Jesus Christ Superstar – A Brief History
Since its first recording in 1970, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” has remained amongst the most iconic works ever created by the . The musical tells the story of Jesus of Nazareth in the last week of his life and is notable for its guitar-driven score and several controversies that continue to bog its reputation even to today.
First envisioned as a concept album and rock opera in 1970, the first rendition of “Jesus Christ Superstar” gained a cult following almost immediately, due to Webber and Rice, composer and lyricist respectively, who had already begun to make a name for themselves in the late 1960’s with their two prior collaborative works, “The Likes of Us,” which was not produced into an actual stage musical until 2005, and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” another biblically inspired piece; though “Jesus Christ Superstar” became their first successful collaboration at that point in time, and the breakthrough work of both artists.
The original album of “Jesus Christ Superstar” was largely bolstered by the performance of Ian Gillan, a singer who gained fame through the now iconic band Deep Purple, performing on their breakthrough album, “Machine Head,” which famously contained the song, “Smoke on the Water.” Despite losing his status as a household name throughout the years, Gillan is still remembered by musical fans for the quintessential portrayal of the character of Jesus Christ. Amongst Deep Purple fans and metalheads alike, he is known for his four octave vocal range and his scream. His vocal range became a staple in Gillan’s various performances, and is notable in his performance as Jesus Christ.
Since the first recording in 1970, the musical has been produced and put on through multiple iterations, receiving its first on-Broadway performance in 1971. The most recent notable live performance of the musical occurred this past Sunday, Easter, or Passover, or April Fools, or whatever other fourth holiday occurred April 1st, 2018, as a live broadcast on NBC. Billed as “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert,” the performance featured the prominent talents of John Legend as Jesus, Sara Bareilles, composer and star of “Waitress,” as Mary Magdalene, and shock icon Alice Cooper as King Herod, in a scene which many audience members felt stole the show.
“Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert,” follows a number of largely underwhelming attempts by major networks such as Fox and NBC to put on a well-produced live broadcast of a famous musical, with the last noteworthy example being Fox’s “A Christmas Story Live” in 2017. “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” is widely praised by fans and critics alike. Critics praised the choice to maintain within a constant stage, keeping in line with traditional musical adaptations. A consistent criticism regarding these types of performances is that they attempt to do too much in regards to stage movements, props, timing, and other traits more typical of a traditional, edited television or film adaptation of a musical, which feels largely inorganic in a live setting.
As someone who does not identify with any particular religion, I can say that “Jesus Christ Superstar” does not feel like an overly preachy attempt to convert non-believers. It is a compelling story with one of Webber’s best scores to date, told through the lens of religious icons. Regardless of religious affiliation, this is a show that anyone who has a love for musical theatre should see.