Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 828

Jesus Christ Superstar was the first Broadway musical to have begun its life as a record. The single record of Judas’s song ‘‘Superstar,’’ released in 1970, at first drew little notice from the listeners of the underground rock stations that played it, but over the next few months the song gained attention in the United States, if not in Great Britain, where it was produced. One form of this attention was pure outrage, for the song, especially when taken out of the context of the play, seemed to many religious listeners blasphemous when it asked ‘‘Jesus Christ, Superstar, do you think you’re what they say you are?’’ Although it finally received a good response, it never rose above the top 80s in the Billboard listing. Nevertheless, the single record sold over 100,000 copies by May, 1970. Based on this success, Rice and Webber recorded the full rock opera and packaged it in a two-record boxed set purposely designed to look like other recorded operas. On October 21, 1971, the New York opening performance (on tape) of the rock opera was held in a church, coordinated with a slide presentation of religious paintings. The invited reviewers and the rest of the audience gave the record a standing ovation. Then the album was released to radio stations, whose reviewers loved it. Scott Muni of radio station WNEW called the song, ‘‘an out and out smash.’’ By February 6, 1971, it climbed to the top of the Billboard list of hot songs in the United States. Billboard predicted, ‘‘It is destined to become one of the most talked about and provocative albums on the pop scene.’’ Two weeks later, the albums made it to the top of Cashbox’s list, which hailed it as ‘‘a powerful and dynamic rock score of sweeping melodies.’’ Jack Shadoian of Rolling Stone raved that ‘‘many of us rockheads . . . have been sitting around waiting for something extraordinary to happen. This is it.’’ Although some reviewers disliked the fusion of rock sound in opera format (‘‘When it isn’t dead-boring, it’s too embarrassing to hear,’’ quipped the Cue reviewer), others, such as Derek Jewell of the London Sunday Times, saw it as Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene in a scene from the stage production the herald to a new art form, with music ‘‘more moving that Handel’s Messiah . . . a work on a heroic scale, masterfully conceived, honestly done, and overflowing with splendid music and apt language.’’ The music derived its unique blend of styles from many varied sources. William Bender wrote: ‘‘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 record set became the bestJ selling two-record album of all time, grossing over $15 million in the year of its release.

The first London stage play was performed at a West End theatre with Paul Nicholson as Jesus. It ran for eight years (3,358 performances) and became West End’s longest-running musical up to that point; it currently ranks as the fifth longest running musical in West End history, behind three other Andrew Webber musicals, (Cats, Starlight Express, and Phantom of the Opera). In the Spring of 1971, before the play reached Broadway, the album set had sold 2 million copies in the United States and Life magazine featured photos of one of the many improvised performances being staged across the country, many of which were produced in violation of the play’s copyright. Life attributed its popularity to music and lyrics that ‘‘bridge the generation gap,’’ being at once ‘‘both secular and reverent.’’ The opening of the official Broadway production was delayed by sound problems, but the show, starring Ben Vereen as Judas, Jeff Fenholt as Jesus and Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene, got underway to the admiration of both the critics and the public. The Broadway run took in almost $3 million, ran from 1971 to 1973, and won the 1971 Drama Desk Award.

The 1973 film version starred rock singer Ted Neely as Jesus, Carl Anderson (Ben Vereen’s Broadway understudy) as Judas, and Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene. Many critics panned the film; however, it won British Academy Awards for Best Sound Track and Best Cinematography and grossed more than 10 million dollars at the box office. Both the film and the stage production have enjoyed wide popularity worldwide since its release.

A twenty-year anniversary tour garnered large audiences across the United States in 1993, and London’s West End produced a twenty-fifth anniversary production in 1998. James R. Huffman of the Journal of Popular Culture points to one reason for the play’s appeal: ‘‘Works like Jesus Christ Superstar, which asks 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.’’

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