by Genevieve Holt
Believe it or not, theatrical juggernaut Jesus Christ Superstar wasn’t actually written to be a stage musical. It started as a rock concept album, because while creators Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice – just 23 and 26 years old at the time, and fresh off the success of their Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – loved the idea of doing it as a stage show, they didn’t think anyone would produce it.
“Jesus Christ Superstar, from the onset, was written as a rock album because nobody was interested in producing it for the theater,” said composer Andrew Lloyd Webber in a documentary. “We were primarily making a rock album.”
Superstar is loosely based on the Gospels of the New Testament. As a teen, lyricist Tim Rice had the idea for a show that retold the life of Jesus from the perspective of Judas Iscariot. “From a very young age,” Rice said in his autobiography, “I had wondered what I might have done in the situations in which Pontius Pilate and Judas found themselves. How were they to know Jesus would be accorded divine status by millions and that they would, as a result, be condemned down the ages?” The story begins late in the action, just as Jesus enters Jerusalem in the days leading up to his crucifixion. The characters include Herod, Mary Magdalene, Pontius Pilate, and the disciples.
Producing Superstar as a concept album – incidentally released on the same record label that had done The Who’s Tommy the year prior – gave the piece a quicker pace, more energy, and made it more “rock,” said Rice in a documentary. “Doing it that way round worked so well, because in addition to making the work itself better, [the record] promoted the work so well so that when it finally hit the stage, everyone knew the entire score.”
But upon its first release, reception for the album in the UK was lukewarm. Young audiences saw the subject matter as uncool, older audiences feared it would be disrespectful. But when the record was released in the US, it took off across the pond, going to #1 on the Billboard chart and selling 3 million copies.
When the record met with such popular fervor in the US, illegal staged concert performances starting popping up all over the country. “Opportunist producers saw a fantastic opportunity to quickly cash in on our album’s runaway success,” noted Lloyd Webber in his autobiography, Unmasked. “There had never been a through-sung dramatic piece that could be produced in concert quite like this before. Consequently, there was no legal precedent to stop anyone.” So Lloyd Webber and Rice and their team rushed to get their own official arena tour launched, starting in Pittsburgh in 1971 and visiting 54 cities, and then set their sights on Broadway.
The show opened in October of 1971 and broke records for advance ticket sales. Neither Tim Rice nor Andrew Lloyd Webber was overly pleased with the production, which closed in 1973. But the subsequent stage adaptation in London was a huge success, becoming the longest running musical in the West End. The film adaptation came out just a year later and ended up grossing $24.5 million at the box office.
Since that initial success, Jesus Christ Superstar has enjoyed many revivals and adaptations, including 2019’s live telecast on NBC. But in 2016, a truly singular new production was staged by London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theater. Called “an almighty revelation” by the Daily Telegraph, this production met to huge acclaim, and then transferred to the Barbican Theatre, winning the Olivier Award for best musical revival. That new U.K. production heads out on a North American tour this fall and heads to the Aronoff in June of 2020.
Looking back on the show now, Andrew Lloyd Webber credits the show’s origin as a concept album for its pacing and its success. “It goes from A to B in a really straight line. Never drops the narrative. Never wallows. It’s so concise.” The show’s unlikely path to the stage made it one of the most buzzed about shows of the early 70s, and a classic that feels as fresh and compelling today as it did then.
About the Show
In celebration of its 50th Anniversary, a new mesmerizing production of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR comes to North America. Originally staged by London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, this production won the 2017 Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival garnering unprecedented reviews and accolades. Appealing to both theater audiences and concert music fans, this production pays tribute to the historic 1971 Billboard Album of the Year while creating a modern, theatrical world that is uniquely fresh and inspiring. With music and lyrics by Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony winners Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is set against the backdrop of an extraordinary series of events during the final weeks in the life of Jesus Christ as seen through the eyes of Judas. Reflecting the rock roots that defined a generation, the legendary score includes “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, “Gethsemane” and “Superstar.”