Jesus Christ Superstar at 50: how ‘the worst idea in history’ became a musical phenomenon
When Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice first approached theatre producers with their concept for a rock opera about the last days of Jesus Christ, they were greeted with ridicule. “This is the worst idea in history,” one prospective investor told composer Lloyd Webber.
“To be fair, you could see their point,” notes lyricist Tim Rice. “Why would anyone want to work with a couple of unknown twits who didn’t really know what we were doing? But Andrew had a vision for how it should sound, and I had a fairly original take on a very old story. And it seemed to hit the spot.”
Jesus Christ Superstar is half a century old. The original concept double album was released in October 1970 and went on to become the best-selling record in the US of 1971 (beating Carole King’s Tapestry, George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass and The Rolling Stones’s Sticky Fingers). It would also sell over eight million copies worldwide, although it didn’t catch on initially in the UK, reaching only 24 in the charts that year. A handsome new box set has been released to mark the 50th anniversary of the first theatrical production on Broadway in October 1971.
Since then, there have been productions all over the world (including an eight-year run in London’s West End from 1972 to 1980), film and TV versions and arena tours, generating hundreds of millions of pounds of revenue. It launched Lloyd Webber and Rice as creative powerhouses of musical theatre.
Its genesis, according to the composers, was not some eureka moment. The two had enjoyed small success with a school production of their debut musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. “Actually, it was the Dean of St Paul’s, Martin Sullivan, who suggested we do the story of Jesus next,” recalls Lloyd Webber. “Tim and I rather resisted it, but then Tim came up with this interesting angle. What if we told the story from Judas Iscariot’s perspective?”
Rice had attended Christian schools and been fascinated by the gospels. “Mathew, Mark, Luke and John don’t get a royalty, but their storylines are very strong,” he notes. “I wouldn’t say I was a believer, but I used to think a lot about these characters and put myself in their place.”
A couplet in the 1964 Bob Dylan song With God on His Side resonated with Rice: “You’ll have to decide / Whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side.”
“In the Gospels, Judas is just a cardboard cut-out figure of evil. But without Judas, there wouldn’t have been any Christian story. Somebody had to betray Jesus.”
Another inspiration was an advertisement showing Tom Jones dressed in white with the word SUPERSTAR emblazoned across him. “It was a comparatively new word that hadn’t yet been taken over by every second-rate pop star. I was slightly worried it might be going too far, but Joseph had shown us we could get away with being funny and contemporary with an ancient story.”
Rice was 24 when he started work on Jesus in 1969, Lloyd Webber had just turned 20. “Andrew had some terrific tunes in his locker, that hadn’t yet found the right home,” recalls Rice. King Herod’s Song began life as Try It and See, sung by Lulu in a competition to choose Britain’s entry for the Eurovision. “It works when the character singing it is unpleasant and sinister – not something you could really say about Lulu. That it was beaten by Boom Bang-a-Bang tells you all you need to know.”
Unable to find theatrical backers, the writing team persuaded MCA to release a single, Superstar. It was a minor hit in the US, which gave record company A&R Brian Brolly the confidence to commission an album. “I was given carte blanche to try all sorts of new things,” enthuses Lloyd Webber, who created a groundbreaking score melding heavy rock, soul and funk with full orchestrations and gospel and church choirs. “People were talking about classical fusion, the Stones used the London Bach choir on You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Deep Purple were at the Royal Albert Hall performing Concerto for Group and Orchestra with the Royal Philharmonic, and as a teenager I just lapped all of this up.”
The pedigree of the original album is extraordinary. Ian Gillan of Deep Purple brought his soaring range to the role of Jesus, Murray Head sang Judas with raw rock spirit, Mike D’Abo of Manfred Mann voiced King Herod and soul divas P P Arnold and Madeline Bell were among the supporting cast. The backing group was the Grease Band, who played on Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs & Englishmen tour. “These hairy dope-smoking rockers brought so much to it,” notes Rice. “I often think, gosh, we were so lucky. If it had opened as a trial run in some out-of-town theatre with a little local pit orchestra, I don’t think we’d be talking about it 50 years later. It was largely because we were able to make a cracking good record that the piece became a success in other media.”
Lloyd Webber concurs. “It’s really like a musical radio play, because we had to tell the story entirely aurally. It is very tightly constructed. It was a weird time for me, because I was the youngest at the sessions, and the only one who knew how it would all piece together. People would think ‘God, what is this boy doing?’” In America, Superstar tapped into a post-hippie “Jesus Movement” debate about the relevance of Christ to a younger generation. “When we opened on Broadway, you’d get the odd placard-waving protestor saying ‘Jesus is the Son of God!’,” recalls Rice. “My response was ‘we’re not saying he isn’t.’
“It seemed to me the point of Christianity was that Jesus was both man and God, so he would have human flaws and doubts, otherwise his sacrifice would be meaningless.” As Lloyd Webber points out: “We deliberately did not go into the resurrection. So how you take it depends on your faith.”
The show’s most significant achievement for Lloyd Webber was technical. “It was the first musical to have a sound desk. I remember theatre owners going berserk: ‘You’re taking up seats!’ Jesus Christ Superstar brought sound as we know it into the theatre.” Lloyd Webber and Rice followed up with another blockbuster musical, Evita, but have not composed a complete piece together since. “We didn’t have some kind of terrible falling out, we just … professionally drifted apart,” notes Lloyd Webber. “We had different projects we wanted to work on, and the timing was never quite right. We’re both in our seventies now, but never say never.”
Both express confidence about the survival of British theatre post-Covid, although Rice likens the Government’s handling of the challenges to “being hit with a sock full of wet porridge. So it’s up to the very dynamic creators who have always driven the success of British theatre to be allowed to get on with the job without too much interference.” “I’m optimistic,” agrees Lloyd Webber, whose new musical Cinderella has opened to acclaim in the West End, utilising bold in-the-round staging. “I think everybody’s got to be on their toes and provide experiences that you can only get from being in the theatre. If we can do that, the future looks good.”
Interestingly, he is less sure about how something as provocative as Jesus Christ Superstar might fare today. “Around the world, it seems people have got much more puritanical than they were in the 1960s,” he says. “We never got the kind of fundamentalist reactions that you might expect in post-Donald Trump America. Strangely, Superstar might actually be more controversial now than it was when we wrote it.”
'Jesus Christ Superstar 50th Anniversary Edition' is out now on Decca Broadway