12th October 1971, Broadway, New York. There’s the openingh night of a new musical, started off as a rock opera concert recording, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Tom Rice. Those two name should serve as “guarantee” for a very good show. But the title…it sounded a little, well, profane, doesn’t it? Jesus Christ “Superstar”…What a strange, strange name…someone could feel kind of offended. “Superstar”…!!!
Those might have been the impressions of a common member of the audience walking across Broadway on an indefinite night of forty years ago, when the musical that became one the most famous of the last 50 years was represented for the first time. It’s based very loosely on the Gospels’ account of the last week of Jesus’ life, beginning with the preparation for the arrival of Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem, and ending with the crucifixion. Two aspects of the plot must be noticed: the first one is that the Resurrection, the absolutely central event in Jesus Christ’s life, is not represented; the second one is the personal and dramatic struggling between him and Judas Iscariot, on whose character the musical is focused. But the sensation have actually been caused by the intrinsic drawing of the Gospels to the hippy culture of the past sixties. This led the pièce to be banned in very countries for a considerable period of time, being accused to be blasphemous as much as carrying a distorted vision of the Bible. As a matter of fact, in VIlnius, Lituania, where it was represented in Europe in Christmas Night 1971, it was stopped by the sovietic aothorities of that time, and performers where persecuted by KGB. In Sudafrica it had a similar destiny. But those obstacles couldn’t prevent Jesus Christ Superstar from becoming the most popular and influential rock musical of all times.
Anyway, he show opened on Broadway on October 12, 1971, directed by Tom O’Horgan, at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. The Broadway production received mixed reviews, as reviewers from the New York Times deemed it to be a heartless overhyped production ; Andrew Lloyd Webber has also criticized it harshly. The show starred Jeff Fenholt as Jesus, Ben Vereen as Judas and Bob Bingham as Caiaphas. Barry Dennen, the Pilate on the original album had been living and working in London when he recorded the album. He was back in the States in time to play Pilate on Broadway. Yvonne Elliman, the original Mary Magdalene, was also a part of the cast. Kurt Yaghjian sang Annas. Ted Neeley (who was cast as a Christ understudy), Paul Jabara, Samuel E. Wright, and Anita Morris also appeared in the cast. Carl Anderson stepped into the role of Judas when Vereen fell ill, and the two performers later took turns playing the role.
The show closed on June 30, 1973 after 711 performances. The same year, it came out the movie inspired on it, who’s entirley sang (while in the musical the actors both singed and played), directed by Norman Jewinson. The part of Jesus was played by Ted Neeley, while Judas was played from Carl Anderson. Both gained a nomination for the 1974 Golden Globes. It’s interesting to know that, before being released, the movie Jesus Christ Superstar was submitted to the italian catholic magazine L’Osservatore Romano, which, of course, considered it blasphemous. But after that, the movie-musical have been applauded from italian public opinion, too, even if it was considered profane in any case.
So, I leave you with this short taken from the movie, two of the most famous songs: “Superstar” (II act, sang by Judas, Souls Sisters, Angels) and “Heaven on their minds” (I act, sang by Judas).