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Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar set the world buzzing when it first appeared on vinyl in 1970 and on Broadway in 1971. The executives at MCA Records were terrified by it. In reaction to the single "Superstar," one MCA exec said, "A song like that will offend everyone." Another said, "If we put that record out, every churchman in the country will stone us." It made one secretary cry, who said, "It’s sad when a company like Decca [owned by MCA] has to make money by making fun of Jesus!" Later on, the film’s director Norman Jewison would say, "My hope is that audiences will take this for what it is – an opera, not history. These kids are trying to take Jesus off the stained-glass windows and get him down on the street. Some people are not going to like that." As author Robert Short put it, "It is a complete misunderstanding to view Jesus Christ Superstar as an expression of anyone’s answer… Its purpose is, first, to put to Jesus the question we have today about the meaning of life, and second, to put this question in our own way of putting it." Tim Rice did with this story the same thing that clergy across America do every Sunday morning: remove it from its distant past and foreign culture and give it resonance and relevance to the issues and obstacles we face every day.
But today, Jesus Christ Superstar has been dumbed down, made palatable and comfortable, robbed of the rebellious, smartass attitude that originally made music and theatre history. Nearly forty years after its creation, it is time to return the piece to its rebel roots and allow Rice’s aggressive text to offend, stun, shock, and disturb once again. Whether you’re a Christian or not, this is an important side to an important story in world history, and it’s a side rarely told anywhere else.
In setting the story of Judas’ betrayal of Jesus for the modern stage, lyricist Tim Rice approached the story as political history instead of revealed scripture, and Jesus as radical political activist (mirroring the times) rather than as the son of God. This Jesus does not point the way to God half as much as he points the way toward living a moral, engaged life, and that’s why politics takes center stage here instead of religion. After all, politics is how humans decide collective morality, questions of how to live morally in a community (of whatever size) and of which values will be shared by that community. Conversely, religion dictates those answers to humans, rather than allowing them to explore and form their own morality.
Rice says he was first inspired by the lyric from Bob Dylan, song, "With God on Our Side": "I can’t think for you, you’ll have to decide, did Judas Iscariot have God on his side?" Rice was quoted at the time saying, "We need to humanize Christ, because for me, I find Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels as a God as a very unrealistic figure… The same is true, on the other hand, for Judas who is portrayed just as a sort of cardboard cut-out figure of evil." Strangely, the bulk of American and British critics complained repeatedly that this was not a proper retelling of the Biblical story of Christ, and the respected British director Peter Hall said, "I think Jesus Christ Superstar says nothing about Christ and nothing for or against religion." Of course, they were exactly right, but they hadn’t understood that this was the creators’ intention all along. Rice and Lloyd Webber never intended to tell the "Biblical" story but instead an alternative story of famous events; and what’s more, they were telling the story of Judas, not Jesus.
With Superstar Rice and Lloyd Webber broke new ground in several ways. First, the idea of rock opera was still brand new; though The Who’s Tommy had already been released, no rock opera had been staged. Second, the idea that rock and roll was an acceptable – even a preferable – language with which to tell this story was quite radical. And perhaps most important to us today, the choice to focus the show on Judas rather than on Jesus lifted the show out of the category of mere cultural rebellion and into the realm of legitimate intellectual and artistic endeavor. This was a show not about Jesus’ teachings, his divinity, his suffering on the cross, or his resurrection; this was a story that asked a simple question: Why did Judas feel he needed to betray Jesus? As the quote above shows us, Rice delved deep into all these characters, infusing them with personality, psychology, and ideology that the more simplistic storytelling style of the Bible never offered. Other dramatizations of this story fail because there’s no tension, no surprises, nothing unknown – we all know this story too well. But Rice told us a new story and that choice gave us back the dramatic elements that makes a good story; the politics of this story, the complicated relationship between Judas and Jesus, and so many other elements gave us back the tension, the surprises, and the unknowns that keep us involved in the story. And Rice’s story also gave us an active Judas and Jesus, rather than the passive, inherently undramatic characters the Bible gives us, unable to change fate, tossed around by the winds of divine providence. An active character is always more dramatic than a passive one. This show dramatized not just what happened, but why it happened. The show opened with Judas’ warnings of disaster (in "Heaven on Their Minds") and ended with Judas’ I-Told-You-So song, "Superstar." This is Judas’ story; he is the only central character who changes, who learns, who goes on a journey. Jesus is the same at the beginning of the story as he is at the end. He can’t be the protagonist.
The show’s title song was released as a single before MCA recorded the whole opera (to see if it would be a commercial disaster), but no one knew when they first heard it that this was Judas speaking, and more specifically, that it was Judas scolding Jesus. They also didn’t know that this lyric would become the central point of the entire show and the answer to the story’s central question: Why did Judas betray Jesus? Like the single, the title of the opera is snide, sarcastic, angry, representing Judas’ point of view, the idea that Jesus had become a "superstar," a shallow, hyped personality worshipped merely for the hype like many pop stars of the 1960s and 70s and today. The title Jesus Christ Superstar embodies the reason for Judas’ betrayal – the "superstardom," the hype, the baggage became more important than the very important philosophical message Jesus wanted to convey, a message Judas believed in. To Judas, Jesus lost his stature as philosopher when he gained his status as superstar.
The show never suggested that Jesus wasn’t divine, but neither did it reinforce the view that he was. This was not an entirely bizarre approach – though the canonical Christian gospels stress Jesus’ divinity, the Gnostic gospels (including the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Mary, and others) came from a different strand of early Christianity in which Christians believed fully in the wisdom and philosophy of Jesus but never even mentioned the idea that he was God. Likewise in Superstar that issue was off the table, irrelevant to the story Rice was telling. Everyone already knows the story of Jesus as the Son of God. This was the other, rarely examined side of the story of Jesus, an "ordinary guy" who became an unlikely star. It is that ordinariness that gives the story resonance and life but it also outraged Christians. Most people think of Jesus as a religious icon, but the people who lived and worked around him saw him as just another guy. Despite what most of us think, Jesus was not a carpenter in the sense of a trained artisan – the Greek word used to describe him (and his father) in the Gospels is tekton, meaning anyone who makes things with his hands. The modern equivalent might be a construction worker or day laborer. Jesus’ family was one without land, putting them extremely low on the economic ladder. But Superstar was also the story of Jesus the social revolutionary, political insurgent, radical philosopher, apocalyptic prophet, a speaker of truth to power that terrified the religious and secular authorities. His ascendancy from such humble roots makes him even more of a puzzle and therefore more dangerous to the priests. Today, most productions of Jesus Christ Superstar are far blander than Rice intended, comfortably reinforcing mainstream beliefs. But this show was meant to be a call to political action, a reminder that all the great political and human rights movements in world history all found their roots in the very radical political agenda of Jesus and Judas.
Not surprisingly, this approach was considered blasphemous by mainstream Christians. Many of the show's critics believed that the story of Jesus should not be set to rock music. Of course, there are two problems with this position. First, merely because a music style is popular doesn't mean it can't treat serious subjects; Bach's music was popular in its time, yet no one today would complain that Bach's Passions are irreverent. Though the King James Bible seems old and formal and therefore reverent to us today, when it was written its language was contemporary. Unfortunately, many people today equate seriousness and import with antiquity. The second problem with the stand against Superstar is that Jesus himself was a major rebel of his time; he fought against the establishment, the high priests, the Pharisees, and the government. What better way to tell his story than with the musical language of rebellion? Keeping the story of Jesus and his views in antique forms takes the teeth out of his activism. There's no reason why people should not celebrate their beliefs in the language and music of their lives. Today, Superstar doesn't seem nearly as controversial because rock and roll is now the music of adults, and guitars are now allowed in mass; but imagine the uproar if the Catholic church began allowing rap music as part of the liturgy…
Another source of consternation came during the Last Supper scene, when Jesus sings, "For all you care about, this wine could be my blood. For all you care this bread could be my body." This was an extremely radical new approach to these words, but not an entire unsupported interpretation. The earliest copies of the Book of Luke describe the Last Supper very differently from what later, less authentic texts say and what most Bibles say today. In the original text of Luke, Jesus says "Take this and drink it among yourselves, for I say to you that I will not drink from the fruit of the vine from now on, until the kingdom of God comes." And after breaking the bread he says, "This is my body. But behold, the hand of the one who betrays me is with me at the table." There is no mention of his body or blood being sacrificed for the salvation of believers. That idea is nowhere to be found in the original Bible texts – not surprisingly, since it implied ritual vampirism and cannibalism, both pagan rituals. But that also means that, according to the earliest manuscripts, Jesus’ death on the cross is not what provides salvation to believers. Superstar was making an entirely other point, that these men and women thought about what Jesus meant in their lives as little as they thought about what food or wine they put in their bodies – not complete apathy, but only minimal consideration. This was an accusation, not a clue to eternal salvation.
The greatest objection from the religious critics was that the show did not include the resurrection. Rice told an interviewer that he did not believe Jesus was the son of God, but for him, that made the story all the more amazing. Another bone of contention was the song "I Only Want to Say" that Jesus sings in the Garden of Gethsemane. Though Jesus has some doubt in the biblical version of the story, those doubts are articulated so completely and so intensely in the show that they sounded to some like more blasphemy. Critics also found the relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene uncomfortably sexual. They were right – her physical attraction to Jesus is strongly implied; after all, when the show was written, people still thought Mary was a prostitute (we know now that’s a misreading enshrined by Pope Gregory). Another complaint was the periodic humor in the show, though it was minimal. The drunken apostles at the Last Supper and King Herod's frighteningly wacky song and dance did not amuse some people. Rice and Lloyd Webber both felt the story of Christ, especially the crucifixion, had been too much romanticized into a beautiful, graceful event, instead of the brutal, savage act that it had been. To re-open our eyes to the horror and tragedy of the story, they decided they needed to shock the audience.
The Virgin Birth
In 1971, no one expected the next big Broadway musical would be based on the Bible. And they certainly didn’t expect it to be based on a pop album about Judas and Jesus. After all, the youth movement of the sixties had been about newfound spirituality but also about a rejection of institutionalized religion. Their drug use was not just an escape; it was also a means to help them find the spirituality they believed their parents had lost in the meaningless hypocrisy of organized religion in the 1950s. In 1967, Father James Kavanaugh had published his book A Modern Priest Looks at His Outdated Church. Looking at their parents and the rest of the "older generation," they saw evidence that mainstream religions had reduced religious experience, the act of living through faith, to nothing more than symbols and metaphors, subverting and short-circuiting the religious experience itself. They believed that mainstream religious traditions and rituals got in the way of true faith and the search for ultimate truths. The language of the King James Bible was as remote from their lives as it could be, full of thees and thous, strange grammar and sentence structure; sure, young people thought, this dusty old relic doesn’t relate to my life in the tumultuous 1970s. Rice’s intentionally slangy, often unpoetic language in Superstar was a direct reaction to these feelings, to put blood and flesh back on these cardboard characters (much like the musical 1776 did for our Founding Fathers), to make them accessible to modern audiences. The opening images of the film version of Superstar created stunning visuals metaphors for this cultural tumult, panning across actual ruins in Israel, literally showing us the crumbling edifice of organized religion; and there in the middle of the ruins, the camera reveals modern-day scaffolding, the hint of a coming "reconstruction" of the philosophy of Jesus for modern times; and finally, the camera revels a busload of The Younger Generation coming toward us in the distance. And all this in one shot. Because more young Americans than ever before were attending college in the 1960s and 70s – and while there studying other world religions – they were finding that the Christian creation/Genesis story, the sacrifice/crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the miracles performed by Jesus, and most of the rest of the central stories of Christianity had shown up in other world religions long before the birth of Christianity. Though this did not automatically discount all of Christianity for them, it did throw its claims of absolute and unique truth into question. As a result, many young adults began exploring the older Eastern religions.
In the song "Superstar," Judas speaks for these young people as he grills Jesus:
Tell me what you think about your friends at the top.
Who d’you think besides yourself’s the pick of the crop?
Buddha, was he where’s it at, is he where you are?
Could Mahomet move a mountain or was that just PR?
That, more than anything else, is why the single sold so well all over the world. Judas asks what so many people still ask today: how can so many different religions all claim to have the only truth? And why should we believe that the Bible’s truth is necessarily more true than the other truths? Or more pointedly, why should we believe in any religion at all?
John Lennon said in an interview with London’s Evening Standard, "Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I’m right and will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus right now. I don’t know which will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me." Rice, Lloyd Webber, and their various directors were trying to find new meaning in the rubble of Jesus’ moral philosophy. Christianity was in crisis (as it remains today), and far from mocking it or capitalizing on its woes, Jesus Christ Superstar was a legitimate, artful response to the crisis. In fact, the apostles in Rice and Lloyd Webber’s story were like much of the Western world’s youth in the early 70s, questioning, thirsting for a more substantial, less arbitrary, more participatory philosophy of life. Judas and his angry anthem became a rallying cry for youth all over America and Europe. On the jacket of the original single, "Superstar," the record company printed a quote from Martin Sullivan, the Dean of St. Paul’s in London, "There are some people who may be shocked by this record. 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 record probes some answers and make some comparisons." When the single was released, many U.S. radio stations played the record, then followed it was a discussion group.
In October 1970 they released the full-length, double-album rock opera – not the first of its kind; Tommy gets that distinction – but certainly a landmark. By February, the single reached the top of the American charts. Some stations played the entire double album without commercial interruption. The Vatican’s own radio station played the album, even though the official Vatican newspaper didn’t like it. Ministers began using the lyric as a basis for their sermons. Unauthorized touring companies sprang up all over America, performing the show in concert, usually in churches. Thomas Willis wrote in the Chicago Tribune, "I am neither a theologian nor a rock critic but if Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t the most important religious music of the year – and one of two or three significant recordings of the decade – I am sadly mistaken." Derek Jewell in London’s Sunday Times called it "every bit as valid as (and to me, more moving than) Handel’s Messiah. This is a work on a heroic scale, masterfully conceived, honestly done, and overflowing with splendid music and apt language."
The now $700,000 show opened on Broadway at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on October 12, 1971 with an unprecedented advance of two million dollars, and under the flamboyant, over-the-top direction of Hair’s skipper, Tom O’Horgan. Sadly, O’Horgan’s outrageous sensory-assaulting production wasn’t what the young writers wanted. They and producer Robert Stigwood had wanted to stage the piece more simply, perhaps using projections and television screens to underline Tim Rice’s themes of celebrity and stardom. He first hired Frank Corsaro, a veteran theatre director who been working in opera. Corsaro seemed perfect for the project. But Corsaro was in a severe auto accident and was unable to do the show. O’Horgan replaced him, and no one involved – Stigwood, Rice, or Lloyd Webber – was particularly happy with the way the show turned out. It started its run selling out every night, but the enthusiasm diminished quickly and the show never made it to its second birthday.
Clive Barnes wrote in the New York Times, "Nothing could convince me that any show that has sold two-and-one-half million copies of its album before the opening night is anything like all bad. But I must also confess to experiencing some disappointment when Jesus Christ Superstar opened last night. It all rather resembled one’s first sight of the Empire State Building. Not at all uninteresting, but somewhat unsurprising and of minimal artistic value." He went on to criticize O’Horgan’s production: "Once he startled us with small things, now he startles us with big things. This time, the things got too big. For me, the real disappointment came not in the music, but in the conception. There is a coyness in its contemporaneity, a sneaky pleasure in the boldness of its anachronisms, a special undefined air of smugness in its daring." In The Daily News, Robert Crane interviewed people after seeing Superstar, and one Catholic housewife from Queens said, "My heart is beating, I am moved more than I am by a sermon in church, It enlightens the scriptures for me."
As it often does, life imitated art with Superstar, with the leads and the writers thrust unexpectedly into superstar status themselves, actually living (in a small way) the struggles Jesus deals with in the show. Rice said in one interview, "It’s all a bit incredible. I has all gotten a bit out of hand – the orgy, the Superstar buttons and pocket calendars, the pickets, the T-shirts, the pirated concert versions touring around purporting to be the real Superstar…" Yvonne Elliman (Mary) tells a story in the book Rock Opera about a young girl who came backstage to ask "if I would come visit a friend of hers in the hospital. She just wanted me to go and touch her." Jeff Fenholt (Jesus) would get letters from women considering becoming nuns, wanting his advice, as well as letters asking for miracle cures, from women asking him to find their lost husbands. He got one letter that said it was from "the real Judas."
Jesus Christ Superstar ran on Broadway for 720 performances. Ben Vereen as Judas was nominated for a Tony Award, and nominations were had for best score, scenic design, costumes, and lighting (all lost to Follies). Superstar won nothing. The show did not receive nominations for best musical or best director, though three of the four nominees for best musical were rock shows (Two Gentlemen of Verona, Grease, and Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death). In London, the show was staged more simply and more honestly by Jim Sharman, who would soon be helping to birth The Rocky Horror Show. It opened in London in 1972 and ran for eight years and 3,358 performances, breaking all West End records. Soon it was playing in Australia, Germany, France, Scandinavia, Japan, Brazil, Mexico, Spain, and other countries. In 1972, producer Robert Stigwood opened an outdoor production of the show in Hollywood starring the understudies from the Broadway production, Ted Neely and Carl Anderson – both of whom would go on to star in the film.
Today many people don't like Lloyd Webber's work, but the composer of Superstar is a different Lloyd Webber from the one who wrote Phantom of the Opera. When he began his career thirty years ago, he wrote in the rock and roll idiom, a musical language he knew and loved. No one can deny that he can still write a breathtaking melody, but his harmonic vocabulary is limited. Consequently, he excelled in the relatively simple, repetitive language of rock and roll with Superstar, but when he tries today to write in a more classical, more sophisticated style, his limitations show through. What seems driving and primal in Superstar sounds merely repetitious in the classical European sound of Phantom or the pseudo-jazz style of Sunset Boulevard. His writing ability hasn't diminished, but when he changed styles, our expectations changed as well, and he couldn't meet them. His critics believe that, unlike other theatre writers, Lloyd Webber has not grown as a composer over time. Luckily, we can still enjoy Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita, both set on the cynical, literate, and provocative lyrics of Tim Rice.
Poor Old Judas
Rice and Lloyd Webber began with the idea of writing a musical about Judas, in which Jesus was only a minor character. Though that's not exactly what they ended up with, Judas still emerged as the protagonist, more important and complex than Jesus. The show’s title is Judas’ own words, Judas’ point of view, Judas’ criticism of Jesus. Judas is in an impossible situation; there is no easy way out. Tim Rice wrote, "We made him an everyman. Judas did not think of himself as a traitor. He did what he did, not because he was basically evil, but because he was intelligent. He could see Christ becoming something he considered harmful to the Jews. Judas felt they had been persecuted enough."
Judas is the most fully drawn character in the show, certainly more so than Jesus. Judas is passionate, fiery, impatient, smart as hell and a real control freak. Judas clearly does not believe Jesus is the son of God and says so explicitly in the show’s first song. Judas and Tim Rice both stake out their positions early on, to offer the audience a clear context and road map for the story they’re about to see. It’s important to remember that at that time there was dozens of men constantly claiming to be the Messiah, each with his own devout followers who believed utterly in their teacher. Judas thinks this movement has accidentally evolved into one of those. He believes this turn of events is contrary to Jesus’ intentions, but that’s less clear to us; does Jesus believe he is the Messiah? And more importantly, is he? This story will never answer that question, putting us in Judas’ shoes. We don’t know what’s in Jesus’ head any better than Judas does. It leaves Jesus as a difficult character to define, but it makes the story infinitely richer, more complex, more human.
But Judas’ other concern is for his people. He knows that the minute Jesus becomes famous, the authorities will clamp down on him. He may be killed – they all may be killed. The perspective of the Jews, they were an occupied nation under the tyranny of Rome. Judas sees Jesus lessons of love and peace and brotherhood as a path straight to the gallows. Again, he describes these concerns explicitly in the show’s first song, a real masterpiece of economical, character-driven exposition.
The dichotomy between Judas and Jesus is a fascinating one. Judas is the practical one, concerned with image, message, public opinion, money, etc. Jesus is concerned only with the Message. Interestingly, the relationship between Judas and Jesus mirrors the relationship between the show’s twin antagonists, Annas and Caiaphas. Like Judas, Annas is the practical one, trying to see the obstacles ahead, worrying about public opinion; while Caiaphas is utterly single-minded, just like Jesus.
That central relationship shows us a mammoth tug-of-war between pragmatism, represented by Judas, and ideas, represented by Jesus. Each of them is missing what the other has. Judas finds himself constantly frustrated and confused by Jesus' refusal to look at the practical side of their situation, as verbalized in "Heaven On Their Minds," "Superstar," and the fragment of "Superstar" at the end of the Last Supper. They fight because they both care passionately about the cause and about each other. There are three main arguments that break out between them, during "Strange Thing Mystifying," "Everything's Alright," and at the Last Supper – the second two set to the same music. Judas acts as a kind of business agent and PR man, concerned over the political message they're sending out, at the perceived inconsistencies in Jesus' teachings, and the money wasted on Mary's ointments and oils. He believes in Jesus' philosophy, in his ability to lead, but not in his methods and his choices.
The lyric to the chorus of the title song originally just repeated "Jesus Christ" every time the melody repeated. But before recording it, Tim Rice wanted to give the lyric some variety. The word superstar was just beginning to be widely used, mostly to refer to rock and pop stars. Rice changed the second repeat of the chorus to include the word superstar because that's what Christ was, a superstar of his time, widely popular, complete with his own groupies who cared more about his star status then about his message. He was thronged when he went out in public, and like many rock stars today, he was considered dangerous and corrupting by the establishment. Jesus had a new message for the people, and they embraced it (for a while, at least). Despite his intentions to the contrary, he became a controversial political figure as well as a spiritual leader. The songs "Hosanna" and "Simon Zealotes" point out to Jesus the tens of thousands of followers who are hanging on his every word. Simon wants Jesus to use his power to bring about a rebellion against Rome; but Jesus doesn't want to be a political figure.
From the biblical perspective, an important question is ignored: why was Jesus so "big," so successful, so influential? From the point of view of the Bible, the answer is that he was divine; but from a purely historical, sociological angle, there's more to it. Like our country today, the people wanted a new message, a change, relief from the tyranny of Rome. (Many scholars believe the Book of Revelation isn’t about the end of the world at all; it was a thinly disguised promise to the Jews that Rome would soon fall and their persecution would end.) Jesus came at the right time with the right message, just as the Religious Right did in the 1994 U.S. congressional elections. As Jesus grew to adulthood, Galilee was in turmoil. The region had been conquered by Rome and Herod Antipas had been installed as a regional governor or sorts. But the Jews suffered under the weight of incredible taxation, both from Rome itself and also from Herod, who taxed the Jews so heavily in order to build new cities. Meanwhile, the rich got richer while the poor got poorer. The Zealotes emerged as a secret group of vigilantes, insurgents, revolutionaries, guerilla warriors, never hesitating to use violence, rising up to protest their oppression by Rome and its surrogates. Like Americans today, most Jews of the early first century wanted an alternative to the violence, corruption, and economic strangle-hold under which they were straining. Jesus’ message was one of peace, of morality and fairness; but also, a message of complete social upheaval. More and more, it was what the people wanted. But it made him dangerous.
Other central characters in the story are never fully drawn in the Bible, but Rice had to thoroughly characterize them in the musical in order for us to understand them and their relationship to Jesus and Judas. Because secondary characters get very little "dialogue" in the Bible, those questions aren't really answered; but in Superstar, we see Mary as a complete, living person. She just wants to comfort Jesus and help him relax; the only way she knows how to do that is by soothing him physically. She bathes him in ointments and oils, rubs his feet, massages his head and shoulders. There was a reason so many women traveled with Jesus, that we don’t always understand today. At that time, women had virtually no rights, were not allowed to interact with men in most situations, could not discuss the events of the day, offer opinions; women didn’t matter. But Jesus is different from other men. He and his followers treated women as nearly full equals – they ate together, discussed politics together, his women disciples performed their poetry at feasts, and in the most radical departure from the norm, the women were welcomed alongside men as serious students worthy of an education. No wonder so many women found themselves amongst Jesus’ closest followers, and no wonder there were always several rich women around to finance the movement. This was a movement worth financing.
On a personal level, Jesus treats Mary with real respect, with genuine love, something almost unheard of. He appreciates her efforts. As she sings in "I Don't Know How to Love Him," this throws her completely. How does she respond to his treatment of her? Her first impulse is to return that affection physically, but she knows that's not appropriate. She doesn't know how to express love without physical forms of affection; she literally does not know how to love this man. Judas hates her because he sees Mary and her relationship with Jesus as a PR liability. He also seems at times to be jealous of her. He is a man full of frustration, and one of the ways that anger manifests itself is in jealousy against the one other person to whom Jesus is that close. Mary cares about the movement but she cares about Jesus more; in contrast, Judas cares very much about his friend Jesus, but he cares about the movement more. At least in the world of Superstar, Judas and Mary dance a spiritual, emotional tug-of-war over Jesus throughout the entire story.
Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, is a fascinating character, and is another person Rice and Lloyd Webber discussed writing a musical about, again with Jesus as a minor character. (They also briefly tried a show about Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis.) As the Roman prefect of Judea, Pilate commanded Roman military units, authorized construction projects, arranged for the collection of imperial taxes, and decided civil and criminal cases. According to a "Famous Trials" website from the University of Missouri – Kansas City Law School:
During his ten years as prefect, Pilate's tenure was associated with "briberies, insults, robberies, outrages, wanton injustices, constantly repeated executions without trial, and ceaseless and grievous cruelty."
Given what is known about Pilate's concern with crowd control, it is hard to imagine that he would not have willingly acceded to a request from high Jewish officials to deal harshly with anyone who proclaimed himself "King of the Jews." Pilate undoubtedly knew that past messianic claims had led to civil unrest. It seems likely that he would have been eager to end the potential threat to the existing order presented by the subversive theology of Jesus. The form of execution used – -crucifixion – establishes that Jesus was condemned as a violator of Roman, not Jewish, law.
Like Judas, Pilate finds himself in a no-win situation in this story. The region is in turmoil. Several Jewish insurgencies have already been put down, thousands executed by the state. Jerusalem is straining under the weight of thousands of pilgrims who’ve come to the temple for Passover week. In the past, this had led to violent political uprisings. Pilate needs to keep a lid on the unrest this year. And then this Jesus thing is dropped in his lap…
The song "Pilate's Dream" paints a subtle portrait of Pilate as a politician trying desperately to avoid controversy, and more than anything, responsibility. He's not a bad person as much as he’s a modern politician (at least, as Rice has written him) – amoral more than immoral, more interested in preserving his power than anything else, always looking to his own future and his climb up that political ladder. In his dream he sees all that will happen, and knows that despite his efforts to the contrary, he will end up being blamed for Jesus' death. He may even have an inkling that once Jesus dies, the whole thing will get ever bigger. In the midst of the hassles of Passover week, he is told that the priests have convicted Jesus of blasphemy. And since they have no authority to put him to death as they would like, they send Jesus to Pilate for execution. Pilate tries to pass the buck by sending Jesus to Herod; since Jesus is a Jew, he falls under Herod's jurisdiction, but Herod sends him right back. Pilate doesn't really understand why Jesus is worth so much fuss; but the crowd has now turned on their leader and demands his crucifixion. Pilate even tries to convince the crowd that Jesus isn't worth their hatred. But there is legitimate reason for Pilate’s fear – if the mob now demanding Jesus’ death decides they’re unhappy with Pilate’s decision, there could be yet another uprising in the city.
And then there’s Caiaphas and Annas. Again according to the UMKC website:
Joseph Caiaphas was the high priest of Jerusalem and the chief religious authority in the land, with important responsibilities including controlling the Temple treasury, managing the Temple police and other personnel, performing religious rituals, and – central to the passion story – serving as president of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish council and court that considered the case of Jesus.
Caiaphas was the son-in-law of Annas, high priest from 6 to 15 C.E. and head of a family that would control the high priesthood for most of the first century. It is possible that Annas, as a high priest emeritus, might have served at the side of Caiaphas in the Sanhedrin called to resolve the fate of Jesus.
Although little is known of Caiaphas, historians infer from his eighteen years as high priest that he must have worked well with Roman authority. For ten years, Caiaphas served with Roman prefect Pontius Pilate and the two presumably had a close relationship. It is likely that Caiaphas and Pilate had standing arrangements for how to deal with subversive persons such as Jesus. High priests, including Caiaphas, were both respected and despised by the Jewish population. Many Jews suspected the high priests of taking bribes or practicing other forms of corruption. Unlike other Temple priests, Caiaphas lived in Jerusalem's Upper City, a wealthy section inhabited by the city’s powers-that-be.
The Friendly Villagers
As in many musicals, the crowd – ‘the friendly villagers" – is a character in and of itself. In almost all musicals (for example, Brigadoon, The Music Man, Carousel, Sweeney Todd, Rocky Horror, Bat Boy, Hair.), the protagonist must either learn to assimilate himself into the crowd/townspeople or be removed from the community. In Brigadoon, Tommy assimilates. So does Harold Hill in The Music Man. In Carousel, Billy can't so he dies. Neither Sweeney nor Frank N. Furter can, so they both die. In Superstar, Jesus can't assimilate, can't join the mainstream, so he must be removed – by capital punishment. Judas must be removed as well. But there are two sets of "friendly villagers" in this story – the apostles and the Jews at large. The apostles are a motley crew, uneducated, unskilled laborers, so average of intelligence that Jesus had to create all those farming parables to communicate complex ideas. These were common men and women. (And yes, Jesus did have women apostles and he had a lot more than twelve.) But the larger group of "friendly villagers," the Jewish mob, becomes one of the antagonists, actively demanding Jesus’ death. The crowd begins the show as Jesus' followers (singing "Hosanna"), a group whose loyalty the priests don't want to lose. The crowd is in the middle of a tug-of-war between the priests and Jesus. They ask Jesus to be healed, to be cured, to be fed; yet once the priests have condemned him as a blasphemer, the crowd turns on Jesus and demands Pilate crucify him. As it still does today, public opinion can swing quickly and unexpectedly from one extreme to the other. A contemporary example would be the American public who in 1992 ousted a Republican president in favor of a Democrat, then in 1994 gave control of Congress to the Republicans. And now a reversal of that may be coming in 2006. The loyalties of the masses can change with the wind and this phenomenon was just as dangerous and unpredictable then as it is now. The change of the crowd's position is seen through a series of songs: "Hosanna" and "Simon Zealotes" (all devout followers), "The Temple" (the moneylenders opposing him and the sick asking for healing), "The Arrest" (the people turning fickle, taunting him), "Pilate and Christ" (turning against him), and finally "Trial by Pilate" (demanding his death).
How to Succeed
Like Rice and Lloyd Webber's later rock opera Evita, Jesus Christ Superstar follows two main themes. The first is success and the power that comes with it. As the show opens, Jesus has found great success in his ministry. He is reaching tens of thousands of people with his ideas and they are following him. Though his goal is not power, he finds himself becoming powerful enough to make the priests very nervous. The priests have great success and power as well. Their position in the church brings with it not only substantial wealth but also political power, which is now being threatened by Jesus. If people listen to Jesus’ radical ideas about having a personal relationship with God, about redistribution of wealth, about turning the other cheek, they will stop listening to the priests and the social order will come a-tumbling down… Without followers, the church loses all its power – and its money. As with any political struggle, including the current political landscape in America, there is a great battle fought for the hearts and minds of the masses. As the show opens Jesus is winning, but before the show is over, fortunes are reversed and Jesus ultimately loses the battle. Herod and Pilate are also men of great power; and Pilate represents the inescapable responsibility that goes with power.
The other main theme in the show is choice and the removal of choice by the forces of politics and public opinion. Throughout the show, characters make choices that will greatly affect the outcome of events. Jesus chooses to keep Mary by his side, despite her image, despite the fact that women were supposed to wear veils in public and were not to be spoken to (check Leviticus for the ugly truth); and this is one of the things that drives a wedge between Jesus and Judas. In fact, some Biblical and art historians believe the figure on Jesus’ right side in DaVinci’s famous Last Supper is not John, as always believed, but Mary (take a close look some time).
Judas repeatedly makes the choice to ignore the mistakes he knows Jesus is making and to stay with him anyway. Jesus' choices keep getting him deeper and deeper in trouble until finally, Judas must choose to betray him to the priests to stop the train from careening off the tracks. Does Judas in fact have a choice or is he trapped into the events as they unfolded? If Judas had not betrayed Jesus, Jesus' role as martyr would've been subverted. Jesus knows from the beginning that Judas may betray him, that his ideas may be too radical, too dangerous even for his closest, most trusted friend. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus has serious doubts about what's he gotten into and he considers whether or not he can choose to stop, to get out while he's still alive. He decides that the choice is not his. After Jesus' arrest, Peter chooses self-preservation over loyalty as he denies Jesus; but again, Jesus thought this might happen. Pilate tries to avoid making any choice at all regarding Jesus, but in the end the choice is forced upon him by the priests, by Herod, and by the crowd. Everyone wants Jesus taken care of, yet no one wants to be the one who takes action.
The music of Superstar is relatively conventional both harmonically and melodically, but there is still a richness of melody there, with obvious roots in Puccini, Bill Haley, Richard Rodgers, even some Leonard Bernstein; and there’s also the cockiness of youth in both the music and lyrics. Rice and Lloyd Webber could not have written this show when they were forty. This material had to have the tang of youthful arrogance and rebellion to give voice to the radical, young activists Jesus and Judas. There is nothing in the score too complicated, nothing that requires much of the listener, but the music holds our interest nonetheless. Lloyd Webber doesn't use literal reprises – repeated songs with the same or similar lyrics – except for a couple of fragments in Act II. Instead, he re-uses music with entirely new lyrics (a device known as contrafactum). This works in much the same way as reprises, connecting characters or events by giving them the same music. He doesn't really develop musical themes or motifs, choosing instead to repeat them exactly or almost exactly. Though it's not as sophisticated as other theatre scores, his use of contrafactum is interesting, and in most cases, dramatically motivated. This would not be the case with any of his scores after Evita.
The first eight songs in the show introduce eight melodies which will be used again and again throughout the score. The show starts with "Heaven on Their Minds," introducing Judas, his relationship with Jesus, his doubts about Jesus' approach, and even some information about Jesus' growing ministry. The song establishes Judas as the central character, dramatically, an intelligent and perceptive man whose concerns are legitimate ones. The repeated ostinato vamp in the bass will later accompany the thirty-nine lashes and we will see that Judas was right all along about the dangers ahead. The next song, "What's the Buzz?" introduces the apostles and their collective character – curious, questioning, impatient, and basically ineffectual; they want to know what’s up only because they want to be a part of the movement. Quite noticeably, they don’t ask why things are happening or why their movement matters. They’re far more interested in itinerary than in philosophy.
Jesus sings for the first time here, treating the apostles more like children than adult students of his teachings. In effect, he’s teaching them to be more Zen-like, to focus on where they are, not where they may be down the road. The next song in the scene dramatizes Jesus and Judas' first confrontation, "Strange Thing Mystifying," in which Judas directly challenges Jesus' actions, specifically with regard to Mary Magdalene. Judas is the PR guy, and Jesus fooling around with an unmarried woman is not the public face they want to put on this movement. And since Judas is already worried about being arrested, he’d rather not give the authorities any more reasons to do so. To Judas, this is a modern-day political campaign. To Jesus, he’s nothing more than a philosopher who honestly believes his ideas can help people live better lives. These two friends are not working toward the same goals. But there seems to be more here. This argument between these two devoted friends over this woman hints at deeper issues. When Jesus sings to Judas, "Leave her, leave her, she’s with me now…" it almost sounds like Mary had been with Judas before. There is some Biblical evidence to suggest that the real Mary Magdalene may have had money, and therefore real independence, and that may have financed much of the movement. Her independence seems to be confirmed by the Bible’s mention that "seven demons" had previously been driven out of her – it’s not hard to imagine this was a reaction to her independence. And her established – even favored – place in Jesus’ movement leaves open the possibility, if she’s been around for a while, that Judas may have been with her. This is only the first of several fights the two friends will have. Mary sings her first song, "Everything's Alright," clearly defining her character, the balance and calm she brings to this combative group of friends, as well as her relationship with both Jesus and Judas. Also, recent Biblical scholarship adds a new wrinkle to Mary’s lyric:
Sleep and I will soothe you,
Calm you, and anoint you…
. . .
And it’s cool and the ointment’s sweet
For the fire in your head and feet.
Close your eyes, close your eyes,
And relax, think of nothing tonight.
We now know that the Jewish people of that time used extract of cannabis (the marijuana plant) in their anointing oils and in their religious incense, to help them achieve inner peace and to encourage religious visions. The oil Mary anoints Jesus with may well contain THC.
And then Jesus and Judas fight again – over Mary. Again. Judas’ argument is petty, and everyone knows it. He’s picking a fight now, and we sense – and perhaps they do, too – that this friendship has past the point of no return. The tragedy can’t be avoided now. And all to the happiest song in the score… They all sing contentedly that "everything’s alright," and yet that couldn’t be further from the truth. Nothing will ever be alright again. Like the best theatre writers, Rice has introduced a sophistication and irony into the situation that marks only the best storytellers.
The scene changes and we meet the bad guys, the high priests Caiaphas and Annas, as they sing "This Jesus Must Die," establishing the secondary conflict of the show (Jesus vs. the authorities) and confirming for us Judas’ worst fears. They see the situation as a serious crisis; to them, it boils down to Jesus’ life or their own. They decide Jesus must be murdered "for the sake of the nation." The music to this song is the same music they will sing in almost every scene in which they appear. The "friendly villagers" are introduced with "Hosanna," showing their blind enthusiasm for Jesus and his ministry. But this also brings the story into modern politics, showing us the birth of a political movement. The public is now behind Jesus. And he’s never been dangerous to those in power.
In the next song, "Simon Zealotes," Simon and the crowd offer Jesus their loyalty if he wants to seize political power as well. But is more of Rice’s irony. This is a shallow, freaky, vaguely disturbing lyric. Simon and his friends aren’t devoting themselves to Jesus’ message or philosophy; they’re "fans." They’re groupies. These are the followers of rock stars. Simon sings:
Christ, you know I love you.
Did you see I waved?
I believe in you and God,
So tell me that I’m saved.
Jesus, I am with you –
Touch me, touch me, Jesus!
Jesus, I am by your side –
Kiss me, kiss me, Jesus!
This sounds more like teenage girls in the 60s screaming for the Beatles or the Beach Boys, not the berobed apostles we read about in the Bible. These fanatics even suggest that they’d be willing to topple the government if Jesus asked them to. Like some modern-day religious leaders, Simon suggests that "hate" would be an energizing message for Jesus’ followers. Echoing Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson, and others, Simon says to Jesus:
Keep them yelling their devotion,
But add a touch of hate at Rome,.
You will rise to a greater power;
We will win ourselves a home.
Simon does not understand Jesus’ philosophy at all. Jesus doesn’t want power and he certainly won’t use hate as a tool. The song ends with Jesus singing "Poor Jerusalem," realizing that among his followers only Judas really understands the message – but Judas doesn’t agree with his methods.
At this point, with all but one of the main characters and conflicts introduced, Lloyd Webber begins to re-use music, and the pace at which he does this increases as the show progresses. We finally meet Pilate as he sings of "Pilate's Dream" to the tune of "Poor Jerusalem," and we see for the first time the inescapable grip of fate; because we already know the story; we know that his dream will come true, no matter how hard he tries to avoid it. And it also dramatizes for us the banality of evil. Pilate is just a politician, a power broker. He just does the polls tell him the people want. But this time, it will etch his name into the history of the world as a villain of Biblical proportions.
The next scene, "The Temple," uses all new music, including a short fragment of "I Only Want to Say," which we'll hear in its full form later. It's interesting to note in this sequence that the music the moneylenders sing as they try to sell their wares is the same music the sick and crippled sing asking Jesus to heal them; is Lloyd Webber equating the two groups? Are the sick and crippled just as greedy and demanding as the moneylenders? Are they as upsetting to Jesus? Is capitalism a sickness? And it forces us today to ask ourselves about the alliance between the Republicans, the party of capitalism and Big Business, and Evangelical Christians. Jesus talked about serving the poor, compassion for the weak, peacemaking, and yet the American political party that has claimed Jesus’ followers does not follow his teaching. This scene, as potent now as it was in 1970, reveals the hypocrisy at the heart of modern mainstream religion.
The next song is Mary's big number, "I Don't Know How to Love Him," in which her character's deepest conflict is expressed. As mentioned earlier, women were very much discriminated against in society, and Jesus' relationship with Mary went against all social conventions. Not only was she in love with him, but she had never been treated with such respect by a man; she didn't know how to deal with this. This is new music except for the fragment of "Everything's Alright" that opens the song. She knows that she will soon lose him to the movement, either by merely losing his time as he gets busier and busier, or because he’ll be arrested. When she wonders if she should "bring him down," the phrase is loaded with layers of meanings: Should she load the baggage of her feelings on him at this pivotal moment and tell him exactly how she feels? Should she demand a place at his side no matter how busy he gets? Should she try to get him to pull back from the movement so that she can spend more time with him and so that he’ll be safer? Then again, she wonders, what the hell would she do if he said he loved her too? To live up to that love might be more than she’s capable of…
Judas' "Damned for All Time" is also new material, as Judas realizes the consequences of the actions he feels compelled to take. And he curses his self-knowledge, his ability to see the terrible consequences coming at them all like a freight train. But are his intentions entirely practical ones? Is it only about the movement getting out of control? We’ve only seen Judas and Jesus really angry at each thus far in the show. Did that color this decision? Did Judas’ jealousy of Mary coming between the two friends have anything to do with it? Judas seems not to be sure himself, as he keeps begging Annas and Caiaphas to promise him he’s doing the right thing. The priests oblige him and reassure him that he's chosen the right path in "Blood Money," set to the same music as "This Jesus Must Die." The fact that the priests have only one piece of music shows us that they have only one thing on their minds – Jesus' annihilation. But it also sneaks in some subtle character work – here and throughout the second act, whenever Judas bares his soul (as in "Damned for All Time"), Annas always responds with the mocking, condescending music first established in "This Jesus Must Die." This trivial-sounding, "fun" music undercuts any drama, any angst, any tragedy it comes up against, trivializing Judas’ gut-wrenching emotional moments, perhaps suggesting that they aren’t entirely genuine or at least unworthy of the priests’ serious consideration. It’s a subtle trick that may not register consciously with all listeners, but it works anyway, refusing to let the "tragic" music rule any scene.
As the first act ends, Rice has thrown every main character into crisis. Jesus and Judas are at odds and both of them see the danger ahead. Judas is now ridden with guilt over his decision to help the authorities arrest Jesus. Mary is in love with Jesus and can’t decide whether or not to tell him. Caiaphas and Annas are terrified of Jesus’ growing power and need to eliminate him as soon as possible. Pilate sees some bad stuff coming over the horizon and knows he’s gonna be waist deep in it all soon.
The Trials and Tribulations
As Act II begins, the drunken "Last Supper" is mostly new music – again portraying the apostles as relatively uneducated, shallow men – but the scene also borrows musical fragments from other songs. Jesus and Judas argue again, to the same music they argued to in "Everything's Alright," even though the subject of their dispute has changed. This time, Judas is pissed because things would’ve still been okay if Jesus had just listened to him! And he feels Jesus forced him to betrayal. Judas is disgusted with Jesus and his naiveté, and he’s probably drunk. This friendship is over. The end of this argument uses a short fragment from "Superstar," which will return as the last song in the show.
Jesus then sings a short section, "Will no one stay awake with me?" that introduces a new melody that will be used again later as a musical betrayal motif. He goes out into the Garden of Gethsemane to sing "I Only Want to Say," his song of despair and doubt over the coming events. Though the song is mostly new music, a small fragment of the melody was used in the temple scene earlier. It’s fascinating to note that in this lyric Jesus goes through the five stages of death, as codified by psychologists in the 1960s, that everyone apparently goes through. In the first few lines, Jesus goes through the first stage of denial ("Take this cup away from me"); then he goes through the second stage of anger ("Listen, surely, I’ve exceeded expectations – tried for three years, seems like thirty"); then on to the third stage of bargaining ("Can you show me now that I would not be killed in vain?... Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die."); then the fourth stage of depression ("Then I was inspired; now I’m sad and tired."); and finally the fifth stage of acceptance ("God thy will is hard, but you hold every card. I will drink your cup of poison…"). The song ends with one phrase of the betrayal motif, last set to "Will no one stay awake with me," this time as Jesus asks Judas why he has betrayed him. Jesus knows now that he can't count on anyone but himself; he is utterly alone.
The Roman soldiers arrest him. As the drunken apostles wake, they sing "What's the Buzz?" The crowd that gathers uses the melody from the moneylenders in the temple as they taunt Jesus and demand he be taken to Caiaphas, who questions him and declares him guilty. The song ends with the crowd telling Caiaphas to take Jesus to Pilate for execution, singing the music from "Strange Thing Mystifying" in which Jesus accused the apostles of not caring if he lived or died. Apparently, he was right. Someone stops Peter on the street after the arrest and accuses him of being one of Jesus' apostles; Peter denies Jesus three times, as Jesus predicted. His melody is the main theme from "Strange Thing Mystifying," which originally accompanied Judas' criticism of Jesus' relationship with Mary – thereby connecting Peter musically with Judas, both of them now betrayers of Jesus. Mary points out that Peter did as Jesus said he would, and she sings this to the betrayal motif from the Last Supper, even further underscoring Peter's betrayal.
Jesus is taken to Pilate for a scene that employs three musical themes. The first is new, a creepy but majestic theme showing us both Pilate’s power and the danger of that power. Pilate dodges the issue for the moment by arguing that since Jesus is a Jew, King Herod (who was more a mid-level, local politician than actual king) has jurisdiction. He’s technically correct, but it’s clearly a dodge. Pilate takes over Caiaphas' main theme from "Hosanna," followed by the crowd re-using their music from the same song, this time expressing the exact opposite sentiment from the first time they sang this melody; this time they want him dead. Once again, Rice and Lloyd Webber use irony to dramatic effect.
The next song,, "King Herod's Song," is among the most interesting, for both good and bad reasons. First, Herod is like so many modern Christians, always asking God for something, always making deals, always begging for miracles, always flocking to far-flung places to witness the latest fake miracle sighting. Herod here plays the role of the Pharisees in the Bible, goading Jesus, tempting him to prove he has God on his side. But Jesus sees how shallow and inconsequential Herod is, and he knows that no matter what he says, his situation isn’t getting any better. This song is Lloyd Webber's only obvious use of pastiche, a kind of raucous, blackly comic, British music hall song and dance number, presumably chosen to trivialize Herod, to show us how insignificant he is. Still, though it's clear that Lloyd Webber wanted to paint Herod as a grotesque man playing at being King, the use of such different music is a questionable choice. The song doesn't belong with the rest of the show, and certainly Herod isn't the only villain in the story; why aren't the others portrayed with equally bizarre, non-rock music? As unexpected as it is, introducing this kind of musical anomaly so far into the evening leaves the audience feeling disoriented, and sometimes more hostile toward Rice and Lloyd Webber than toward Herod. Merely using more rock sound in the instrumentation would have helped the number immeasurably, but as it stands, it just doesn't belong. British audiences, who are more familiar with the tradition of the British musical hall (their version of vaudeville) probably found this music less jarring than Americans did, but it still seems weaker than the rest of the score.
In the 1994 recording Jesus Christ Superstar - A Resurrection, "King Herod'ss Song" is done as a 1950s rock number in 6/8; not only is it stronger dramatically, it also fits better into the score. Many modern productions now massage the music into something closer to rock, to satisfy audiences now used to fully integrated pop opera scores like Les Misérables and Rent. Herod eventually passes the buck again, and sends Jesus back to Pilate after he’s had his fun. This number is often played as silly, comic relief in most productions, and inexplicably making Herod gay! (Apparently, for some folks, Herod’s decadence in the Bible is easily expressed by homosexuality because we all know how decadent those gays are!) But the truth is that there is far more substance in this material than is usually apparent. For this great philosopher and political leader to be treated so disrespectfully, so grotesquely should be deeply upsetting, particularly with the extra baggage of two thousands years of Christian culture we all have. "King’s Herod Song" should be ridiculous – Rice once wrote, "King Herod was a bit of a debauched bloke, who sat around smoking and drinking all the time with a lot of women around him." – but he should also be scary, dangerous, disturbing.
The next song, Peter and Mary's "Could We Start Again Please," was not on the original concept album but was written for the Broadway production, and its musical material is completely new. Peter and Mary express their desperation and confusion; they don't understand how things got so out of hand; and they don't understand why Jesus has taken things to such an extreme. Mary says they’ve been both living to see him and also dying to see him, that they’ve been hopeful but also now pessimistic. Like Jesus himself, like his movement, this moment is rife with emotional and intellectual contradictions. Peter and Mary even echo Judas’ opinion that Jesus has gone too far, the two of them begging Jesus to stop all this – just as Judas had. Even Mary no longer believes that Jesus is on the right path – could it be because he’s not? But the song also tells us that Mary finally realizes that she has lost forever her chance to express her love to Jesus. She was scared and now she’s lost him.
Judas decides to commit suicide, angry at Jesus for using him for his martyrdom (whether or not that position is justified). Just as Jesus has his breakdown in the Garden of Gethsemane, now Judas has a parallel breakdown, the show still connecting these two, two friends who will stay connected even after death. All the music in this sequence is from earlier songs, as he prepares to die his life flashes before him, musically looking back over the events which have led Judas to this point. The music includes a fragment of "Damned for All Time," "This Jesus Must Die," an ironic and sad version of "I Don't Know to Love Him," the vamp from "Heaven on Their Minds," and finally the choral tag from "Blood Money." Only this time, the lyric "Good old Judas" becomes "Poor old Judas," and he hangs himself. The use of the music for "I Don’t Know How to Love Him" is especially poignant, because in the beginning, everything Judas did was out of love and respect for Jesus, and now he has (probably) become the instrument of his death. It is literally true that he doesn’t know how to love Jesus. And he shares that with Mary.
Judas is dead and soon Jesus will be too. The "Trial Before Pilate" begins with the intro from "This Jesus Must Die," Pilate again appropriating the priests' music – the music of authority. New music accompanies Pilate's pleas with the crowd to forget about Jesus, but they want him crucified, and he gives in to them. The thirty-nine lashes are administered to the vamp from "Heaven on Their Minds," the song in which Judas predicted that Jesus' actions would lead to disaster; here the vamp returns as Judas' prediction comes true. Pilate's music after the lashes is related to the melody of "Everything's Alright," but appropriately, it's now in minor, with the same rhythm and a somewhat similar melody line.
The next song finds Judas appearing to Jesus from beyond the grave to sing "Superstar," a fragment of which was quoted at the Last Supper. But is this Judas as an angel, as a hallucination, a ghost, a demon sent by Satan? Jesus is beaten half to death by now, so hallucination is certainly possible. And since the show has studiously avoided any position on divinity, seeing Judas as an angel or ghost or demon may seem logical on the surface considering the show’s topic, but it would be at odds with the world the rest of the show has established. It would be the only supernatural moment in the show. If we see Judas as a hallucination, then Judas’ criticisms come from Jesus himself. Then we could conclude that Jesus finally sees what Judas wanted him to see. Of course it’s too late.
This last song sums up Judas' confusion and frustration throughout the entire show; but it also places Judas as a surrogate for audiences who (today as much as in the late 60s) "only want to know." Judas – like the rest of us – is just looking for straight-forward answers to the most perplexing issues people of faith face in the modern world: is Jesus God?, what sense are we to make of other religions and worldviews?, why did Jesus have to die if God’s the one making the rules?, and most confusing of all, how did a "failed" political movement spawn a religion that’s still going strong two thousand years later?
Even from the other side, Judas still can't understand Jesus' blindness to the dangers ahead. Judas only understands reason and logic; Jesus is a philosopher. Both see truth, but two different kinds of truth. Just as Judas said he would, Jesus has sabotaged himself. The battle between faith and reason has no easy resolution; both men's strategies lead to their deaths. By the end of this story, everyone has mocked Jesus: the priests, Herod, Pilate, the Jews themselves, and worst of all, Judas. In fact, according to early texts even God is mocking him! Several ancient Greek texts don’t have Jesus saying on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" Instead these early texts have him saying, "Why have you mocked me?" That’s quite a difference. Still other early texts have him saying "My power, O power, why have you left me?" Since we don’t have any of the original texts of the Bible, we’ll never know which text is original. But whichever one is, the fact remains that Jesus dies alone, "separated from God."
The crucifixion is set to strange, atonal vocal clusters, a kind of 1970s experimental rock, not unlike the work Brian Wilson was working on with his 1969 experimental album "Smile," which was only recently finally released. But now that many productions are set in the present (as the show essentially was in 1971), the crucifixion is sometimes changed to another kind of execution, in which case this very strange music (which, like "King Herod’s Song," isn’t really organic to the rest of the score) is cut.
The final moments of the show, an instrumental piece titled "John Nineteen Forty-One," are underscored by the music from "Gethsemane"—Jesus has finally accepted the fate he so battled with in Act I. (The passage John 19:41 is about the tomb in which Jesus will be buried, his final resting place.) Significantly, the show does not include the resurrection – a very conscious choice by the writers – though well-meaning director’s often stick it in anyway, wrongly believing the story is about Jesus’ suffering on the cross. That’s not what the story is about.
If You'd Come Today...
So why do so many people still love Jesus Christ Superstar today? It's not controversial anymore. Using rock music to explore serious subjects is no longer novel. As composer Larry O’Keefe (Bat Boy) has said, rock musicals used to be about the rock music, but now rock music is as ordinary in musical theatre as the foxtrot was for Rodgers and Hammerstein. What does this counter-culture rock musical have to do with our lives in the new millennium? Rice and Lloyd Webber wrote the show in the language they did in order to make the story live for us, to take Jesus and Judas out of the dusty language of the King James Bible and let us see them as real people with real triumphs and failures, with personalities and contradictions and personal demons. Judas says to Jesus in the title song that if he had come today, to our modern society, he could've reached so many more people through modern technology. It's an interesting moment conceptually because Judas has stepped out of the period; speaking from the "other world," he is out of time, existing neither in the 21st century nor in 33 a.d. But had Jesus come today, what else would've happened?
How would today's world react to Jesus Christ? As the 1971 production was essentially set in 1971 (though a very trippy 1971), contemporary productions can address that question and all the baggage it carries with it by setting the show today. Would today’s world react any differently from how the world reacted to him back in 33 a.d.? Some people would undoubtedly believe and follow him. Many would be skeptical, and would refuse to accept him as Jesus Christ. The Catholic Church would surely denounce him; he would pose an enormous threat to their power, their control over their parishioners. What need would there be for a pope when the son of God is on earth? Though all mainstream religions would feel threatened, none would be poised to lose as much as the Vatican. Today's religious and political leaders would probably react exactly as Caiaphas and Annas did. Events in our contemporary world are already like events portrayed in Jesus Christ Superstar. Jesus was an activist, just like the activists in America today. Caiaphas claimed he was saving Israel by turning Jesus over to Pilate, just as today's Christian Coalition claims they are saving America from God’s wrath by fighting gay rights, abortion, and the entertainment industry. Like Pat Robertson, Caiaphas is a savvy business man, with an understanding of PR and marketing.
Jesus really was a superstar, for better or worse, enjoying a popularity equaled today only by rock and film stars. He was a celebrity of the highest order. The apostles are somewhat like contemporary fans of rock stars, new age philosophers, self-help gurus, and the like. The apostles are what we’d call today "the working poor," uneducated laborers, who want someone to give them The Answers, who want to know why their lives suck. The moneylenders are like some businessmen today, looking for any way to make a buck. The lepers and sick are like our contemporary homeless people, living on the streets, begging for the most basic human needs, yet being ignored by "polite society." The priests have their obvious modern counterparts in the Vatican, the most powerful religious institution on the planet today. The Pharisees are today's right-wing pseudo-intellectuals, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, and others. They’d have as much to lose as the Vatican from the masses hearing the real teachings of Jesus.
The only element that is present today but is missing in Superstar is the press. Today, Jesus would be a hotter story than even the various sensationalistic court cases being broadcast live on television. With so many clear parallels to our modern world, it's easy to see why many directors set the show in the present. Not only does it retain its power and its point, it helps make the story accessible to a contemporary audience in a way that the more minimalist, event-driven style of the Bible cannot.
Superstar is produced all the time around the world, but it doesn’t always work. Because the show was recorded in the studio before it was staged, it was originally written for the ears, not the eyes, and some of the score is very difficult to stage adequately, especially for audiences used to the skillful storytelling of modern pop operas like Les Miz, Rent, and others. The structure of Superstar can feel disjointed, almost like a series of music videos, rather than one coherent narrative; but this problem can be overcome by a smart and careful director who focuses on story above all else. The writers didn’t write a spectacle; they wrote a very personal, very emotional story. And spectacle only distances audiences from that emotion. Walter Kerr wrote of the original Broadway production in the New York Times, "All that had to be done with it was to put it on a stage baldly – baldness is very much of its essence – and, after establishing a few simple traffic directions, let it sing for itself. Instead, O’Horgan has adorned it. Oh, my God, has he adorned it." Instead of just trying to tell a great story as clearly as possible, too many productions try to dazzle audiences. And it’s just not that kind of story. O’Horgan said in one interview, "Actually, the safe way to do Jesus Christ Superstar is not to do it at all."
Because the show was originally done as a spectacular, over-the-top, eye-popping extravaganza, too many people think that's the only way to do it. Every new touring company of Superstar is more high tech than the last, and Broadway's love affair with multi-million dollar techno-musicals doesn't help. Directors forget that Rice and Lloyd Webber didn't like the original Broadway production much; it wasn't what they intended their show to be. Why must the crucifixion be a light show with a neon cross and fog pouring across the stage? This is a story of deep and profound human emotion, filled with passion, betrayal, death – that's the stuff of which great drama is made. This is a story about politics and betrayal, not about theatrical wizardry. The audience should not be impressed by the crucifixion of Christ; they should be upset by it, disturbed by it, even horrified. Too many productions make the gruesome practice of crucifixion exciting, destroying the dramatic and tragic impact of this powerful story. All these years later, perhaps it is time at long last to return to the ballsy, smartass, intelligent, insightful show Rice and Lloyd Webber first wrote and to be true to their original intentions for this fascinating, lasting piece of theatre.
Copyright 1994-2006. From Scott Miller's book, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musical Theatre. All rights reserved. Some of this material also appeared in Scott Miller's first book From Assassins to West Side Story, though it has been greatly expanded and revised. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, and Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR.