Andrew Lloyd Webber 1948– Tim Rice 1944–
Webber (not shown)—British composer, author, and producer.
Rice (pictured at right)—British lyricist, author, and producer.
The works of Webber and Rice are musical interpretations of biblical and historical figures and events. They are studies of charismatic young men and women who command great power. Webber's music is a pastiche of such twentieth-century popular styles as vaudeville, rock, calypso, country, and soul, although his works are often structured in classical and operatic forms. Rice's lyrics are important for their authentic presentation of the team's subjects in contemporary language. Webber and Rice began writing pop songs together in 1966, but had little success until their single "Jesus Christ Superstar" became a hit and convinced them to build an entire work around it.
With Jesus Christ Superstar Webber and Rice present the story of Christ's last days on earth in a non-traditional form, the rock opera. The purpose of the drama is to show the reaction to Jesus during His own lifetime. The work was immediately controversial; it is considered radical because it ends with Christ's crucifixion rather than with His resurrection. Another controversy generated by Superstar is the composer's sympathetic portrayal of Judas, through whose eyes the story is told; most critics, however, believe this point of view to be truly innovative. The film version of Superstar is considered as blasphemous as the play. However, many church officials acknowledged it as a favorable means of relating the Bible to young people in a form and language which appeals to them.
Prior to Superstar Webber and Rice collaborated on a shorter piece, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, which was first written as a private production for a boys's school and is also based on a biblical story. Some reviewers see it as superficial, but many think it more charming and less pretentious than Superstar. With Evita, Webber and Rice created a genuine opera about the career of Eva Perón, an opportunist who became the wife of Argentine dictator Juan Perón in the 1950s. Evita shares Superstar's theme of the effects of mass popularity and is told by radical leader Ché Guevara. However, it is generally considered inferior to its predecessor, and many critics have felt it is saved only by its brilliant staging.
Rice's lyrics have been criticized for their banality, and both authors have been attacked for their uncertain handling of their subject. Audiences, however, have been receptive to Evita, just as they have to all of Webber and Rice's works. According to John Coldstream, their success is "on a scale matched in this generation by Lennon and McCartney."
Just as Handel composed "Messiah" and Bach wrote his "St Matthew Passion," so Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice have produced "Jesus Christ—Superstar."
An outrageous statement, some will say. How dare they? But the point is that Handel, Bach, Lloyd Webber, and Rice have all created music which tells the same story in the language of their day….
I guess a lot of people will laugh at it. Had it been called "Buddah—Superstar," or "Meher Baba—Freak's Guru," the same people would have taken it very seriously indeed.
Having listened to the whole thing several times now, I'm sure that the pair have undertaken the venture in an honest way, and have come up with a considerable achievement, against all the odds….
It's not, of course, without its faults, as it's virtually impossible to tell this story in its original context with all the paraphernalia of rock without having the odd hang-up somewhere. Person-ally, I feel that the odd word or phrase is slightly out...
(This entire section contains 266 words.)
of tone with the music….
I don't want anybody to get the impression that "Jesus Christ—Superstar" is to be compared in terms of aesthetic success to Handel and Bach. Even if it were, it would take decades to realise it. What I do think is that it's an honest attempt at a very hard job, and the amount of artistic success which is already definitely apparent is surprising and pleasing. The work demands more serious listening than it'll probably get.
Richard Williams, "Thou Shalt Not Knock 'Jesus Christ—Superstar'," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), October 10, 1970, p. 8.
Superstar builds to considerable impact and evocativeness, in part because it manages to wear its underlying seriousness lightly. 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….
Together they have fashioned a clever, youthful blend of skepticism and romantic questioning….
Judas has rarely been treated so sympathetically as he is by Webber and Rice. According to the Judas of Superstar, his friend Jesus is a charismatic mortal—much like an adored rock singer or the leader of a radical movement—who has begun to believe in his own press clippings…. The Crucifixion is seen as the result of bungling self-indulgence, and Jesus' faith in his divinity, and hope of Resurrection, as delusions.
To a large extent, Webber and Rice share Judas' doubts…. Shorn of the Resurrection, of course, the Passion and what preceded it are something less than "the greatest story ever told." Perhaps that is why Webber and Rice … have not worked too hard in Superstar to get the Christianity out of Christ. Despite Judas, both libretto and music are provocatively ambiguous about Christ's divinity….
What Webber and Rice seem certain of is that Christ was a profoundly humanitarian radical thinker, not unlike Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy….
Whatever the reaction to Superstar may be, Webber and Rice have fused words and music into such a convincing narrative style that rock may never be quite the same again….
Superstar occupies the same assimilative position in the pop world that Ginastera's Don Rodrigo does in serious opera. Webber and Rice do not outdo the Beatles or the Rolling Stones or the Edwin Hawkins Singers, Prokofiev, Orff, Stravinsky or any other musical influence found in their work. But they have welded these borrowings into a considerable work that is their own. [The Who's] Tommy … was the first, flawed suggestion that rock could deal with a major subject on a broad symphonic or operatic scale. Superstar offers the first real proof.
William Bender, "Rock Passion," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc. 1970), Vol. 96, No. 19, November 9, 1970, p. 47.
Messrs. Rice and Webber are talented and clever young Englishmen who command smooth lyrical and dramatic gifts….
But primarily the tone the music and words [of Jesus Christ Superstar creates] is one of forced hipness and sentimentality, that of an egregiously over-sweet rock-coated Broadway musical. There are the dramatic declamatory descending modulations when Jesus sings of understanding what power really is about, a steal from Tommy's "How can he be saved / From the eternal grave."
When Jesus rails at the polluters of the temple, his wailing ways sound more like Jimi Hendrix calling on his foxy lady than someone expressing a fine sense of moral outrage. And this is followed by a wispy, reflective passage that would have been more appropriate as a moment of the adolescent-dumb gloom Johnny Mathis might have felt after losing his latest passion.
Then there are the lyrics [such as Mary Magdalene's] sweet half-groupie, half-teenaged ballad for Jesus, the man she doesn't know how to love. And all the while Italian night club imitation rock music adjoining strings and horns create an embarrassing but melodious scene….
[The opera] does nothing to enrich, expand, uncover, or commit itself to any personal vision, in the sense that [Pier Paolo] Pasolini and [Roberto] Rossellini have transformed the Gospels in their films. Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers or Ray Davies [of The Kinks] would have had more to say or see about Jesus.
Jonathan Cott, "Jesus Christ Sings an Aria," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1970; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 72, December 2, 1970, p. 10.
All in all, [Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat] covers a good nine chapters of the Book of Genesis and proffers a highly moving—much of which, I must admit, is due to the groovy score the operetta sports—testimony of one man's unswerving fidelity to God….
Although at times the music does seem a bit irreverent to what's being recounted, the LP's "now sound" is often quite effective….
Nick Tosches, "Records: 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1971; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 85, June 24, 1971, p. 43.
[In Superstar the] Christ of faith gives way to the Jesus of history. Rice and Webber have acknowledged modern scholarship's discovery that the New Testament picture of Jesus is colored throughout with propagandistic interpretation more intent on convincing the reader that Jesus is the divine God-man than in giving an historically accurate picture of the flesh-and-blood man of Galilee. (p. 218)
Rice and Webber attempt to dramatize the life-style of the historical Jesus in the midst of the life-styles and forces at work around him.
Is there any value in bypassing ecclesiastical propaganda to seek out this life-style? To an emerging culture suspicious of the establishment's propaganda, it allows a new and honest attempt to stand where the first hearers did, feel for oneself the impact of the Galilean's style, and answer for oneself, "Who do you say that I am?"… Superstar attempts to dramatize Jesus' life-style in the midst of competing life-styles, and then leaves one with questions rather than with answers…. (pp. 218-19)
Although the "opera" has no single, obvious climax, musically and dramatically the climax seems to be Judas' disintegration and death at the beginning of record four…. Judas and his life-style are of special significance.
How is one to characterize this Judas? He can perhaps best be described as the "Uncle Tom" of the Jesus movement, the personification of a "failure of nerve" within the emerging life-style, a failure of nerve which turns back in fear and betrays the emerging culture to the existing power structure….
[The] very strength of Superstar is its willingness to raise hard questions while refusing to supply simple answers. The complexity of personal motives and the tangled consequences of our actions in real history become evident in Judas. No only are we uncertain of Judas' real motives and culpability, but we become aware that Judas is uncertain of his own motives. He protests too much that he is not betraying Jesus for his "own reward." He sulks because Jesus does not give him his due as "right hand man." At the Last Supper he seeks to blame what he is about to do on the requirements of Jesus' own "ambition." Before he dies, Judas realizes that the consequences of his betrayal have been hastened along by forces beyond his own control…. [There] is the recognition that complex forces in society magnify the consequences of our actions, that demonic powers can be set in motion far beyond our intentions and cannot be called back….
The important place given Judas in Superstar contributes a problematic or ambiguous quality to the "opera," for who knows how far one should trust the observations of a Judas. It is this ambiguity which leads the audience toward the realization that it must arrive at its own interpretation of the figure of the Historic Jesus.
Mary Magdalene suggests the life-style described in Timothy Leary's advice: "Turn on and drop out." Whether the instrument of her turning on is acid, pot, yoga, or zazen, the end result is a detached, euphoric quality…. Jesus accepts the Magdalene's ministrations and defends her against Judas' criticism, but her oceanic feeling that "everything's alright" is transcended by the passion of his own search for "truth" or "God," and by the dramatic forces already unleashed. However, as with Judas, the portrayal of the Magdalene has its complexities. In a second solo, "I Don't Know How to Love Him," she sings of her consternation that Jesus should so disturb her "cool."… Apparently the oceanic feeling can be shattered by an encounter with Jesus. Lest one be tempted to make too much of the Magdalene's relationship to Jesus, it should be noted that Webber and Rice have Judas wail this same love song to Jesus. For both the Magdalene and Judas, and we suppose for their spiritual descendants today, an encounter with Superstar is pictured as engendering love, fear, and mystery…. (p. 219)
In stripping away "the myth from the man," Webber and Rice find no profound philosopher, enlightened reformer, or heroic leader. The great strength of their portrayal of Jesus is their recognition that apart from the myth we have only the whisper of a voice and the outskirts of the life-style of a man. The triumph of Superstar lies as much in what Webber and Rice have not done as in what they have done. They have refused to create a fictional character to fill the void….
Where does the portrayal of Jesus focus? On Jesus as a flesh-and-blood human being. Even the outskirts of Jesus' life-style reveal his real humanity. Having his face cooled "feels nice, so nice," he joins the crowd in a happy "Hosanna, Heysanna," screams at the temple merchants, and admits "I'm sad and tired" and "scared."… A common reaction to Superstar is: "It was the first time I ever thought of Jesus as a real person." The phantom-like portrayals of an otherworldly Christ on decades of funeral-home calendars and Sunday School walls apparently makes the focus on Jesus as a real person a remarkable revelation to this generation….
The words he speaks are drawn largely from the Gospel pronouncements, with very few original contributions by Tim Rice. He advocates living in the present, claims that he could give "plans and forecasts" unfathomable to those around him, and admits that earlier he was "inspired" but now is "sad and tired." He defends the Magdalene, cleanses the temple, and sings "Hosanna" with the crowd one moment while screaming at it to "Heal yourselves" at another. At critical moments Rice supplies Jesus with the lines "To conquer death you only have to die," and "I look for truth and find that I get damned." These along with a Gethsemane prayer, are the closest Rice comes to providing Jesus with a summary of his life and mission. In Gethsemane Jesus pleads: "I'd wanna know my God,… I'd wanna see my God," and this possibility encourages him to accept the death his God seems to require. It is suggested that his death might make all he has said and done "matter more," but its full meaning is not revealed. (p. 220)
After Judas' death, the events involving Jesus seem almost anticlimactic as he maintains a near-silence through the trials and speaks essentially the traditional words from the cross. As if to fill this vacuum, the voice of the dead Judas returns to raise the questions we might ask of Jesus…. (pp. 220-21)
Superstar concludes with two minutes of tranquil music ("John 19:41") suggesting the garden containing Jesus' tomb. The audience is left to decide for itself whether this is the quiet following an honest man's death or the peace of a new Eden prepared by a greater Adam for his descendants.
Superstar is a conservative attempt to express the counterculture's interest in Jesus, and its very conservatism has prepared a solid foundation for more creative and imaginative works in the future. It has avoided cliches, sentimentality, and mere fictionalizing, presenting Jesus' real humanity forcefully while allowing the audience great latitude for personal interpretation. (p. 221)
Clifford Edwards, "'Jesus Christ Superstar': Electric Age Messiah," in Catholic World (copyright 1971 by The Missionary Society of St. Paul the Apostle in the State of New York), Vol. CCXIII, No. 1277, August, 1971, pp. 217-21.
["Jesus Christ Superstar"] is so stunningly effective a theatrical experience that I am still finding it difficult to compose my thoughts about it. It is, in short, a triumph….
["Jesus Christ Superstar"] considers the seven last days of Christ in contemporary pop terms and, it must be added, with complete reverence.
Andrew Lloyd Webber's score is vibrant, richly varied and always dramatically right and … much the same things can be said for Tim Rice's lyrics….
The story in itself is, of course, almost unbearably moving, but the great accomplishment of Webber and Rice has been to make it so strikingly immediate.
Douglas Watt, "'Jesus Christ Superstar' Is Full of Life, Vibrant with Reverence," in Daily News (© 1971, New York News Inc.; reprinted by permission), October 13, 1971 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXII, No. 15, October 11-18, 1971, p. 242).
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 [with] "Jesus Christ Superstar."…
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….
Mr. Rice's intention was clearly to place Christ's betrayal and death into a vernacular more immediate perhaps to our times. His record sales would presumably indicate his success in this aim, but he does not have a very happy ear for the English language. There is a certain air of dogged doggerel about his phrases that too often sounds as limp as a deflated priest.
It is surely unfortunate, even bathetic, to have Christ at his moment of death remark solemnly: "God forgive them! They don't know what they are doing." The sentiments are unassailable, but the language is unforgivably pedestrian….
The music itself is extraordinarily eclectic. It runs so many gamuts it almost becomes a musical cartel…. [Mr. Lloyd Webber] has emerged with some engaging numbers.
The title song, "Superstar," has a bounce and exaltation to it, an almost revivalist fervor that deserves its popularity. I also much admire the other hit of the show, "I Don't Know How to Love Him." This also shows Mr. Rice at his best as a lyricist, although it is perhaps surprising to find this torch ballad sung by Mary Magdalene to Jesus Christ—even a Jesus Christ Superstar. There is a certain vulgarity here typical of an age that takes a peculiar delight in painting mustaches on the "Mona Lisa" and demonstrating that every great man was a regular guy at heart….
[This] is not an important rock score in the manner of "Tommy" by The Who. It is, unhappily, neither innovative nor original….
For me, the real disappointment came not in the music—which is better than run-of-the-mill Broadway and the best score for an English musical in years—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. Christ is updated, but hardly, I felt, renewed.
Clive Barnes, "Theater: Christ's Passion Transported to the Stage in Guise of Serious Pop," in The New York Times (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 13, 1971, p. 40.
"Jesus Christ Superstar" is an enormously successful record album, called a "rock opera" in one of pop music's pathetic and pointless efforts to gain respectability by imitating orthodox forms. It is also an awful album, overproduced and overorchestrated in vain compensation for underinspiration and a complete lack of the qualities that make for rock music—vitality, rhythm, state of mind, musicality…. [It] required no imagination to envision as a commercially viable stage production….
[It] is, at its worst, a production that leaves you with a so-what feeling. For all its physical beauty, extravagance, enormity of orchestration and complexity of audio production, it provides no feeling—no sense of anything happening in a theatre. It is simply there, a superexpensive juke box playing the entire … score of the record album, note for note and lyric for miserable lyric. There is one brief musical addition, but otherwise, you could as well be listening to the record—if you could stand it all the way through.
Martin Gottfried, "'Jesus Christ Superstar' … Easter Show at the Music Hall," in Women's Wear Daily (copyright 1971, Fairchild Publications), October 14, 1971 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXII, No. 15, October 11-18, 1971, p. 240).
Can Jesus survive "Jesus Christ Superstar"? Sometimes it is "Love Story" in Jerusalem. Other times it is only "The Greening of the Box Office."… But is it a serious work of art? And how does it deal with the Passion of Christ?…
In a myriad of details gone wrong, the show bears little resemblance to the New Testament. Yet, what is most important, Jesus' mission got misplaced somewhere from drawing board to Star Chamber.
Is this the Jesus of a significant counter-culture? Not at all. For we see him reject the sick and distressed victims of society who come to him for help. We see a restless and tired "star" Jesus arrogantly send Judas away to do the work of betrayal. Fatigue and introspection could have legitimately been portrayed. But despair looms too centrally in Christ, conveying a sense of mission lost and purpose forgotten. (p. 1)
[There] is clearly the absence of a cross rooted in earth in "Jesus Christ Superstar." Such lack of specificity leads to those quasi-religious fantasies which obliterate detailed truth. I am not one of those purists who decry the show's bypassing of the resurrection. After watching Jesus hang on a Daliesque golden triangle (an avant-garde symbol of the cross?) for a glamorous simulation of the crucifixion, I offer thanks to the pantheon of gods that we were indeed spared a resurrection. But in its failure to come to terms with the sacrifice of a Christ-figure, or the Passion of Christ, "Jesus Christ Superstar" also fails to become a seriously motivated and constructed rock opera.
It is several things: a Rockette operetta, a Barnumian put-on, a religioso-cum-showbiz pastiche, and a musicalized "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Judas Song." The Jews seem to be guilty, once again, of causing Jesus' death…. We are thrust against energy without exuberance, torture without tragedy, in this collage-in-motion…. (pp. 1, 7)
The sharp intrusion of sex—again and again and again—into the show can only focus attention on Jesus' own sexuality. Is he Gay? Bisexual? Straight? Asexual?…
The sexuality of Jesus will undoubtedly comprise the Exhibit A controversy about the show. He and Mary Magdalene fondle and kiss each other; I felt an implicit acceptance of the fact that they have enjoyed intercourse. The exposure of this side of Jesus' humanity drew cheers from the audience, perhaps in reaction against the celibate Jesus of churchianity who has been used traditionally as a major argument against sex outside of (and before) wedlock as well as against homosexuality.
Jesus as a human being (as well as the Son of God) with sexual feelings may be far overdue in our puritanical, sexually hypocritical society. Yet I feel that his sexuality was not handled sensitively or with taste in this gaudily inhuman parody….
The show gives us a confused, tired but plucky Jesus who is going to the cross even if it kills him. Mary Magdalene is a cool, mod and sincere chick who digs Jesus but senses that he is very different from other men whom she has known. She sings a gentle ditty about the love for him that she feels. However, it is clearly not sufficiently deep a love to bind her to him through his torture and death….
Judas' feelings about Jesus provide the real basis for the utterly fictional story line that links the musical numbers. Judas feels that he is trapped in a terrible role, one scripted by God and directed by Jesus…. Judas' acceptance of a predestination to damnation smacks unappetizingly of Calvinism with bitters. So Judas plays a role instead of being himself.
It is an absurd irony that a simplistic success … has come out of the ambiguity and violent paradox of Jesus' Passion, presented here with all dimension flattened. Even the controversy of Jesus, intellectually ignored in this show, is made marketable in a plastic-ware production. It doesn't have a soul. (p. 7)
Malcolm Boyd, "'Jesus Christ Superstar'—Two Views: A Priest Says, "It Doesn't Have a Soul," in The New York Times, Section 2 (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 24, 1971, pp. 1, 7.
Lyricist Tim Rice has found for ["Jesus Christ Superstar"] a personal, and I think persuasive, tone of voice. The tone of voice is not merely mod or pop or jauntily idiomatic in an opportunistic way. It sheathes an attitude. It speaks, over and over again, of the inadequate, though forgivable, responses ordinary men always do make when confronted by mystery….
[Rice's] are blunt, rude, pointedly unlyrical lyrics, not meant to coat any period with a little literary flavoring but to catch hold of thought processes—venal, obtuse, human. Delivered in the jargon we more or less live by, they become woefully and ironically recognizable.
Andrew Lloyd Webber's score functions well, too, using rock as a frame rather than an obsession. The beat and blare establish an angle of hearing, telling us to cock our ears for the jumpy directness of the lyrics. Inside the frame, though, are going to appear the genuine sweetness of Mary Magdalene's "Everything's All Right," the ragtime insult of Herod's clog-dance about his captive, the college-bowl exultation of "Hosanna, Heysanna" for Palm Sunday—that is to say, all, or nearly all, of the convenient sounds people reach for when they want to sorrow or celebrate. The music is unselfconscious in its borrowings from the melodious and the commonplace; it wants to say that the world was commonplace then, as it is now, in the presence of what it could not, cannot, fathom. If it is young work, and work for the young, it has the consistency of innocence, of stumbling upon familiar things with surprise and reacting instantly in slang. "Jesus Christ Superstar" is a pop opera about pop attitudes, and I think it works. (p. 1)
Walter Kerr, "'Jesus Christ Superstar'—Two Views: A Critic Likes the Opera, Loathes the Production," in The New York Times, Section 2 (© 1971 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), October 24, 1971, pp. 1, 7.
It is a bit silly for religionists to argue over the theological points in the libretto of "Superstar." Rice has assembled his simple and familiar narrative line from all the Gospels, moving from the feast at Bethany through the entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the agony in Gethsemane, Judas's betrayal, the Crucifixion. His choosing to pivot the "plot" around the question of Jesus' divinity is a natural decision as a child of his time. It is a perspective, even if a naive one, and the important thing is that he lets the drama move in a simple crescendo toward the white heat of that self-dissolving question. The lyrics, like those of most opera librettos (and "Superstar" formally is the most traditional kind of straight opera), often seem numb and dull, but sometimes are dulcetly melted or dramatically tempered in the flow of the music.
As Jesus enters the last seven days of his mortal life, Mary Magdalene comforts him, singing gently, "Everything's all right yes everything's fine." This, of course, is Jesus' own message of redemption and grace, which in this Passion week he has no occasion to utter. It is a good touch to have it unconsciously uttered in Mary's strictly human terms, and that defines a dialectical tension between the human and divine that is in the opera, if not by design then as a consequence of simple good faith toward their subject on the part of the authors.
But this simplicity and naivete is only part of the story. "Jesus Christ Superstar" is one of the most amazing and complicated media events of the media age. As it proliferates through the ganglia of a traumatized society … it becomes a perfect image of mass culture's wish to have its Christ and eat him too, its reach for the impossible dream: a happy marriage between comfortable vulgarity and the ache for excellence. (p. 243)
Jack Kroll, "Theater: 'Jesus Christ Superstar'," in Newsweek (copyright 1971, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), October 25, 1971 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXII, No. 15, October 11-18, 1971, pp. 243-44).
Can a work so monstrously successful [as Jesus Christ Superstar] be all bad? The answer, sadly, is yes. The Gospel according to Tim, Tom [director Tom O'Horgan] and Andy is a far cry from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. The music is banal, the lyrics infantile, the staging monumentally vulgar, the theological conception of the Passion of Christ a travesty. It is its success—and only that—which forces one to give it serious consideration. (p. 1)
It is difficult to determine what the intentions of Messrs. Webber and Rice really were.
Is Superstar a cynical attempt to cash in on the current "counterculture" trend toward religiosity? Is it a gigantic put-on, and will the authors come forward and confess after salting away their first five million? Is it a naive but honest work inspired by true religious feeling but hamstrung by lack of talent, taste and comprehension? Or is it merely a fluke—a shoddy piece of hackwork brought to prominence by a combination of timeless and clever, massive merchandizing?
The latter theory probably comes closest to the truth….
Of course, Superstar may really be a revolutionary reinterpretation of the Passion, indeed of Jesus himself, which sees him as a petulant neurotic bent on self-destruction and carried away with his popularity, a firm believer in predestination who won't listen to Judas' good advice, a hollow superstar whose closest followers are silly fanheads.
But the treatment is too inconsistent to allow for such an interpretation. To be sure, Judas is the most interesting character in Superstar…. But his repentance and suicide … contradict his hero role, just as the cynical sentiments uttered by him after death … contradict the repentance.
No, it is unprofitable to look for clever conceits in this mess. The odd interpretations of the teachings of Jesus, the implications of seemingly original ideas are ordinary ignorance and nonsense….
The real issue is not the sad meanspirited kitsch that is Jesus Christ Superstar, but the culture than can turn such a thing into a gigantic success while letting its honest artists go begging for handouts….
Superstar is a work spawned by the generation that was going to build a new moral foundation for society. Is it representative of that generation? Is this bowdlerization of the Christian ethos its vaunted message of love and peace?…
It was once possible to hope that rock, as a cultural genre, had a viable and promising future, but even before the year JCS 1 grave doubts had arisen. If Superstar is an indication of where rock and the counterculture are taking us, it will not be toward a new dawn but into a long night. (p. 13)
Dan Morgenstern, "'Superstar': Beyond Redemption!" in down beat (copyright 1971; reprinted with permission of down beat), Vol. 38, No. 21, December 9, 1971; pp. 1, 13.
[The] rock legend of Joseph, fresher and brighter than "Superstar," is an understandable knockout in ["Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat."] It is totally unpretentious and, perhaps by the same token, totally charming.
Clive Barnes, "Stage: A New Troupe Performs at Edinburgh Fete," in The New York Times (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 5, 1972, p. 45.
With Jesus Christ Superstar, the segment most often pincered for separate analysis is the younger generation—or sliced even thinner for microscopy, and for sensational copy, the counterculture and the Jesus Movements. Yet these ripples in American society are only peripherally related to the popularity of Superstar…. (p. 262)
The very first fact that the critic must deal with—rationally, not in righteous indignation—is the tremendous popularity of Jesus Christ Superstar…. Like the Beatles, though without apology, Superstar is probably more popular than Christ himself. (p. 263)
[The] immediate question is popular with whom? Certainly not with most critics, though a few have had the temerity to emphasize favorable aspects, and the usual number have hidden their judgments equivocally behind banter until they could see how Clive Barnes voted. The most common assumption is that the affluent young are making the work a superstar, and that the counterculture, "Jesus Freaks" and other Jesus movements are boosting it. But young people's reactions vary a great deal…. Perhaps the only common denominator is that most think it's worth listening to at least once….
The Jesus Movements seem to have little to do with Superstar directly…. Superstar seems to have as many enemies as friends on the religious fringes.
And although the apostles ask "What's that in the bread? It's gone to my head," the counterculture is only marginally related to the work…. [The] counterculture can't afford to go to [the] extravaganza…. [To] see this Jesus as mainly "the passion of our counterculture," another rock star who buckles under the demands of his followers, makes the work a self-parody of the McLuhan message-medium and grossly distorts the effect of a Superstar Christ on most of the audience. To be sure, Superstar reflects current cultural preoccupations, but it neither arose directly from nor seems to be influencing either the Jesus Movements or the counterculture.
Nor is it a youthful New Testament for our time. Someone suggests that Superstar provides the beginnings of a substitute religion for the young…. But the market is already too crowded with ersatz religions to support another. Setting up a Superstar Christ as another opiate of the people—more poppycock?—fails to take into account its relation to the original opiate…. [It] preaches nothing, and neither Christ nor Judas are prophetic pop heroes. Yet some critics take it as an anticlimactic apex of all youth movements … and denounce it for not fulfilling what it never claimed to attempt.
But I have been trying to define the main audience of the work. As one observer noted before Superstar opened on Broadway, so far most of its following seems to be "Middle America."… They are neither "all the people," fooled this time, nor that portion of the people which can be fooled all the time, though critical conceptions of mass audiences tend to oscillate between these extremes. Rather, they are apparently a very mixed group…. (pp. 262-65)
The conception of mass audiences …, and consequently the nature of popular art, is very Protean…. People can shape what they like out of much popular art; indeed, malleability helps determine success. Whatever can be all things to all people—or the most things to the most people—will be the most successful. I don't mean to have titillated you to an anticlimax. It just seems to me that critics have failed to deal adequately with the greatest force in any mass culture: inertia…. Works like Jesus Christ Superstar, which "ask the right questions" but allow each individual to provide his own answers, will be appropriated by nearly all—the atheist, the agnostic, and the believer. Only the indifferent will remain unimpressed; only the devout and the aesthetically critical may be offended. Since Superstar is basically neutral, it can profit from nearly everyone's inertia.
With a great deal of religious controversy supposedly surrounding Superstar, it may seem paradoxical to call it a theological neutral. Certainly some specific aspects of it seem anything but orthodox: Judas is given star status at times; Mary Magdalene, by implication, may have also cooled the fires between Jesus' head and feet; and Jesus himself is so human in his doubts and frustrations that several have objected to his lack of divinity and assurance. But Tim Rice has been very careful to balance most unorthodoxies with opposing evidence, and most protesters have apparently been part of small minorities. Judas the betrayer is not a man anyone would trust implicitly, and he is terribly inconsistent and unsure of his motives…. After that early titillating suggestion that Magdalene is Christ's mistress, Rice clarifies his position: "Only a moron or a gorilla could say that Christ and Mary had an affair…. The last verse of Mary's song proves there was no affair." Furthermore, Christ may be either man or God in the piece: "We approach Christ as a man—the human angle—rather than as God. But we don't want to destroy anyone's belief. Christ as a God is there if you want it." (pp. 266-67)
Rice and Webber indicate that the work is primarily agnostic, but intentionally leaves room for both faith and atheism…. The opera does not take up the resurrection because of the difficulty of projecting a neutral interpretation of the event; it's either a hoax or a miracle. Similarly, Mary the mother of Jesus, a potential for high controversy between Protestants and Catholics, is left out entirely. (pp. 267-68)
This interpretation of Superstar's popularity implies several things about popular art…. If inertia, or the adaptation of a piece to one's own beliefs and prejudices, is a major force in popular art, then art may never be a great reformer of masses…. Similarly, popular art is unlikely to convert many critics. The very ambiguity that provides a lowest common denominator for the broadest audience frustrates the critic demanding a consistent interpretation. And while ambiguity and ambivalence can be beautifully balanced in a work of art, and have made several classic works popular, they may also slide into simple inconsistency and incoherence. The critic's reaction is therefore likely to be frustrated rejection. (p. 269)
James R. Huffman, "'Jesus Christ Superstar'—Popular Art and Unpopular Criticism," in Journal of Popular Culture (copyright © 1972 by Ray B. Browne), Vol. 6, No. 2, Fall, 1972, pp. 259-69.
I thought that "Superstar," and now "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat," were quite surely more decadent than Alice Cooper.
It's quite okay, and very lovable to have jolly portrayals of God—to all intents and purposes styled upon Santa Claus. It's a best-seller to have rock 'n' roll angels, tidy lyrics, neon tablets, and satire based upon The Bible.
But I sat there, and thought, "Herewith really makes a beginning of the end." Surely, I was laughing, for "Joseph" has incredibly funny moments. But … like, ya know, if yer a thinker, then you start to think about God in Neon. And then you start to think about dear George Orwell, and then "1984," and before you know it…. You know George was right. And that my friends, is exceedingly frightening.
Not that Mr. Rice or Mr. Lloyd-Webber meant to slander the remnants of society. Nay—they're writers, and writing extremely enjoyable things really. But, without knowing, we creep towards 1984. You see, once you present God in Neon, then there's little else to present.
It's not a case of reading things into things. "Joseph" might be called harmless. It's funny—[and] it'll become a world-favourite.
But will it make God a Superstar?
Roy Hollingworth, "Joseph: God in Neon," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), March 3, 1973, p. 45.
["Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat"] continues to impress with its charm, wit and inventive staging. It not only popularizes a portion of the Old Testament, but on another level operates as show business parody, kidding such personalities as Gene Autry and Elvis Presley. It's no knockout, but certainly a pleasing and buoyant entertainment….
But because of its short length, "Joseph" appears doomed to be the victim of debilitating grafts. In this instance, the evening's first half yields an all-new and supposedly related work called "Jacob's Journey," which is intended to foreshadow the "Dreamcoat" saga. It's not of the same quality, being essentially a mini-musical with vaude overtones…. Nor is the Webber-Rice score up to their standard. The piece, in short, has none of "Joseph"'s evident virtues and makes the doublebill a schizoid affair….
Maybe "Joseph" should be left to its own devices, and booked on an exhibition circuit more suited to its scale.
"Shows Abroad: 'Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" & 'Jacob's," in Variety (copyright 1973, by Variety, Inc.), March 7, 1973, p. 72.
[I came to the film version of "Jesus Christ Superstar"] with virgin eyes and ears both of which were glazed after one hour and forty minutes of almost unmitigated boredom. At the risk of being sacrilegious, I couldn't wait until they nailed Jesus….
[There's] the scene where Jesus is tossing the moneychangers out of the temple which is filled with postcard stands and hookers. In fact, in charging through the temple, Jesus breaks up a lot of mirrors and one can only conclude the curse of seven years bad luck was the reason Jesus died. The shallowness of most of the portrayals and simple-mindedness of a lot of the lyrics hardly make you feel there's any other reason. There is just nothing truly moving or inspiring about this film….
The film "Jesus Christ Superstar" only underlines to me the dangers of trying to be too hip and groovy with a story that is one of the most important in history.
Loraine Alterman, "Holy Boredom: The Jesus Christ Superstar Film," in Melody Maker (© IPC Business Press Ltd.), June 16, 1973, p. 3.
Guided by a longtime prejudice against Broadway musicals and reinforced by a decade dedicated to fighting bathrobe-and-beard Bible films, I attended a preview screening, fully prepared to attack Superstar with all the snide sophistication I could muster. To my absolute amazement, I found the film to be compelling, moving and visually stunning. It is superb cinema, stimulating theology, and in no way anti-Semitic.
Superstar … accomplishes something I have never before seen in a biblical film: it portrays Jesus in a first century setting with a 20th century sensitivity…. [My] reaction, both cinematic and theological, is that Superstar is a fitting marriage of message and medium. This film works because the gospel story is meant to be told in poetry rather than prose. All previous Bible films … were hung up on narrative prose, with each episode presented in lurid and literal detail. Superstar sings its message in a contemporary idiom; the familiar characters have been deliberately cast in unexpected guises to reveal new insights into the Gospels…. (p. 693)
No dialogue intrudes to impose prose on the film. The emotional interchanges are sung to emphasize their larger-than-life significance. The film's hero is Judas; he is the character with whom the audience identifies. Some fear had been expressed that with a black performer … in the role, a "racist" implication might be drawn. On the contrary, Judas is presented as the only real friend Jesus has, struggling desperately to make him follow a reasonable course of action which will avoid bringing down the wrath of the establishment upon the whole lot of them…. Judas' relationship to Jesus is one of perplexed admiration, leading him to take steps that may or may not help to turn Jesus back toward the earlier path that once promised to lead to success. Far from being racist, this portrayal of Judas makes him the film's "everyman," the figure drawn to Jesus and yet unable to comprehend the strange demands he makes both on himself and on his followers. (pp. 693-94)
The charge of anti-Semitism plagued the original stage production, and there are indications that similar criticism has already been heard regarding the film version. The Pharisees, obviously villains in this opera, are far from being "Jewish" villains. They constitute the establishment, troubled by the admiration evoked by the reckless life style of Jesus…. [The] Pharisees represent the same kind of ominous power that Sergei Eisenstein gave his elaborately costumed and hooded German soldiers as they fought across the ice against Russian troops in his classic film Alexander Nevsky….
Any charge of anti-Semitism leveled against this film will be based not on Superstar itself but on feelings generated by earlier portrayals of Jews as "Christ-killers." Such dated emotions are understandable, for there is an ugly history of anti-Semitism in our popular culture; the charge, however, is not appropriate for Superstar….
[The young performers] have presented a vision of the man Jesus in their own musical style, and in the process have raised the same questions that have always been raised about him: Who is he and what is this strange power that drives him?
Jesus Christ Superstar is a film with its light moments … and its profound insights…. Above all, it is a work of cinematic art which just might strengthen the viewer's faith in its original story. (p. 694)
James M. Wall, "'Jesus Christ Superstar': A Surprising Film Success," in The Christian Century (copyright 1973 Christian Century Foundation: reprinted by permission from the June 27, 1973 issue of The Christian Century), Vol. XC, No. 25, June 27, 1973, pp. 693-94.
Jesus Christ Superstar [the film] is intellectually as vacuous as the Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera it so faithfully follows,… and religiously as authentic as Sunday morning services at the White House….
[Almost everything in the film is played] for either laughs, irony or earnestness—not a shot in the film is corrupted by genuine emotion or sentiment. Jesus' character is so poorly drawn that we never understand either the appeal that he generates or the hostility he provokes….
The sheer triviality of this film is ultimately unsettling. Its makers failed to take the subject seriously, refused to honor their story, and never committed themselves to the fundamentally tragic nature of this most potent of Western myths.
Jon Landau, "Jesus Christ, Star of Stage, Screen & 'Hullaballoo'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1973; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 140, August 2, 1973, p. 54.
[It's] almost impossible to suggest the imaginative impoverishment, the sheer stupefying banality, of … [the] version of the last days of Christ [in the movie Jesus Christ Superstar]…. In another respect, however, I underestimated the work; I had expected the alleged anti-Semitism of the film to be no more than the random fallout of its pandering to the anti-establishment sentiments of its audience, to be, in that sense, unintentional. But though the villainy of the Jews "works," all right, so, too, would the villainy of the Romans, who, if anything, could have been a good deal more easily made standins for cops or American imperialists than can the Jewish priesthood be equated with any of the usual bêtes noires of the counter-culture. Yet the Romans are so thoroughly exculpated by the film of any responsibility for Christ's crucifixion as to become virtual instruments of the Jewish priests, who bring Jesus to a reluctant Pilate with the demand "We need him crucified!" And though the Romans are hardly made attractive … Pilate is at least given an introductory speech in which, reflecting on a dream, he worries about his prospective involvement in Christ's death and how the future will judge him: "Then I saw thousands of millions / Crying for this man / And then I heard them mentioning my name / And leaving me the blame."
This speech, whatever it may lack in scriptural grounding, is at least consistent with the obsession that almost all the characters at one time or another manifest with respect to their standing with posterity, their image…. And even Jesus himself, foreseeing his death, inquires of God, "Will I be more noticed than I was before?" and, later, cries out on the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forgotten me?"—though possibly this last is less a case of meaningful textual emendation than of simple indifference to meaning, as is, presumably, Christ's elsewhere wanting to know that he won't "be killed in vain."
In fact, I'd be tempted to say that this preoccupation with public relations is the only thing that gives any thematic consistency to the work. For the rest, though Judas starts by raising some pseudo-serious objections to Christ's billing ("You've begun to matter more than the things you say"), which, being in line with the work's title, were perhaps pursued in earlier versions, this is quickly seen to amount to nothing. (pp. 76-7)
But there is one thing more in which the film also maintains a stubborn consistency, and that is its anti-Semitism: having this film in general release is a bit like having a performance of a with-it version of the Oberammergau Passion Play down every block. Though it's hard to believe the work's portrayal of Jesus, cast in the effete plaster-saint mold of previous Hollywood Jesuses …, could fail to give offense to any Christian audience, I think one must distinguish here between trivialization or vulgarization and active animus. Not only is all culpability in Christ's death passed on to a malignant Jewish priesthood and blood-thirsty Jewish mob; the priests are also portrayed in a way that is clearly indebted to classically vilifying stereotypes…. Judas, who is depicted as the tool of Jewish interests, is played by a black actor, and images of his being menaced by tanks and jet fighters, though not out of keeping with the movie's other deliberate anachronisms, cannot fail to suggest the notion of Third World victimization by the warlike might of Israel….
I'm quite willing to believe that Jesus Christ Superstar was created by people who sincerely believe themselves to be free of any animus toward the Jews; in some ways, this makes only more disturbing the fact that the film is shot through with anti-Semitic feeling. Doubtless conceived in a spirit of unalloyed commerce, the work, like most other books, records, plays, and movies, clearly has as its muse the jackass. But the jackal's mark is unmistakably on it. (p. 77)
William S. Pechter, "Politics on Film: 'Jesus Christ Superstar'" (copyright © 1973 by William S. Pechter; reprinted by permission of the author), in Commentary, Vol. 56, No. 3, September, 1973, pp. 76-7.
[The movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar is] in many ways odious and in all ways absurd….
[The] entire story is presented without any original point of view, the only slightly significant departure being Christ's virtually provoking and coercing Judas into betraying him so as to fulfill the grand design. But I doubt if, at this late date, that is likely to give rise to a new heresy or serious schism.
No, the offense is of a different order. It is, first, in the text, which is faithfully that of Tim Rice for the "rock opera," and translates the sublime prose of the gospels into witless doggerel. "Listen, Jesus, I don't like what I see / All I ask is that you listen to me," Judas expostulates with his master…. Jesus himself gives out with things like "Then I was inspired, / Now I'm sad and tired" and "My time is almost through, / Little left to do…." As Judas puts it to Jesus, "But every word you say today / Gets twisted round some other way," which will also serve as a fair description of Tim Rice's lyric-writing.
But if the words are all bad—sounding like the unholy writ of Edgar Guest in collaboration with Norman Vincent Peale—the music by Andrew Lloyd Webber is not all deafening commonplaces. Though it is not exactly the kind of rock you can build a church on—sometimes, in fact, it sounds like recycled Massenet—it does have its tuneful or rousing moments…. [The] supreme failure is the director's own for trying to fill in the vacuity of the material with desperate stratagems of montage and camera trickery, and by feverishly latching on to bits of contemporary relevance that no other cat would have dragged in. (p. 44)
Some six decades ago, the distinguished German aesthetician Konrad Lange accused the then nascent world film production of being in the hands of "semi-educated, aesthetically feelingless, ethically indifferent, in short, spiritually inferior people," and as one watches this movie, it would be hard to disagree. It is extremely doubtful even whether one can forgive them because, as the King James version had it, they know not what they do, or, as the present text prosaicizes it, they don't know what they're doing. (p. 46)
John Simon, "Films: 'Jesus Christ Superstar'" (reprinted by permission of Wallace & Sheil Agency, Inc.; copyright © 1973 by John Simon), in Esquire, Vol. 80, No. 4, October, 1973, pp. 44, 46 (and to be reprinted in his Reverse Angle, Clarkson N. Potter Inc., 1981).
Being wrong is never funny. When I saw "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" in London a couple of years or so ago [see excerpt above], I thought it was pretty good. Modestly good. Not incredible, but viable….
In many ways it is better than "Jesus Christ, Superstar." At least it is not quite so pretentious. But those many ways are not enough. In London it seemed acceptable. In Brooklyn, with, I think, a slightly jazzed-up staging, it seems a loud and pushy bore….
Why are so many modern—or so-distant modern—musicals based on biblical themes? This "Joseph" makes so many of its points—those such as it makes—with a semi-mocking attitude to its subject. It takes Joseph, gives him a plaintive voice, surrounds him with the blue-jeaned cohorts and an abundance of disco, go-go dancing. Some years ago this seemed moderately smart—it certainly seemed better than the gargantuan excesses of "Jesus Christ, Superstar." Now it seems empty. The music beats on and on, the story is made into a candy-colored legend, and only the staging engages the attention….
The show looks good, but it just doesn't sound good. One musical number after another plonks lifeless on the deck. And the story never for a moment sustains its characters. We cannot get even remotely involved with Joseph—whether with his coat or not.
The music is soft-rock, and nowadays seems a paraphrase of a pastiche. It has no originality—a few liturgical notes with a great deal of rock frenzy—and the lyrics are merely simplistic. It is not especially clever, in itself, to bring a biblical story into modern times. Even the wretched "Godspell" was able to do that….
Perhaps it was a show that had a special time and a special place, and perhaps the time was two or three years ago and the place was London. Or perhaps I was simply wrong the first time around. But it honestly did seem more attractive then.
Clive Barnes, "Stage: 'Technicolor Dreamcoat'," in The New York Times (© 1976 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), December 31, 1976, p. C3.
Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice of, first, the pop-rock musical Jesus Christ, Superstar and, now, Evita are a couple of pop-art geniuses; what they lack is talent….
[Eva Peron's life] is certainly the stuff of opera, and opera is just what our heroes have propsed: great sumptuous orchestrations played by the London Philharmonic, funny off-key recitatives, Menotti-modern-opera scenes, choral madrigals, frenzied chants, and Latin lamentations, as well as heavy-beat rock music, much of it with a greasy sort of Latin overlay.
But is all this panoply mere show without substance? So it seems; one looks in vain for content. In the case of Superstar, Webber and Rice had some familiar dramatic material to work with. Here they need to sort it out themselves, and they don't. Politics gets short shrift, and so they miss out on the great background story of how a populist, working-people's movement becomes a fascist dictatorship with a sex symbol to sugarcoat the pill. There's no more than the minimum social background….
The attitude toward the characters is ambiguous. Peron is a stooge and has virtually nothing to sing. The real male lead is someone ominously named "Ché" who seems to be more interested in pushing the new insecticide he's developed than in helping tell Eva's story. Whatever the intent, this character bears no resemblance to Ché Guevara … and he has no relevance to the plot. He is not even an effective commentator but really just a device to get on with the story. Eva herself is hardly dramatized at all; she is a puppet and, strangely, not at all likable. Even her big emotional addresses to the people of Argentina, set over and over again to the same music, are like a prostitute's bag of faked emotional tricks. Dramatization requires characters, conflict, discoveries, mysteries, comedies, tragedies, surprises, knowns, unknowns, ironies, loves, hates, sympathies, deceits—all of which our authors forgot or didn't know how to supply. And an opera (or music theater or lyric theater or whatever) must develop these motifs musically, not only expressing ideas and emotions but also carrying events on its musical back.
Perhaps one should forget about all this—after all, Evita is just a recording at this point, not a dramatic presentation—and concentrate on words and music. Both are great lumpy concoctions of clichés, awkwardnesses, and ripped-off ideas (would you believe Swan Lake and Both Sides Now?) leavened with flashes of brilliance. Now and again parts congeal into bouncy, cynical, outrageous, campy Latin-rock or folk-rock numbers. The focus of the whole is Eva's speech to the crowd at Peron's inauguration. This song or aria,… actually moving in a counterfeit sort of way, is based entirely on a couple of dumb emotional tunes that are repeated over and over again (before, during, and after) so that they burn their way into your brain.
Up to the end of Part I we are carried along on the impetus of Eva's rise to power, set as a series of strokes of high banality and low camp. But once she has arrived, there is nowhere to go, musically or dramatically. Everything grinds to a halt. Part II is full of draggy, bad modern-opera-isms and fake Caribbean tunes along with endless repetitions of music from Part I, some of it pasted up in mawkish, awkward collage. In the end, we cannot untangle the dramatic, verbal, and musical skeins, and, indeed, the authors' ambitions do not permit us to do so. When the dramatic form crumbles, the musical ebullience and the flashes of brilliance flicker out too.
Eric Salzman, "Another Little Eva Altogether," in Stereo Review (copyright © 1977 by Ziff-Davis Publishing Company), Vol. 38, No. 4, April, 1977, p. 108.
Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber have chosen Eva Perón … as heroine of [Evita,] their followup to Jesus Christ Superstar, and it must be confessed that there is a certain logic to the choice. The one memorable song from Jesus Christ Superstar, "I Don't Know How to Love Him," belonged not to the hero but to the blameless whore Mary Magdalene. Here the blameless whore is the centerpiece and once again has the song, "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina."
Outside of that bit of cleaning up, the rest is Superstar recycled: mobs of foolish actors, prissy, narrow-minded aristocrats, cartoonish Powers That Be, a cynical narrator who gives the lowdown on the celebrity hero. Once again the characters are one and all inferior to us in the audience—even the cynic is portrayed as a fool and an asshole. He is known only as Che, but this Che is a clown….
The logic is good…. But it remains to be seen whether Webber and Rice can make the switch from luring teenagers to Jesus via rock & roll to stirring kind thoughts toward Eva Perón among tango fans. God alone knows, and He's keeping a straight face.
Charles Perry, "Records: 'Evita: An Opera Based on the Life Story of Eva Perón 1919–1952'," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1977; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 236, April 7, 1977, p. 76.
[The likes of Evita] have never been seen before; while it uses techniques developed in such Broadway shows as Cabaret and Follies, it rises to still higher theatrical purpose….
Like their previous Jesus Christ Superstar, Rice and Webber's Evita was initially written for a record album and termed a "rock opera." It is hardly biographical in the usual sense. It is a creature utterly of the stage. Rice's lyrics—his "libretto"—merely provided an excuse for [director Harold] Prince's elevation of the entire project to a new dimension…. [Webber's music] has been fleshed out and deepened to become a new kind of theater music, and crashing dissonances underlining light melodies….
The intellectual content of [the plot] takes second place to theatricality, and wisely so, but perhaps inevitably the final act is a letdown. The first act was almost impossible to top. The intermission may have given too much of a break. Certainly, the second act could use new material, for it is repetitious in all respects—music, event, staging. Yet, there is no question of the entire production's strength and uniqueness. Whether Evita is British or American doesn't matter. It has made musical theater international.
Martin Gottfried, "Two Shots in the Arm for the London Stage," in Saturday Review (copyright © 1978 by Saturday Review; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Vol. 5, No. 26, October 14, 1978, p. 57.∗
Evita is a stunning, exhilarating theatrical experience, especially if you don't think about it too much….
[It is] a virtually faultless piece of Broadway fantasy that has shadow exultantly victorious over substance, and form virtually laughing at content.
First let me stress that this pop-opera … is wonderfully entertaining in everything but the aftertaste of its pretensions. But don't cry for [Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice] anyone—this deserves to be a sizeable hit….
This is a more vital attempt at pop-opera than was the author's previous Jesus Christ Superstar. Rice has constructed his libretto with coherence and his deliberately abrasive lyrics generally achieve just the right slogan-like simplicity…. [Lloyd Webber's score] has a bull-dozing charm and the memorability of the already half-remembered.
The fault of the whole construction is that it is hollow. We are expected to deplore Evita's morals but adore her circuses. We are asked to accept a serious person onstage, of a complexity Hammerstein would never have even murmured to Rodgers, and yet the treatment of that person is essentially superficial, almost trivial. The gloss of the surface is meant to be impenetrable—and it is.
But what a gloss!…
You must see Evita. For all the disappointments of its undelivered promises and eroded aspirations, it is a definite marker-point in the ongoing story of the Broadway musical.
Clive Barnes, "A Stunning 'Evita' Seduces with Its Gloss," in New York Post (reprinted by permission of the New York Post; © 1979, News Group Publications, Inc.), September 26, 1979 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXX, No. 17, October 1-8, 1979, p. 154).
There's an eerily prophetic line close to the very opening of "Evita," the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber musical that chooses to sing about the brief, bizarre life of Eva Perón and her joint rule of Argentina with her dictator-husband, Juan. The evening opens with the announcement of her death at 33….
The lady's coffin is not yet closed, though. That will be done by Che himself, slapping the great lid shut and sending clouds of dust flying into the bleak, steelwork sky. He then sings the couplet that is going to prove both accurate and, to the entertainment, damaging: "As soon as the smoke from the funeral clears / We're all gonna see she did nothing for years."
That is precisely the problem confronting director Harold Prince and the onetime authors of "Jesus Christ Superstar." As they have charted out the enterprise, Evita is going to use a sleek-haired tango singer to make her way to the big city, she's going to dump him for a succession of more and more important lovers, she's going to snare the mighty man who's about to win Argentina's lethal game of musical chairs, she's going to pose as a friend of the poor while accumulating an impressive supply of furs and diamond-studded gowns, she's going to be called a whore before she's through, and her body's due to waste away as cancer strikes her early.
Yet we almost never see any of these things happen dramatically onstage. We hear about them at second-hand, mainly from the omnipresent Che…. Whenever Che is briefly silent, we are getting the news from lyrics or recitative sung by top-hatted aristocrats, breathless messengers, almost anyone at hand. It is rather like reading endless footnotes from which the text has disappeared, and it puts us into the kind of emotional limbo we inhabit when we're just back from the dentist but the novocaine hasn't worn off yet.
To be fair, there are at least two passages in which we are really present at a key confrontation. The first occurs when Evita strides peremptorily into Perón's bedroom to dispossess the schoolgirl mistress in residence. "I've just unemployed you," she snaps to the youngster as she snatches her suitcase from beneath the bed and swiftly packs it. It's probably because two people have settled something face-to-face that we are so taken with the melodic plaint that follows ("Another Suitcase in Another Hall")….
And, near the second act's end, there is a genuine personal clash between Evita and Perón, both pacing from one bedroom to another, she determined on being named Vice President, he bluntly pointing out that her glitter is gone and what's left will soon be ashes. If we ever begin, however remotely, to feel something for this no-holds-barred opportunist, it is as she crumples to the floor still insisting that half the power is hers. The contest between approaching death and a stubborn will stirs a faint twinge in us, I think, because it's been acted out, fought harshly before our eyes.
Otherwise we are condemned to hearing what we want to know—need to know, if we're to offer any kind of response—relayed to us by a narrator. The use of Che Guevara for the purpose seems to me approximately as opportunist as Evita's own manipulations. Not because, factually, he wasn't there at the time, had nothing whatever to do with the Peróns. But because he is most often employed to make certain that we won't go developing a crush on Evita ourselves….
In effect, this keeps us permanently outside the action, unable to decipher Evita's complexities for ourselves. We ask ourselves, in vain, how this dubious and remote heroine managed to get close enough to Perón to work her will on him, what it was she did to endear herself to a gullible population. Because vital scenes are simply absent, there are no conclusions, no judgments, we can arrive at on our own. They've all been handed down, hammered down, from the outset. We're not participants, we're recipients of postal cards (and photographs) from all over. Which is a chilly and left-handed way to write a character-musical. (p. 149)
[One goes] home wondering why the authors chose to write a musical about materials they were then going to develop so remotely, so thinly. (p. 150)
Walter Kerr, "'Evita', a Musical Perón," in The New York Times (© 1979 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 26, 1979 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXX, No. 17, October 1-8, 1979, pp. 149-50).
Like "Jesus Christ Superstar," Tim Rice and Andrew LloydWebber's "Evita" … is history seen as a form of show business. Since Eva Peron was more directly related to show biz than Jesus, one would expect the Rice-Lloyd-Webber material to be more pointed than their earlier show. Alas, it is only more banal.
Rice's lyrics have the naive outrage of Sixties radical kids…. Occasionally Rice achieves an old-fashioned musical comedy cleverness…. More often they merely convey rhetoric with no sense of style, euphony or grace.
Lloyd-Webber's music frequently sounds like mis-hummed fragments of familiar tunes…. Most of the music is characterless, often singsong—perhaps it was kept deliberately simple to guarantee we would be able to grasp Rice's banal lyrics. (pp. 154-55)
There have been reports "Evita" has been modified since its London production, where there was concern the fascistic heroine was somehow being glorified. If she had been, it would at least have given "Evita" a perverse fascination—like the one that surrounds "Don Giovanni" or "Richard III." As it is, "Evita" is an astringent character, too much an object of satire and moralistic comment ever to come to life….
From its very title, "Evita" promises to be outrageous. It is as if a musical about Eva Braun were titled "Fraulein" or "Little Eva." These days, however, we have outgrown outrage. The material takes us back to the Sixties, even while the stage craft propels us into the Eighties. (p. 155)
Howard Kissel, "'Evita'," in Women's Wear Daily (copyright 1979, Fairchild Publications), September 26, 1979 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXX, No. 17, October 1-8, 1979, pp. 154-55).
Last year, at the World Cup soccer matches in Buenos Aires, the huge crowd roared, "We want the thieves back! We want the thieves!" Why do the people of a relatively advanced, sophisticated country yearn for the neo-Fascist paternalism and fake messianism of an Eva Perón? That is the true horror of her story, and "Evita" doesn't confront it. Why isn't there at least one song given to the descamisados, in which we learn about their attitude toward their idol? Even Che Guevara could have been used to better effect. Late in his career he made initiatives toward the exiled Perón (as did Fidel Castro himself); there's an opportunity for a number in which the "true revolutionary" expresses his own ambivalence toward the ambiguous figure of Eva. But "Evita" only sentimentalizes her. (p. 153)
Jack Kroll, "'Evita' in Soft Focus," in Newsweek (copyright 1979, by Newsweek, Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), October 8, 1979 (and reprinted in New York Theatre Critics' Reviews, Vol. XXXX, No. 17, October 1-8, 1979, pp. 152-53).