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.

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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...

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