmic encouragement, he steels himself for the ordeal to come, so that he can see God at last. At the end of the scene, Judas kisses Jesus on the cheek, and Jesus asks him, “Judas, must you betray me with a kiss?”
Act II: The Arrest
As the Roman soldiers arrive to arrest Jesus, the apostles struggle awake and sleepily retrieve their swords. Jesus calms them and goes willingly with the soldiers, who shove him along. On his way, a crowd surges around him, including Annas and Judas. Some taunt, “Now we’ve got him,” while others quiz the prisoner like copy-hungry television reporters hounding a film star, “What would you say were your big mistakes?” Caiaphas confirms the arrest with the gravity of a judge, sending the prisoner on to Pilate, who alone has the power of sentencing to death.
Act II: Peter’s Denial
A maid and her grandfather recognize Peter as one of the prisoner’s followers, which Peter three times denies. Mary reminds him that Jesus had predicted his behavior.
Act II: Pilate and Christ
Pilate reluctantly interviews the prisoner, realizing that he lost a measure of his control due to the crowd’s zeal to kill this man. He finds Christ’s calm amazing and wants not to hurt him. As a way of avoiding responsibility, Pilate then sends Christ on to King Herod (who was half Jewish), since Herod has legal jurisdiction over the Jews, “You’re Herod’s race! You’re Herod’s case!”
Act II: King Herod’s Song
King Herod is an overweight, self-indulgent, and corrupt king surrounded by sycophants and living in depraved luxury. In a tightly choreographed ragtime song and dance, he taunts Christ to perform a miracle on demand, and when Jesus does not stir, he angrily sends him away. Meanwhile, Mary and Peter sing, “Could We Start Again, Please?”
Act II: Judas’s death
Judas, wracked with guilt, accuses Annas and Caiaphas of hurting the victim he turned over to them. They repulse him, and his anguish increases as he sings an apology to Christ, shifting to his own rendition of Mary’s song, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Realizing too late his own guilt, he hangs himself. The choir chants, “So long Judas /Poor old Judas.”
Act II: Trial before Pilate
Caiaphas brings Jesus back to Pilate for a definitive execution. Still Pilate feels it too heavy a duty, and his interview of the prisoner seems like an attempt to find any excuse to release him, “I’ll agree he’s mad /Ought to be locked up /But that’s no reason to destroy him.” Jesus once again fails to supply anything but further proof of his divine immunity. Pilate agrees to flog Christ with thirty-nine lashes, an extreme torture. Afterwards, Pilate tenderly lifts the broken man, but when Jesus tells Pilate he has no power, Pilate goes into a rage and allows Christ’s “great self-destruction” to take place.
Act II: Superstar
Judas, somehow resurrected, presides over the walk with the cross and preparations for crucifixion, assisted by three choirs of “angels” who sing the “Superstar” reprise. Judas asks Jesus whether he shouldn’t have staged this show in a better era, since “Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication.” Christ dies simply, on the cross.
Act II: John Nineteen Forty-one
The show over, the actors repack and variously board the bus, some in a brisk businesslike manner and some, like Mary, casting a last wistful glance back at the set. The curtain falls.
The father-in-law of Caiaphas, Annas is a high priest ready for action. His warning that Christ’s “half-witted fans will get out of control” (a phrase that could as easily apply to rock fans as apostles) has the desired effect on Caiaphas, convincing him to arrange the killing of this new radical religious leader, as he did John the Baptist. Annas reassures the distraught Judas that he has done the right thing by turning Jesus in; since the mob turned against Jesus, it seems clear to Annas that Judas had “backed the right horse.” The moral implications of Judas’s act seem lost on Annas.
Caiaphas is the High Priest of the Pharisees, or Jewish priests. He wants to get rid of Jesus, in fear that the Romans will punish all Jews for the ruckus caused by Christ’s followers. The Jews are in a precarious relationship with Rome; the priests have to tread a middle road between pleasing the Roman government and guiding their own people by upholding Jewish law and tradition. Caiaphas cannot afford to have Jesus erode his authority with a new religion. Therefore, he decides to eliminate this new leader around whom the Jews are “foolishly” assembling.
The Jesus of this rock opera is as much a rock idol as he is a religious leader. He exudes peace, proclaims peace, lives peace, but is otherwise a rather human “son of God,” since he has human doubts. Jesus displays human emotion on several occasions: irritation at his apostles for their unceasing demands on him, anger at the merchants and moneylenders in the temple, and genuine fear and doubt just before his execution. The spell he casts over his followers comes partly from his pure simplicity and partly from their desire to adore him, make him the object of their piety; they seem to miss his point that devotion is due to God, not to him.
One of his characteristic gestures is to stroke the cheek of his admirers, and his calm even in the face of Judas’s anger is both inspirational and otherworldly, and, to Judas and Pilate, exasperating. It is his purity which prevents Jesus from recognizing that the precariousness of his political position (he is a threat to the Romans and Pharisees), more than the religious ideals he represents, that leads to his downfall. On top of his purity is another characteristic: his Superstar quality. Jesus is not just a man, but a “happening,” an event, a center of power around which the apostles and devout followers revolve.
The wives of the apostles dance with Simon in a frenzy of devotion, and also quietly serve food and drink when the group is resting.
Herod is a self-indulgent, half-Jewish despot who rules all of Galilee, including its captive Jews. His court consists of a corrupt band of sycophants who serves Herod’s lavish tastes. Herod makes a joke of Christ, as he probably does with any serious aspect of his kingship. The whipping of Jesus at first Page 156 | Top of Articletitillates his depraved side, but when the punishment goes too far, Herod is visibly disquieted.
Judas is more politically astute than Jesus; he sees Jesus turning into a cult figure whom the crowd accepts as the new Messiah. Judas is too practical a man to allow the possibility to enter his mind that Jesus truly is the Messiah. He only sees that if Jesus continues his self-indulgence, he will bring trouble to himself and his followers, since the Romans and Jewish Pharisees will not abide this threat to their authority. Unlike the other actors, Judas begins the play in character: even before getting into costume, he is aloof and temperamental. His mood of impatience and frustration stems from what he sees as a good thing “gone wrong.” He allows his disappointment in the mission to cloud his doubts about betraying Christ. After the guards take Christ away, however, Judas realizes the enormity of his betrayal, and sees that he will for all time “be spattered with innocent blood.” Therefore he hangs himself, although he later appears, resurrected it seems, to sing a final tribute to Jesus Christ, Superstar.
Maid by the Fire
The young maid, sitting around a fire for warmth with her grandfather and a Roman Soldier, recognizes Peter as having been with “that man they took away,” which Peter denies.
Mary is a former prostitute who has joined the band of apostles and wives and serves Jesus. In fact, her attraction to him is more than platonic; it is also the same kind of physical attraction with which she is very familiar, and yet, the combination of these attractions, along with her awe of this holy man, make her afraid of her own feelings, as she describes them in her song, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Of all of Christ’s followers, Mary best understands his need to stay “calm” and unworried, to take time for himself and to pace himself so that he will not break down under the demands of the crowd. She is empathetic to Peter, too, even when he betrays Jesus as predicted. Mary is the female embodiment of Christ’s message of love and acceptance. She gives the impression that, even more than the work of the apostles, it will be those with her faith in Jesus the man that will fuel the survival of Christianity.
The male apostles follow Jesus and sing a song that indicates their awareness that they could gain a kind of immortality from their association with this leader, “so they’ll all talk about us when we die.” They get caught up in the atmosphere of adoration, dancing and singing, not noticing that Jesus does not want such excessive devotion. The apostles seem to love the Jesus “happening” more than the man, although they protest their loyalty when Christ confronts them at the last supper. They also love their wine, drunkenly falling asleep just when Jesus needs them most, rousing briefly when the Roman Guard arrests him but easily talked out of fighting the guards when Jesus tells them to put away their swords.
Merchants and Moneylenders
These take over the temple to sell their wares and are dismissed by an uncharacteristically angry Jesus.
The Maid’s grandfather is the third to accuse Peter of association with Jesus, prompting Peter’s third denial.
Peter is a loyal apostle who considers ridiculous Christ’s prediction that he will betray him three times. But he does exactly as Jesus predicts, and when Mary points this out to him, Peter defends himself, saying that he had to lie to protect himself. However, Peter realizes the harm he has done to their cause, and he wants to turn back time, giving him a chance to protect his leader instead. He sings with Mary Magdalene “Could We Start Again Please?”
Pilate is the Roman Governor to whom Jesus is first brought for punishment by the Jews, and who refuses to appease the crowd, due at least in part to a dream he has had portending his own incrimination Page 157 | Top of Articleif he does. He defers by sending Jesus on to King Herod instead, on the grounds that only Herod, as King of Galilee, has the authority to condemn a Galilean to death. When the Pharisees’ guards bring Jesus to Pilate for the second time, Pilate reluctantly has the young zealot flogged, as a measure to appease a crowd that could easily turn against him. Pilate endeavors to elicit any kind of concession from Christ, attempting to find an excuse to dismiss him unharmed. Pilate recognizes that he is contending not with Jesus but with the crowd demanding a crucifixion. Jesus does not play into Pilate’s game; Pilate’s anger gets the best of him, and he condemns Christ to die on the cross, fulfilling his prophetic dream.
The Priests are the Pharisees, who perch like vultures on the stark improvised scaffolding that serves as their temple. They are the council convened by Caiaphas to decide what to do about “Jesusmania,” which threatens the entire Jewish community, for the Romans do not make distinctions within the group and would punish all Jews for Christ’s actions.
The Roman Soldier recognizes Peter as a friend of Christ’s and prompts Peter’s second denial.
The stage manager sees to the unloading of props and trunks of costumes and gets the band of young actors ready to produce the play, which seems to be produced as much for their own sakes as for the viewing pleasure of the audience.
Simon’s surname Zealotes comes from the Greek word “zeal,” meaning enthusiastic devotion. It is Simon’s “zealous” goal to urge the Jesus cult to revolt against Rome. He tells Jesus to turn the mass of followers against Rome so that the Jews can accomplish ousting the Romans, as well as establishing their new religion. “There must be over fifty thousand,” he tells Jesus, “and everyone of fifty thousand /would do whatever you tell him to.” Simon shows himself quick to battle in the encounter of the Last Supper, but when Jesus tells him to put away his sword, he obediently does so.
God and Religion
Jesus Christ Superstar is not simply a portrayal of the historical figure of Jesus, a rabbi who promoted the idea of loving one’s enemy, but an exploration of the star status of Jesus, who gathered around him a following of devoted disciples and had a timeless, worldwide impact. According to critic James R. Huffman in the Journal of Popular Culture, works like this one “ask the right questions, but allow each individual to provide his own answers.” One of the questions it asks is what kind of relationship one should have with God and/or Jesus. A range of responses is portrayed, from Mary’s loyal, personal devotion that threatens to border on physical passion, to Judas’s skepticism and betrayal. Mary’s relationship represents the person who embraces the values of Christianity and wants a personal connection to God but cannot achieve it: Page 158 | Top of ArticleMary doesn’t “know how to love him.” Judas represents the classic doubter, one who realizes too late what really matters. However, most of the followers are just part of the crowd, like the “over 50, 000” that Simon Zealotes sings about. This crowd sees Christ as a fast track to salvation (“I believe in you and God, so tell me that I’m saved”). The disciples, on the other hand, are mere buffoons, more interested in their own glory than in appreciating the profound event taking place before their eyes. The line, “always hoped that I’d be an apostle, knew that I would make it if I tried” is an ironic comment on their misguided aspiration, and the lines that follow it drive the point home, “Then when we retire we can write the gospels, so they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died.” The apostles prove of little use to Jesus at the Last Supper, since they fall asleep when their leader needs them most, and then foolishly offer to fight for him once it is too late to save him. Significantly it is not the apostles or those closest to Jesus—Mary, Judas, Simon, or Peter—but the anonymous crowd whom Jesus helps, touches, and heals. Jesus thus is seen as healing others, confirming their beliefs, but not confirming those of the characters with whom the audience most identifies. Religious commitment seems simple, somehow, for others, but vexed with doubts and insecurity for oneself. In this way, Jesus Christ Superstar hits a nerve with its postmodern audience, many of whom share both Mary’s desire for a passionate connection to a higher power and also Judas’s jaundiced belief that such faith would be naive and, ultimately, misplaced. The fact that Judas later repents and discovers that Christ loved him too also resonates to the skeptic’s fear of “missing out.”
Jesus himself provides an exploration of religious doubt. While his followers either accept his divinity blindly or, like Judas and the Priests, fear the political consequences of his impact while ignoring his mission, Jesus alone understands that his mission is serious and vital. In fact, he will undergo the ultimate test of faith, by willingly accepting his own death. This fate he seems to ignore until the time draws dangerously close. In this respect he is no different from any human who ignores or maintains a surface faith as long as things are going well. When Christ comes face to face with the fact that he truly must die, it shakes the foundations of his faith, and he asks himself “Why am I scared to finish what I started?” But then realizes in mid- sentence that it is not his plan he was following but God’s. Now skeptical, he demands proof and becomes angry with God when it is not given. “God, thy will is hard,” he accuses his heavenly father, “But you hold every card.” By the time he reaches Pilate for the second interrogation, Christ has mended his breach of faith and faces his trial with new resolve, telling Pilate, “Any power you have comes to you from far beyond. /Everything is fixed and you can’t change it.” Christ’s acceptance of his crucifixion dissolves his doubt.
Tommy (1969), hailed as the world’s first rock opera, broke with the tradition of the musical stage production by incorporating rock music into the classical opera genre. Tommy, an album released by The Who, told through its songs the story of a deaf mute who becomes a guru because of his pinball skill. The album was an immediate success, and was soon transformed into a live stage production that The Who took on a worldwide live tour, during which they recorded Tommy Live in front of record-breaking audiences. They also produced a film version, directed by Ken Russell. The rock opera is, like opera, a form that advances the plot through songs, with few or no spoken parts. The rock element pertains to the music and choreography of the piece, but in the cases of Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar, it also contributed the theme and protagonist of the play in the form of the rock star. Operas feature both solo numbers and chorus or ensemble pieces, and both Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar follow this pattern. The rock opera as a genre has mostly faded away, having served its purpose to broaden the definition of the musical production and of the format of the rock album. However, the brief era of rock opera resulted in a number of song cycle or “plot rock” albums (albums whose songs tell a story), such as The Kink’s Preservation Act I and Preservation Act II, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, and The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club, paving the way for the concept rock videos of the MTV era.
Point of View
The physical and emotional perspective from which the viewer is led to view the spectacle of a Page 159 | Top of Articledramatic production is from afar, and this is especially true when the production is a musical. When viewing a dramatic production, the audience looks onto the stage as onto a miniature world, complete with furnishings and a false horizon peeping through the window, and the viewer has the sense of being outside of the events, judging them like a god. Only at certain moments is the viewer invited into the private world of a given character, and that is when that character muses aloud in a soliloquy, sharing private thoughts as though unaware of the audience listening to every word. The character might encourage this intimacy through facing slightly offstage, in a three-quarters profile, putting the audience outside the line of vision, giving the impression that eavesdropping will not be detected. The actor might speak quietly, almost in a whisper, further indicating the privacy of his or her thoughts. At this moment, the viewer’s perspective can merge with that character’s perspective, such that the events are seen through that character’s point of view. Usually only one or two characters’ thoughts are revealed in this way, and the play may privilege one character’s perspective by focusing on that person’s inner thoughts more than the other’s. When the production is a musical, the sense of being outside of the action is enhanced through the pageantry of the choreographed movements onstage, which are not at all like real life and thus remind the viewer of the artificiality of the performance.
Only when the characters sing a soliloquy, with a spotlight creating a temporary connection to the audience, does the viewer gain a sense of identifying with the characters. In a musical or opera, the solos shift the point of view from one soloist to another. Even though Jesus is the central character in Jesus Christ Superstar, the soloists, Judas, Mary, and Jesus, each have a different assessment of his mission, and the viewer’s point of view shifts according to who is singing. Throughout most of the play the point of view lies outside of Jesus, in Judas’s perspective, as he assesses this leader’s impact on the crowd and tries to decide just how to take him. The perspective shifts to Jesus whenever he sings. Thus the viewer is led to consider not only who Jesus seemed to be to others, but what kinds of doubts and problems he himself had in his life and mission. The shifting point of view asks viewers to identify with Jesus as a man, and to identify with his followers, some of whom saw him as a superstar and others who doubted him. The fact that Christ’s resurrection was excluded from the play leaves ambiguous the question which perspective to believe, thus the shifting point of view of the play contributes to the theme of doubt and faith.
The Biblical Story of Jesus
The story as told in the play Jesus Christ Superstar follows fairly closely what is known about the life and times of the historical Jesus. Jesus, a rabbi whose father apparently was a carpenter, worked for a time in that trade as well before developing a ministry based on loving one’s enemy and a more holistic attachment to God than simply complying with religious law. Jesus went out to preach to the people rather than wait for them to come to him in a temple, as did most other rabbis of the time. It is speculated that Jesus was a member of the Pharisees, a progressive, democratic Jewish sect that interpreted the Torah more liberally than did the more conservative Sadducees. Jesus preached mostly in Galilee and apparently took the rather dangerous step of going into Jerusalem to preach as well, as the play delineates. Here he met with more difficult adversaries than he had in Galilee, with Jewish leaders who considered his teachings controversial and with Romans who feared a rebellious uprising. Jesus may have been a “marked man” in the sense that there were those who wanted to remove this threat to the authority of the Romans and the Pharisees, the high priests of the Jewish community. Knowing that he would not be suffered to live and preach much longer, he held a farewell meal on the eve of Passover and was arrested in the garden of Gesthemene by Roman soldiers. Jewish authorities first tried him, found him guilty of high treason (for pretending to be the Messiah, although there is no evidence that Jesus made this claim), and sent him to Pilate for execution. Nothing was recorded of him for the first forty years after his death, then the letters of the Apostle Paul (a Hellenized Jew born after the death of Jesus who introduced Christianity to the Greeks) refer to his ministry. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) probably written after the Pauline letters, tell slightly conflicting stories, but essentially also confirm the existence of a rabbi named Jesus who was crucified under Roman law.
The Theatrical “Happenings” of the 1960s and 1970s
Theater in the 1960s and 1970s was, to use the parlance of the time, a “happening,” a word that
implied energy, spectacle, and significance. Beginning with Hair in 1967, nudity and shocking language would become commonplace in the theater, and audiences came to expect to be shocked and challenged as well as entertained. That Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) committed the sacrilege of conflating religion with Broadway spectacle was almost par for the course, as was its celebration of the hippie style, a style that valued the personal expression of uniqueness and freedom. There was a movement toward less formality as well as fusion with other art forms. This was experimental theater, Page 161 | Top of Articleoften entailing audience participation, anachronistic costuming and props, and extending the stage to the larger world. Thus the combination of rock music with ancient, biblical themes in Jesus Christ Superstar, although completely unique in itself, was consistent with the prevailing mood of the theater.
Jesus Christ Superstar was the first Broadway musical to have begun its life as a record. The single record of Judas’s song “Superstar,” released in 1970, at first drew little notice from the listeners of the underground rock stations that played it, but over the next few months the song gained attention in the United States, if not in Great Britain, where it was produced. One form of this attention was pure outrage, for the song, especially when taken out of the context of the play, seemed to many religious listeners blasphemous when it asked “Jesus Christ, Superstar, do you think you’re what they say you are?” Although it finally received a good response, it never rose above the top 80s in the Billboard listing. Nevertheless, the single record sold over 100, 000 copies by May, 1970. Based on this success, Rice and Webber recorded the full rock opera and packaged it in a two-record boxed set purposely designed to look like other recorded operas. On October 21, 1971, the New York opening performance (on tape) of the rock opera was held in a church, coordinated with a slide presentation of religious paintings. The invited reviewers and the rest of the audience gave the record a standing ovation. Then the album was released to radio stations, whose reviewers loved it. Scott Muni of radio station WNEW called the song, “an out and out smash.” By February 6, 1971, it climbed to the top of the Billboard list of hot songs in the United States. Billboard predicted, “It is destined to become one of the most talked about and provocative albums on the pop scene.” Two weeks later, the albums made it to the top of Cashbox’s list, which hailed it as “a powerful and dynamic rock score of sweeping melodies.” Jack Shadoian of Rolling Stone raved that “many of us rockheads . . . have been sitting around waiting for something extraordinary to happen. This is it.” Although some reviewers disliked the fusion of rock sound in opera format (“When it isn’t dead-boring, it’s too embarrassing to hear,” quipped the Cue reviewer), others, such as Derek Jewell of the London Sunday Times, saw it as
the herald to a new art form, with music “more moving that Handel’s Messiah... a work on a heroic scale, masterfully conceived, honestly done, and overflowing with splendid music and apt language.” The music derived its unique blend of styles from many varied sources. William Bender wrote: “Webber and Rice do not outdo the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or the Edwin Hawkins Singers, Prokofiev, Orff, Stravinsky or any other musical influence found in their work. But they have welded these borrowings into a considerable work that is their own.” The record set became the bestselling Page 162 | Top of Articletwo-record album of all time, grossing over $15 million in the year of its release.
The first London stage play was performed at a West End theatre with Paul Nicholson as Jesus. It ran for eight years (3, 358 performances) and became West End’s longest-running musical up to that point; it currently ranks as the fifth longest running musical in West End history, behind three other Andrew Webber musicals, (Cats, Starlight Express, and Phantom of the Opera). In the Spring of 1971, before the play reached Broadway, the album set had sold 2 million copies in the United States and Life magazine featured photos of one of the many improvised performances being staged across the country, many of which were produced in violation of the play’s copyright. Life attributed its popularity to music and lyrics that “bridge the generation gap,” being at once “both secular and reverent.” The opening of the official Broadway production was delayed by sound problems, but the show, starring Ben Vereen as Judas, Jeff Fenholt as Jesus and Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene, got underway to the admiration of both the critics and the public. The Broadway run took in almost $3 million, ran from 1971 to 1973, and won the 1971 Drama Desk Award.
The 1973 film version starred rock singer Ted Neely as Jesus, Carl Anderson (Ben Vereen’s Broadway understudy) as Judas, and Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene. Many critics panned the film; however, it won British Academy Awards for Best Sound Track and Best Cinematography and grossed more than 10 million dollars at the box office. Both the film and the stage production have enjoyed wide popularity worldwide since its release.
A twenty-year anniversary tour garnered large audiences across the United States in 1993, and London’s West End produced a twenty-fifth anniversary production in 1998. James R. Huffman of the Journal of Popular Culture points to one reason for the play’s appeal: “Works like Jesus Christ Superstar, which asks the right questions’ but allow each individual to provide his own answers, will be appropriated by nearly all the atheist, the agnostic, and the believer. Only the indifferent will remain unimpressed; only the devout and the aesthetically critical may be offended.”
Hamilton is a Humanities teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private school in Cary, North Carolina. In this essay she discusses the portrayal of Jesus as a rock star phenomenon in Jesus Christ Superstar.
In a recent interview Tim Rice admitted that from an early age he was fascinated by the character of Judas. Without Judas, he said, there would be no Christianity, since it was Judas who directly caused Christ’s martyrdom and thus gave the world a tragic heroic figure around whom a whole religion would coalesce. Rice wanted to put Judas on the stage, by taking the sketchy, known “facts” about him and hypothesizing a set of logical reasons and a psychological make-up that could have led to his devastating betrayal. That Rice succeeded in his endeavor is without question. His Judas has a clear, if not forgivable, motive, and his tale of emotional remorse and suicide ring truer to life than the dispassionate reporting of the Bible, which merely states that Judas repented and hung himself. Rice’s Judas realizes that his soul is forever tarnished with his act, that his name will forever be “dragged through the slime and the mud.” Jesus Christ Superstar begins from Judas’s point of view and ends with his observations on the Christ phenomena; however, to make Judas the character come to life, Rice also needed to create a viable Jesus as his protagonist. Rice eschewed the persona of Jesus familiar in Biblical stories and the art these stories have inspired over the ages, since that persona of pure goodness makes any opponent appear foolhardy and heinous for martyring the messiah. The Jesus of familiar artistic renderings is a ghostly, divine figure, whose perfection and goodness exude through his otherworldly bearing and patient suffering with eyes confidently cast heavenward. Rice needed a different kind of Christ, a flesh-and-blood saint, an imperfect martyr, whose activities would not be above reproach. Therefore, to suit the Judas of his imagination, Rice created a Jesus complete with doubts and frailties, a worldly saint far removed from the ideal figure of Renaissance paintings. The Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar is a fallible human.
The story of Jesus’s anger at the sellers in the temple market is a commonplace; Rice has him shriek, past the edge of self-control. Rice also
portrays a healer who runs out of patience with the endless demands of the sick and poor, who claw at him and enclose him, chanting, “Won’t you touch, will you heal me Christ?” The superstar Jesus also regrets having accomplished little in his life, and feels show-stopping doubt when faced with sacrificing his own life and can only rouse himself through spite and anger, “Alright, I’ll die! See how I die!” Although fallible, Jesus is a charismatic leader, who draws to him an immense and loyal crowd. To this crowd and to his disciples, he is the messiah, the savior for whom the Jews waited for centuries, whose coming was prophesied in Isaiah and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Being a charismatic savior who nevertheless grapples with human faults made Rice’s Jesus a “flesh-and-blood human being,” as Clifford Edwards of Catholic World observed. Those closest to this human Jesus, such as Judas, see that he has faults and that he is not a blameless god. Mary Magdalene even momentarily wonders about falling in love with him, a speculation that seems impossible to have about the Jesus of, say, Michaelangelo’s “Pieta” or Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper.” A flawed Jesus then, raises the possibility that he is yet another false messiah, who will lead the Jews to destruction, not heaven. His very popularity increases the risks for the Jews if Jesus is not what he thinks he is, since, as Judas points out, the crowd is “getting much to loud” and “they’ll [the Romans will] crush us if we go too far.” It is in this way that Rice’s version of Jesus provides Judas with a clear and defensible motive for betrayal: to avert the wrath of the Romans, which the priests anticipate as “our elimination because of one man.” In this sense, Rice has fashioned the classic conflict, one that contains within it the seeds of two conflicting outcomes, a hopeful one salvation for the Jews and its opposite, their destruction.
The play opens with Judas’s apprehensions, instantly shifting the focus away from cliched reverence for Christ’s goodness to the more complex concern over success that might swell the unconventional rabbi’s head or turn him into a “superstar.” Unlike Christ’s other followers, who idolize a messiah as the road to their own salvation, Judas is more skeptical, and less innocent. Judas resents Mary Magdalene’s use of costly ointments to soothe the tired prophet because it diverts money from the
poor; possibly this symbol of messianic status (messiahs alone warranted anointment) offends him as well. Judas accuses Jesus of immodesty, chiding him that “You’ve begun to matter more /than the things you say.” Jesus is too popular, and his “followers are blind, too much heaven on their minds” to see the danger they are in. Caiaphas, too, objects to Christ’s popularity, for it draws followers away from his sphere of control. Even so, Caiaphas begrudgingly has to admit that Jesus is a smooth operator, “No riots, no army, no fighting, no slogans /One thing I’ll say for him Jesus is cool.”
To be “cool” in 1960s parlance meant that one could win respect without making any overt effort. The word “cool” connoted being “hip,” or fashionable, smart, and impressive; a “cool” person could maintain the aura of outward calm, while generating excitement in others, like an Elvis Presley or other rock star. A successful rock star appeared disinterested while the crowd went wild. Rice’s Jesus epitomizes coolness: he is a “superstar” with a winning style, who draws large audiences, yet his inner calm rarely ripples. As such, he inspires both jealousy and disdain from Judas, who goads himself into action by calling Jesus “a jaded mandarin,” a fallen idol. The Christ of Jesus Christ Superstar is not simply a humble saint or martyr, but a rock star, whose star status is buoyed up and defined by and dependent upon the crowd’s enthusiasm. This novel re-fashioning of Jesus was the coup de grace that launched the album and later the stage production into the public eye. The concept of a rock star Jesus seemed to many a contradiction of terms, for how could a saint be hip or cool, how could a humble martyr be nonchalant or even suave? Religious leaders were affronted by the rock Jesus. It was an invasion of territory Jesus fit the mold of the classical symphony hero, but not the mold of the heathenish rock musician.
According to Reverend Billy Graham (who occasionally used the Superstar music in his revivals) to ignore Christ’s divine status in this way “border[ed] on blasphemy and sacrilege.” Frank Garlock, a minister and music theory chair at Bob Jones University (a Christian school) rankled at comparisons between the Superstar opera and great classics of reverent music, saying “This comparison is so ludicrous that it is absurd. The opera is certainly not talking about the Lord Jesus Christ in honor of whom Handel composed the Messiah and for whose glory Bach composed some of the greatest music known to man.” Others found the comparison refreshing, as did Derek Jewel of the London Sunday Times, who found Superstar “Every bit as valid as (and . . . often more moving than) Handel’s Messiah.” The worlds of classic opera and rock music were as opposite as they could be: the one a marker of highbrow, conservative taste and the other a kind of “in your face” protest against conventionality. Jesus Christ Superstar offended by yoking divine content to a profane medium. It recast a revered saint as a dubious rock star, thereby presuming to raise sacrilegious rock music to the level of respectable classical music. In doing so, Rice and Webber recreated the shock and excitement that Jesus must have engendered. Jesus achieved “star status” in his short life; he was the Biblical equivalent of Prince, Elvis, or Madonna. Rice and Webber’s use of rock music is a profound statement about the tremendous impact he must have had in Galilee. The composers of Superstar suggest that the Galileans responded to the Christ “happening” as the contemporary world would respond to the meteoric rise of a new rock superstar.
Rice explains, “It is undeniable that Christ made more impact on people than anyone who has ever lived an impact of colossal proportions.” They re-contextualize Christ’s controversial appearance in terms that reflect modern sensibilities, thus revitalizing the worn cliche of the icon called Christ. At the same time that their Christ is brought squarely to earth, such that “A common reaction to Superstar is ‘It was the first time I ever thought of Jesus as a real person,” he is also a superhero. Although his divine status is stripped away, Christ is catapulted to superstardom. As Yeats observed in “The Second Coming,” the religious center did not hold; Rice and Webber suggest that pop culture as culture’s core can hold. With religion shoved to the margins, the twentieth century still seeks sacred heroes. Herod speaks for the swarms of groupies who exist from show to show, waiting to bow down Page 165 | Top of Articleto the next pop hero. With Herod, the modern being beseeches each new pop star to rise beyond human frailty to star status, saying, in the words of the Superstar libretto, “I’m dying to be shown that you are not just any man.” Perhaps, as Judas complains at the end of the play, Christ appeared in the wrong century after all; “Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication,” no way to honor a star of Christ’s magnitude. Judas chides Jesus, “Why did you choose such backward land and such a strange place?” Rice and Webber plunk him down into a happening place, and, ironically, their Christ and their Judas succeeded where their historical counterparts failed: they “reached a whole nation.” However, Jesus Christ Superstar the rock opera reached those nations not by the path of faith but by the route of rock.
Source: Carole Hamilton, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.
Boyd assesses Rice and Weber’s musical, basing it against traditional religious doctrine; the critic’s conclusion is that the play trivializes the events of the Bible.
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Source: Malcolm Boyd, “Jesus Christ Superstar—Two Views: A Priest Says, ‘It Doesn’t Have a Soul’,” in the New York Times, October 24, 1971, pp. 1, 7.
In this review of the original Broadway show, Barnes appraises the musical merits of Jesus Christ Superstar, stating that the show had “the best score for an English musical in years.”
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Source: Clive Barnes, “Christ’s Passion Transported to the Stage in Guise of Serious Pop” in the New York Times, October 13, 1971, p. 40.
Edwards offers a mixed appraisal of Jesus Christ Superstar, complaining that the play is willing to “raise hard questions while refusing to supply simple answers”; the critic also assesses the play as a new gospel for the counter culture of the late–1960s and early–1970s.
[In Superstar the] Christ of faith gives way to the Jesus of history. Rice and Webber have acknowledged modern scholarship’s discovery that the New Testament picture of Jesus is colored throughout with propagandistic interpretation more intent on convincing the reader that Jesus is the divine God-man than in giving an historically accurate picture of the flesh-and-blood man of Galilee. (p. 218)
Rice and Webber attempt to dramatize the lifestyle of the historical Jesus in the midst of the lifestyles and forces at work around him.
Is there any value in bypassing ecclesiastical propaganda to seek out this life-style? To an emerging culture suspicious of the establishment’s propaganda, it allows a new and honest attempt to stand where the first hearers did, feel for oneself the impact of the Galilean’s style, and answer for oneself, “Who do you say that I am?” . . . Superstar attempts to dramatize Jesus’ life-style in the midst of competing life-styles, and then leaves one with questions rather than with answers. . . . (pp. 218–19)
Although the “opera” has no single, obvious climax, musically and dramatically the climax seems to be Judas’ disintegration and death at the beginning of record four. . . . Judas and his life-style are of special significance.
How is one to characterize this Judas? He can perhaps best be described as the “Uncle Tom” of
the Jesus movement, the personification of a “failure of nerve” within the emerging life-style, a failure of nerve which turns back in fear and betrays the emerging culture to the existing power structure....
[The] very strength of Superstar is its willingness to raise hard questions while refusing to supply simple answers. The complexity of personal motives and the tangled consequences of our actions in real history become evident in Judas. No only are we uncertain of Judas’ real motives and culpability, but we become aware that Judas is uncertain of his own motives. He protests too much that he is not betraying Jesus for his “own reward.” He sulks because Jesus does not give him his due as “right hand man.” At the Last Supper he seeks to blame what he is about to do on the requirements of Jesus’ own “ambition.” Before he dies, Judas realizes that the consequences of his betrayal have been hastened along by forces beyond his own control. . . . [There] is the recognition that complex forces in society magnify the consequences of our actions, that demonic powers can be set in motion far beyond our intentions and cannot be called back....
The important place given Judas in Superstar contributes a problematic or ambiguous quality to the “opera,” for who knows how far one should trust the observations of a Judas. It is this ambiguity which leads the audience toward the realization that it must arrive at its own interpretation of the figure of the Historic Jesus.
Mary Magdalene suggests the life-style described in Timothy Leary’s advice: “Turn on and drop out.” Whether the instrument of her turning on is acid, pot, yoga, or zazen, the end result is a detached, euphoric quality. . . . Jesus accepts the Magdalene’s ministrations and defends her against Judas’ criticism, but her oceanic feeling that “everything’s alright” is transcended by the passion of Page 168 | Top of Articlehis own search for “truth” or “God,” and by the dramatic forces already unleashed. However, as with Judas, the portrayal of the Magdalene has its complexities. In a second solo, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” she sings of her consternation that Jesus should so disturb her “cool.” . . . Apparently the oceanic feeling can be shattered by an encounter with Jesus. Lest one be tempted to make too much of the Magdalene’s relationship to Jesus, it should be noted that Webber and Rice have Judas wail this same love song to Jesus. For both the Magdalene and Judas, and we suppose for their spiritual descendants today, an encounter with Superstar is pictured as engendering love, fear, and mystery. . . . (p. 219)
In stripping away “the myth from the man,” Webber and Rice find no profound philosopher, enlightened reformer, or heroic leader. The great strength of their portrayal of Jesus is their recognition that apart from the myth we have only the whisper of a voice and the outskirts of the life-style of a man. The triumph of Superstar lies as much in what Webber and Rice have not done as in what they have done. They have refused to create a fictional character to fill the void....
Where does the portrayal of Jesus focus? On Jesus as a flesh-and-blood human being. Even the outskirts of Jesus’ life-style reveal his real humanity. Having his face cooled “feels nice, so nice,” he joins the crowd in a happy “Hosanna, Heysanna,” screams at the temple merchants, and admits “I’m sad and tired” and “scared.” . . . A common reaction to Superstar is: “It was the first time I ever thought of Jesus as a real person.” The phantomlike portrayals of an otherworldly Christ on decades of funeral-home calendars and Sunday School walls apparently makes the focus on Jesus as a real person a remarkable revelation to this generation....
The words he speaks are drawn largely from the Gospel pronouncements, with very few original contributions by Tim Rice. He advocates living in the present, claims that he could give “plans and forecasts” unfathomable to those around him, and admits that earlier he was “inspired” but now is “sad and tired.” He defends the Magdalene, cleanses the temple, and sings “Hosanna” with the crowd one moment while screaming at it to “Heal yourselves” at another. At critical moments Rice supplies Jesus with the lines “To conquer death you only have to die,” and “I look for truth and find that I get damned.” These along with a Gethsemane prayer, are the closest Rice comes to providing Jesus with a summary of his life and mission. In Gethsemane Jesus pleads: “I’d wanna know my God, . . . I’d wanna see my God,” and this possibility encourages him to accept the death his God seems to require. It is suggested that his death might make all he has said and done “matter more,” but its full meaning is not revealed. (p. 220)
After Judas’ death, the events involving Jesus seem almost anticlimactic as he maintains a near-silence through the trials and speaks essentially the traditional words from the cross. As if to fill this vacuum, the voice of the dead Judas returns to raise the questions we might ask of Jesus. . . . (pp. 220–21)
Superstar concludes with two minutes of tranquil music (“John 19:41”) suggesting the garden containing Jesus’ tomb. The audience is left to decide for itself whether this is the quiet following an honest man’s death or the peace of a new Eden prepared by a greater Adam for his descendants.
Superstar is a conservative attempt to express the counterculture’s interest in Jesus, and its very conservatism has prepared a solid foundation for more creative and imaginative works in the future. It has avoided cliches, sentimentality, and mere fictionalizing, presenting Jesus’ real humanity forcefully while allowing the audience great latitude for personal interpretation. (p. 221)
Source: Clifford Edwards, “Jesus Christ Superstar: Electric Age Messiah” in Catholic World, Vol. CCXIII, no. 1277, August, 1971, pp. 217–21.
Duncan, David Douglas. “Jesus Christ Superstar” in Life, Vol. 70, no. 20, May 28, 1971, pp. 20B-26.
“Jesus Christ Superstar Anniversary Page” on http://www.geocities.com/Broadway/2596/index.html, March 28, 1999.
Jewison, Norman, and Melvyn Bragg. Screenplay of Jesus Christ Superstar, based on the music and lyrics of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Universal Pictures, April 3, 1972.
Anthem PD. “Jesus Christ Superstar” on http://www.jesuschristsuperstar.com/1998 , March 18, 1999.
An Internet site promoting the 1998-1999 UK tour of the rock opera. It also includes background with audio clips of Rice and Webber describing the play’s genesis.
Daemon Records. “Jesus Christ Superstar: A Resurrection” on monsterbit.com/daemon/jcs.html, March 18, 1999.
An Internet site promoting the Daemon Records recording of the songs of Jesus Christ Superstar and the live Seattle production of 1996.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” on http://www.reallyuseful.com/Superstar/1999, March 18, 1999.
A promotional page for a theatre troupe production of Jesus Christ Superstar complete with play reviews and a summary of the twenty-five-year history of the rock opera.
McKnight, Gerald. Andrew Lloyd Webber, St. Martin’s Press, 1985.
A biography of Webber’s rise to fame as a composer of hit musicals.
Nassour, Ellis, and Richard Broderick. Rock Opera: The Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar from Record Album to Broadway Show and Motion Picture, Hawthorn, 1973.
A step-by-step description of the writing and publishing process of the play and film.
Walsh, Michael. Andrew Lloyd Webber: His Life and Works: A Critical Biography, Harry N. Abrams, 1989.
An updated biography that describes the composer’s recent works as well as his early life and career.
Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2693200020