How It All Began? The Story of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR

Guide to Jesus Christ Superstar

By: Apr. 01, 2018

How It All Began? The Story of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR

Tonight, NBC will air its fifth live musical production. Following in the footsteps of The Sound of Music, Peter Pan, The Wiz, and Hairspray, the peacock network will be presenting Tim Rice & Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar, a rock opera that tells the story of the final week in the life of Jesus Christ. It begins with the preparation for the arrival of Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem and ends with the crucifixion. It also highlights the political and interpersonal struggles between Jesus and one of his 12 apostles, Judas Iscariot, that are not present in the Bible narratives.

Jesus Christ Superstar began life as a groundbreaking rock double-album, with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber who, at the ages of 25 and 21 respectively, were just embarking on what would become extraordinarily long and successful careers. They originally conceived Jesus Christ Superstar as a theatre piece, but no one was interested in producing it on stage, so they ended up creating a concept album instead. Tim Rice was inspired by the Bob Dylan anthem 'With God On Our Side' which features Judas in its penultimate verse and is from his seminal 1964 album 'The Times They Are a-Changin'. As Rice says in his autobiography: "From a very young age I had wondered what I might have done in the situations in which Pontius Pilate and Judas Iscariot 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 album's composition began with the seminal song 'Superstar', which Andrew had written the melody down on a napkin in a restaurant on the Fulham Road. Tim knew of a singer called Murray Head after seeing him perform with his band The Blue Monks and Their Dirty Habits whilst working at EMI, and approached him about singing the role of Judas on the single 'Superstar'. In order to get the concept album off the ground, Decca first gave Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice money to make the single and begin the album. They wanted to release the single first, which caused uproar within the MCA board at the time. The single was recorded on 8-track at the renowned Olympic Studios in Barnes, London, with Irish 22-year-old Alan O'Duffy as the chief engineer. Andrew and Tim were backed by MCA and spent a small fortune on the recording, including using a full orchestra and the backing vocals of the Trinidad Singers. The Grease Band, one of the best rhythm sections in the world at that time, were brought in as the foundation of the ensemble.

In the U.K., it was featured exclusively on David Frost's famous TV chat show and sold as many as 3,500 copies in one day. Martin Sullivan, The Dean of St Paul's Cathedral and former Archdeacon of London, supplied liner notes for the sleeve of the single. "There are some people who may be shocked by this record," he wrote. "I ask them to listen to it and think again. It is a desperate cry. 'Who are you Jesus Christ?' is the urgent enquiry, and a very proper one at that... The singer says 'Don't get me wrong, I only want to know.' He is entitled to some response."

The single performed more strongly outside the U.K. than inside its home market, rocketing to number one in Holland above Led Zeppelin and Elvis, and also in Belgium and Brazil, and making the Top 10 in Australia and New Zealand. In the US, it reached number 14 and 'Superstar' was number 27 in Billboard's 'Top 100 Songs of 1971' list, above hits such as George Harrison's 'My Sweet Lord', the Carpenters' 'Rainy Days and Mondays' and 'Proud Mary' by Ike & Tina Turner. The international performance of the single meant Andrew and Tim had permission from MCA to go ahead with the rest of the album.

Tabloid papers linked John Lennon to the musical and Time magazine reported that there were rumors John had said he would only do it if Yoko Ono played Mary Magdalene. There were also rumors Marianne Faithful would be Mary. All of these were unfounded and Ian Gillan from the band Deep Purple was brought in to sing Jesus. Murray Head continued to sing the part of Judas. The Grease Band (Joe Cocker's backing band) and engineer Alan O'Duffy were all brought back in to record the rest of the album, following on from their involvement in the single. Barry Dennen was brought in to play Pontius Pilate after Andrew Lloyd Webber saw him starring as The Emcee in the original West End production of Cabaret. For the role of Mary Magdalene, Andrew discovered a young 19-year-old girl named Yvonne Elliman singing in the Pheasantry in London. Tim Rice once mentioned that Yvonne's manager at the time was pushy for a £100 upfront fee, and they agreed to pay her this high fee only because she was "so good". Rice and Webber would also later pay Yvonne a royalty however.

Most of the original Jesus Christ Superstar album was recorded at Olympic Studios in Barnes. There were 60 recording sessions which took over 400 hours. The people involved comprised of 56 piece symphony orchestra, 6 rock musicians, 11 principal singers, 16 chorus singers and 2 choirs. The album was released in September of 1970 in England to not much success, but when it debuted in the United States a week later, it immediately took off, even launching the careers of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. A Time Magazine review of the album said: "What Rice and Webber have created is a modern-day passion play that may enrage the devout but ought to intrigue and perhaps inspire the agnostic young." Meanwhile, according to Tim Rice's autobiography, mail from all over the world flooded in, most of it thanking the young writers "for making the Gospel story clearer and more relevant." Tim thought the finished album 'sounded splendid', as engineer Alan O'Duffy remembered. The album packaging was changed for the release in the USA, where the double album was released to much fanfare at St Peter's Church, New York. The album entered the Billboard chart at #40. Thanks to the success of the album, Andrew, Tim and their manager David Land were being approached for the film and stage rights for Superstar and eventually signed a management deal with the Robert Stigwood Organization.

The album's popularity rocketed with thousands of plays on FM radio. It became a #1 hit on the USA Billboard album charts 4 months after its release. For a second time in the same year, Jesus Christ Superstar rose to #1 on the Billboard album charts. It went on to be the biggest-selling album of 1971 beating the likes of such masterpieces as 'Sticky Fingers' by the Rolling Stones, 'Led Zeppelin IV', 'Santana III' and John Lennon's 'Imagine'. Jesus Christ Superstar also received a 1972 Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, which it lost to Carole King's Tapestry. Yvonne Elliman's version of 'I Don't Know How to Love Him' was released in 1971, but was overtaken by a cover version from a then-unknown Helen Reddy, which peaked at 13 in the Billboard charts compared to Elliman's 28. It remains one of the few instances in modern music where two versions of the same song have charted in the Billboard Hot 100. The song has gone on to be covered by many more recording artists such as Shirley Bassey, Cilla Black, Bonnie Tyler, Peggy Lee, and Elaine Paige.

Illegal stage performances of Jesus Christ Superstar by companies were cropping up and touring across the United States. Life magazine even featured a pirate show on the cover in May 1971. With Robert Stigwood now involved, by August 1971, Judge Lawrence Pierce of the US District Court in Manhattan upheld a temporary restraining order halting all unauthorized productions of Superstar anywhere in the United States. With unofficial productions now banned, the official arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar was now free to go ahead. 13,640 people crowded the Pittsburgh Arena for the first concert showing on July 12th, 1971, breaking the attendance record set there by Tom Jones the year before. The original touring company visited 54 locations across the USA and performed the show 74 times. Yvonne Elliman reprised her role as Mary, with Jeff Fenholt as Jesus, and Carl Anderson as Judas. The Pittsburgh event kicked off a sell-out concert tour of the US, booked by William Morris. These concerts included a cast of 26 performers plus 26 musicians, with lighting and costumes but no staging nor sets. The first tour was so successful and demand was so great that by the end of the summer of 1971, there were two arena concerts simultaneously touring America. Robert Stigwood unleashed the Second Company on September 17th in Providence, Rhode Island. He would later add a college touring company meaning that, at one stage, there would be three simultaneous arena tours performing the work around the United States. The arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar sold out two nights at Los Angeles' famous Hollywood Bowl, taking in $200,000 with a top ticket price of $10.

On October 12th, 1971, Jesus Christ Superstar opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on Broadway. More than 500 people auditioned for the 40 roles over a period of 2 weeks. Tom O'Horgan, who had previously directed the original production of Hair, directed Superstar on Broadway. His designs were larger than life and symbolic, and a new song was introduced for Mary and Peter titled 'Could We Start Again, Please?'. The production starred Jeff Fenholt as Jesus and Ben Vereen as Judas with Yvonne Elliman and Barry Dennen reprising their roles as Mary and Pilate, respectively. By then, the double album had sold over 3.5 million copies, and the show's opening gross was between $1-2 million, ensuring immediate success. Though neither Tim nor Andrew were particularly all that happy with the production. In a 2015 interview with the New York Post, Andrew Lloyd Webber said "It was vulgar. The opening night was really rather miserable, one of the worst nights of my life. But I was only 23. I was just a very unhappy kid at the back of the theater." Sometime later, Andrew found a telegraph his parents received from Hal Prince, who had expressed interest in doing Superstar on stage, but it was too late. The production overall received mixed reviews from critics, earned five Tony nominations the following year, and closed on July 1st, 1973.

While the album wasn't as big of a success in the U.K., its international success had finally begun to penetrate. By the time producers were mounting a production in London's West End, there was no shortage of pre-sales. It was helmed by Australian theatre director, Jim Sharman, who would later make a name for himself on The Rocky Horror Show. The cast included Paul Nicholas as Jesus, Stephen Tate as Judas, and Dana Gillespie as Mary. The production opened on August 8th, 1972, and was much more successful than the original Broadway production, running for eight years, and at the time, became the longest-running musical in London.

In between the album's release and Broadway, Barry Dennen did the film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof, where he played Mendel, the Rabbi's son. It was during principal photography when he approached filmmaker, Norman Jewison, about Jesus Christ Superstar. Jewison later asked Dennen about the film rights, and he suggested meeting with Tim & Andrew, and the rest was history. Tim Rice originally submitted a screenplay which had a Ben-Hur-esque setting, but was deemed too expensive for Universal Pictures to produce. Norman Jewison then went with Melvyn Bragg to wander around Israel, listening to the album on Walkman as a way to come up with an idea for how to do the film. When they both saw a bus full of tourists one day while they were playing the score, Jewison immediately came up with the idea of this framing device where a performance troupe arrives in Israel on a bus to perform their version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Tim and Andrew also wrote a new song specifically for the film, which was 'Then We Are Decided' for the Priests to sing.

Originally, Norman Jewison wanted Ian Gillan to reprise his role as Jesus from the concept album in the film, but Gillan turned it down, feeling that he would please his fans more by touring with Deep Purple. As they were casting Jesus, the producers had considered David Cassidy and Mickey Dolenz for the role. When Norman Jewison first came across actor Ted Neeley, he had invited Jewison to see him in a performance of The Who's Tommy. Though Neeley had injured himself during a performance just prior to the one Jewison had a ticket for. While he did recover in time for the next performance, Neeley immediately drove from Los Angeles to Palm Spring afterwards. Neeley went to Jewison's hotel, dressed as Jesus, just before he had to leave for Israel. Not only did Jewison accept his explanation and apology, but he also gave Neeley the title role in the film. The rest of the final cast consisted mostly of actors from the original Broadway production, which included Carl Anderson as Judas, Yvonne Elliman as Mary, Barry Dennen as Pilate, Bob Bingham as Caiaphas, and Kurt Yaghjian as Annas. King Herod in the film was played by actor Josh Mostel. When Jewison first approached him for the role, Josh's father, actor Zero Mostel, responded "Tell him to cast Topol's son". That comment was pretty much in response to Zero having been previously turned down by Norman Jewison to reprise his role as Tevye in the film adaptation of Fiddler on the Roof. One 17-year-old auditioned unsuccessfully for a part, but producer Robert Stigwood kept him in mind for future productions. Three years later, Stigwood would cast John Travolta for the lead in the film that would make him a star, which was Saturday Night Fever.

With an estimated budget of $3,500,000, the film adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar was released on August 15th, 1973, where it grossed over $24,500,000 at the worldwide box office. It went on to receive six Golden Globe nominations for Best Motion Picture-Comedy/Musical, Best Actor in a Motion Picture-Comedy Musical for Carl Anderson & Ted Neeley, Best Actress in a Motion Picture-Comedy/Musical for Yvonne Elliman, and the now-retired category of Most Promising Newcomer-Male for Anderson & Neeley. Though the film ended up losing all four awards to American Graffiti, George Segal & Glenda Jackson in A Touch of Class, and Paul Le Mat in American Graffiti. Jesus Christ Superstar also received an Academy Award nomination for the now-retired category of Best Adapted Score for André Previn, Herbert H. Spencer, & Andrew Lloyd Webber, which it lost to Marvin Hamlisch for his work on The Sting. In the years since the film's release, Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson both went on to reprise their roles as Jesus and Judas in a North American touring production of Superstar in 1993, which was titled the AD Anniversary Tour. Originally expected to run for three to four months, the tour ended up running for five years and grossed almost $100 Million.

In 1996, a West End revival of Jesus Christ Superstar opened at the Lyceum Theatre in London. It was directed by Gale Edwards (who had been discovered by Andrew Lloyd Webber when she directed a production of his musical, Aspects Of Love, in Australia) and choreographed by Aletta Collins. It starred Steve Balsamo as Jesus, Zubin Varla as Judas, and Joanna Ampil as Mary. Legendary John Napier was the designer and David Hersey designed the lighting. Steve Balsamo and Zubin Varla were succeeded by Glenn Carter and Ramon Tikaram during the run. The production received a 1997 Olivier nomination for Outstanding Musical Production. The production closed after a 16-month run. The West End revival led to a filmed production that would be released on home video. It starred Glenn Carter reprising his role as Jesus with Jérôme Pradon as Judas and Reneé Castle as Mary. The production later aired on PBS' Great Performances series in April of 2001, where it went on to win an International Emmy Award for Best Performing Arts Film.

The West End revival later came to Broadway, where it became the second production to play at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts (succeeding the original production of Ragtime) when it opened on April 16th, 2000. The show was once again directed by Gale Edwards and choreographed by Anthony Van Laast, who had been brought in to choreograph the U.K. Tour. The original casting announced for the production was Glenn Carter as Jesus, Jason Pebworth as Judas, Maya Days as Mary, Paul Kandel as Heord, and Kevin Gray as Pilate. As previews began, Jason Pebworth left the cast, and Tony Vincent (who had been playing Simon) took over the role of Judas. Some notable performers in the ensemble included Christian Borle, Merle Dandridge, Manoel Felciano, and Max von Essen. The production received mixed critical reviews, only one Tony nomination for Best Revival of a Musical, and ended up closing after spending nearly six months on the boards.

In 2011, a production of Jesus Christ Superstar debuted at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, which scooped up a record-breaking 11 BroadwayWorld Awards as voted for by the public and received rave early reviews for its director and cast. It was directed by Des McAnuff, and starred Paul Alexander Nolan as Jesus, Josh Young as Judas, and Chilina Kennedy as Mary. Andrew Lloyd Webber said of the production "I have just seen a fabulous production of Jesus Christ Superstar. It is very probably the best acted performance of the show I have ever seen and fully worthy of the fantastic reviews it has received. I pass my congratulations to Des McAnuff and everyone involved with the production at the Stratford Festival, Ontario." The success of the Canadian production of Superstar in Stratford, Ontario led to it moving to Broadway after having played at the La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego. The production opened at New York's Neil Simon Theatre on March 22nd, 2012, where it earned 2 Tony Award nominations for Best Revival of a Musical and Best Featured Actor for Young. Though unfortunately, its success in Canada didn't end up being repeated on Broadway as the production received mixed reviews from critics, and ended up closing after a four-month run.

That same year, Andrew Lloyd Webber held a reality TV show in the U.K. to cast the title role in an arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, that was to be directed by Laurence Connor. The winner was Ben Forster, and he opened the tour at the O2 along with Tim Minchin as Judas and Melanie C as Mary. The production was filmed, shown in movie theaters, released on Blu-Ray, DVD, and is currently available to stream on BroadwayHD.

On May 10th, 2017, NBC announced that they would be doing Jesus Christ Superstar for Easter 2018. This production marks the first time that the producing team of Craig Zadan & Neil Meron have joined forces with producer Marc Platt. While Zadan & Meron have produced the four previous live musical productions for NBC, Platt has actually been producing some for FOX such as Grease and A Christmas Story with Rent coming up next year. Marc Platt was previously set to produce a film reboot of Jesus Christ Superstar, but has yet to come to fruition. It was NBC chairman Robert Greenblatt who suggested to Platt about doing a live televised concert production in the meantime. At the helm is five-time Tony nominated director, David Leveaux, with live television direction by Emmy winner Alex Rudzinski. This will be Rudzinski's fourth live musical after having worked on not only Hairspray, but also Grease and A Christmas Story. The production stars John Legend as Jesus, two-time Tony nominated actor Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas, Sara Bareilles as Mary, Tony nominee Ben Daniels as Pilate, Tony nominee Norm Lewis as Caiaphas, Jin Ha as Annas, Erik Grönwall as Simon Zealotes, Jason Tam as Peter, and Alice Cooper as King Herod. The telecast will be broadcast in front of a live audience at the Marcy Avenue Armory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I hope everyone has a Happy Easter, and a great time tuning into the show tonight!