FLASH FRIDAY: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR Resurrected
With the recent news that the highly-praised Stratford Festival Des McAnuff directed revival of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is making its way to La Jolla and then Broadway - with the seal of approval of original creators Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, no less - now is the perfect time to take a look back at one of the most revolutionary and memorable musicals in the history of pop culture that virtually redefined the way in which a show could connect with its audience - and changed the face of Broadway in the process. Almost forty years to the day that it opened on Broadway October, 1971 today we will take a look at its various incarnations over the years - concept album to Broadway to Hollywood to revival to video version to Stratford and beyond - and investigate why the rock opera works so well and lifts spirits both then and now. Plus, bonus behind-the-scenes moments with an overjoyed Andrew Lloyd Webber congratulating the Stratford cast of the show!
It Is Risen
Incalculable in its magnitude and vast influence is the cultural impact of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR on the religious zeitgeist of the early 1970s. Concept album coming at the riotous close of the 1960s to the Broadway premiere in 1971 to the trippy 1973 Norman Jewison film version to revival and beyond, the legacy that this idiosyncratic theatre piece has left behind it for those attempting to mount it anew is one of a hard to handle show with disparate elements difficult to wrangle into a cohesive dramatic whole that is even remotely satisfying to an audience. Yet, it remains. The concept album seemed to be the most complete experience of the music, message, ideas and themes expressed by the authors in its most authentic manner possible - or, furthermore, the live concerts featuring the album performers that followed - when compared to the Broadway production or the first film version. The same still holds true - even to this very day. The score still feels fresh.
From the very notion of a concept album - Stephen Sondheim, Michael Bennett and Hal Prince were cooking up concept musicals on Broadway, but who knew that on the other side of the pond Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were doing something quite similar, but only on vinyl? - JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is simply its own thing. It cannot be compared to other musicals, really - not even TOMMY or THE WALL or other rock operas. It has the potential to be a theatre piece that can afford an audience a truly transcendental experience in a powerful, raw and visceral way that only rock music really can provide - yet, few directors have been able to tap into that well. Even Gale Edwards faltered in her video version of her 1999 Broadway revival, which was the first time a modern take on the show seemed to work well more often than not. So, what makes it difficult to stage? The dramatic limitations implicit in telling the story of Christ as told in the Book of John from the perspective of Judas over the course of the final seven days of Christ’s life is in its scope alone almost foolhardy in its ambitions. Yet, it works. The intimacy of the interactions is the bread and butter of the drama, yet it may be a bit too symbolic and scattershot in its storytelling to satisfy those who wish for an authentic retelling of the world’s most-told tale. The music and lyrics are the heart, body, mind and soul - and the story they tell is more powerful than a recitation. But, does that really make it drama? Does that even matter?
Just listen to this Overture - one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most impressive and powerful musical sequences to date - and deny that something special was being created with this score. To reiterate: it is its own thing. The score must be the focus over everything else in order for it to function - even if it comes with a steep dramatic price in performance. What will Des McAnuff do with it? Time will certainly tell.
First up, check out this mildly psychedelic - and majorly weird - promotional video for the original single of “Superstar” taken from the 1969 concept album of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, performed by original Judas, Murray Head. Heavy imagery, man!
Broadway & Hollywood
Now, here is the 1972 Tony Awards performance by the original Broadway cast of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR led by Jeff Fenholt as Jesus and Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene. Tom O’Horgan was a one-of-a-kind director - what about that bug theme?
Next, check out the trailer for the 1973 film version of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR directed by Norman Jewison and starring Ted Neely alongside Carl Anderson as Judas and Broadway holdover Yvonne Elliman reprising her role.
Rebirth & Recordings
In the intervening years, many productions came and went and perhaps the most notable to point out here would be the 1996 revival of the show, if only because it gave forth my personal favorite cast album of the entire lot. Steve Balsamo sang Jesus in a way unlike anyone before or since and Zubin Varla invests his Judas with so much spite and angst and bite as to almost dominate the proceedings - that is, until Balsamo’s blistering “Gethsemane”. It has never been done better - and it is a very difficult song to begin with, for sure. Hear why these two own the roles below.
“Heaven On Their Minds”
“Gethsemane” Live at Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 60th Birthday Celebration in Hyde Park.
Take a look at the video version of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR also starring the Broadway Jesus, Glenn Carter, alongside Jerome Pradon as Judas and with Vincent as Simon Zealots. While the imagery may be a bit heavy-handed at times, Edwards makes her post-apocalyptic vision work remarkably well and creates some striking moments of mise en scene.
Finally, here is performance footage from the brand new Des McAnuff revival of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR that was a sold-out hit at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival this summer and, following some minor retooling at the La Jolla Playhouse later this year, will be arriving on Broadway in 2012 just in time for its fortieth anniversary on the Great White Way since the original production in 1972. Hopefully time will right the wrongs done to this eminently unique, significant and monumental theatre piece in its grand resurrection on Broadway.
And, hey, having the esteemed director of JERSEY BOYS who also happened to make TOMMY finally work onstage - and brilliantly - could not possibly hurt the prospects of this production, either!
“Jesus Christ Superstar”
“King Herod’s Song”
“I Don’t Know How To Love Him”
Lastly, here is a visibly pleased Andrew Lloyd Webber congratulating the 2011 Stratford cast of the show backstage following the performance and snapping some promo pics.
As a super special bonus, check out this live country-fied version of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” performed by Helen Reddy, who had the highest charting success with the single.
And since he is the most beloved of all the many actors to take on the title role, here is Ted Neely performing “Gethsemane” in 2008 - at well over sixty years old, no less! Better than ever - and what a note!
No "Gethsemane" consideration would be complete without Michael Crawford's inimitable take on it.
So, do you think the Des McAnuff Broadway revival will be a riveting revelation of a resurrection for the show or do you think this score - like CHESS - might just be damned for all time?
That’s all for this week. Please remember that if you have discovered a particularly thrilling, unique, bizarre or hilarious Broadway-related clip to please send us a line at the link below. Until next week…
From This Author Pat Cerasaro