Jesus Christ Superstar

by Andrew Lloyd Webber, Time Rice

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Historical Context

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The Biblical Story of Jesus
The story as told in the play Jesus Christ Superstar follows fairly closely what is known about the life and times of the historical Jesus. Jesus a rabbi whose father apparently was a carpenter, worked for a time in that trade as well before developing a ministry based on loving one’s enemy and a more holistic attachment to God than simply complying with religious law. Jesus went out to preach to the people rather than wait for them to come to him in a temple, as did most other rabbis of the time. It is speculated that Jesus was a member of the Pharisees, a progressive, democratic Jewish sect that interpreted the Torah more liberally than did the more conservative Sadducees. Jesus preached mostly in Galilee and apparently took the rather dangerous step of going into Jerusalem to preach as well, as the play delineates. Here he met with more difficult adversaries than he had in Galilee, with Jewish leaders who considered his teachings controversial and with Romans who feared a rebellious uprising. Jesus may have been a ‘‘marked man’’ in the sense that there were those who wanted to remove this threat to the authority of the Romans and the Pharisees, the high priests of the Jewish community. Knowing that he would not be suffered to live and preach much longer, he held a farewell meal on the eve of Passover and was arrested in the garden of Gesthemene by Roman soldiers. Jewish authorities first tried him, found him guilty of high treason (for pretending to be the Messiah, although there is no evidence that Jesus made this claim), and sent him to Pilate for execution. Nothing was recorded of him for the first forty years after his death, then the letters of the Apostle Paul (a Hellenized Jew born after the death of Jesus who introduced Christianity to the Greeks) refer to his ministry. The synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) probably written after the Pauline letters, tell slightly conflicting stories, but essentially also confirm the existence of a rabbi named Jesus who was crucified under Roman law.

The Theatrical ‘‘Happenings’’ of the 1960s and 1970s
Theater in the 1960s and 1970s was, to use the parlance of the time, a ‘‘happening,’’ a word that implied energy, spectacle, and significance. Beginning with Hair in 1967, nudity and shocking language would become commonplace in the theater, and audiences came to expect to be shocked and challenged as well as entertained. That Jesus Christ Superstar (1971) committed the sacrilege of conflating religion with Broadway spectacle was almost par for the course, as was its celebration of the hippie style, a style that valued the personal expression of uniqueness and freedom. There was a movement toward less formality as well as fusion with other art forms. This was experimental theater, often entailing audience participation, anachronistic costuming and props, and extending the stage to the larger world. Thus the combination of rock music with ancient, biblical themes in Jesus Christ Superstar, although completely unique in itself, was consistent with the prevailing mood of the theater.

Literary Style

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Rock OperaTommy (1969), hailed as the world’s first rock opera, broke with the tradition of the musical stage production by incorporating rock music into the classical opera genre. Tommy, an album released by The Who, told through its songs the story of a deaf mute who becomes a guru because of his pinball skill. The album was an immediate success, and was soon transformed into a live stage production that The Who took on a worldwide live tour, during which they recorded

(This entire section contains 780 words.)

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Tommy (1969), hailed as the world’s first rock opera, broke with the tradition of the musical stage production by incorporating rock music into the classical opera genre. Tommy, an album released by The Who, told through its songs the story of a deaf mute who becomes a guru because of his pinball skill. The album was an immediate success, and was soon transformed into a live stage production that The Who took on a worldwide live tour, during which they recordedTommy Live in front of recordbreaking audiences. They also produced a film version, directed by Ken Russell. The rock opera is, like opera, a form that advances the plot through songs, with few or no spoken parts. The rock element pertains to the music and choreography of the piece, but in the cases of Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar, it also contributed the theme and protagonist of the play in the form of the rock star. Operas feature both solo numbers and chorus or ensemble pieces, and both Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar follow this pattern. The rock opera as a genre has mostly faded away, having served its purpose to broaden the definition of the musical production and of the format of the rock album. However, the brief era of rock opera resulted in a number of song cycle or ‘‘plot rock’’ albums (albums whose songs tell a story), such as The Kink’s Preservation Act I and Preservation Act II, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, David Bowie’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust, and The Beatles’ Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts’ Club, paving the way for the concept rock videos of the MTV era.

Point of View The physical and emotional perspective from which the viewer is led to view the spectacle of a dramatic production is from afar, and this is especially true when the production is a musical. When viewing a dramatic production, the audience looks onto the stage as onto a miniature world, complete with furnishings and a false horizon peeping through the window, and the viewer has the sense of being outside of the events, judging them like a god. Only at certain moments is the viewer invited into the private world of a given character, and that is when that character muses aloud in a soliloquy, sharing private thoughts as though unaware of the audience listening to every word. The character might encourage this intimacy through facing slightly offstage, in a three-quarters profile, putting the audience outside the line of vision, giving the impression that eavesdropping will not be detected. The actor might speak quietly, almost in a whisper, further indicating the privacy of his or her thoughts. At this moment, the viewer’s perspective can merge with that character’s perspective, such that the events are seen through that character’s point of view. Usually only one or two characters’ thoughts are revealed in this way, and the play may privilege one character’s perspective by focusing on that person’s inner thoughts more than the other’s. When the production is a musical, the sense of being outside of the action is enhanced through the pageantry of the choreographed movements onstage, which are not at all like real life and thus remind the viewer of the artificiality of the performance.

Only when the characters sing a soliloquy, with a spotlight creating a temporary connection to the audience, does the viewer gain a sense of identifying with the characters. In a musical or opera, the solos shift the point of view from one soloist to another. Even though Jesus is the central character in Jesus Christ Superstar, the soloists, Judas, Mary, and Jesus, each have a different assessment of his mission, and the viewer’s point of view shifts according to who is singing. Throughout most of the play the point of view lies outside of Jesus, in Judas’s perspective, as he assesses this leader’s impact on the crowd and tries to decide just how to take him. The perspective shifts to Jesus whenever he sings. Thus the viewer is led to consider not only who Jesus seemed to be to others, but what kinds of doubts and problems he himself had in his life and mission. The shifting point of view asks viewers to identify with Jesus as a man, and to identify with his followers, some of whom saw him as a superstar and others who doubted him. The fact that Christ’s resurrection was excluded from the play leaves ambiguous the question which perspective to believe, thus the shifting point of view of the play contributes to the theme of doubt and faith.

Compare and Contrast

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Time of Christ: Jesus was a rabbi with a devout following, but he did not himself promote the idea of ‘‘Christianity.’’ This was a later development that arose out of the Resurrection experience and the Easter tradition that merged the legend of Jesus’s rising with an ancient, existing myth of rebirth and renewal of a holy leader. Jesus was not a cult figure, but a charismatic religious leader of the Jews. Christianity during his life was neither a religion nor even a concept, although some of its precepts were developing.

1970s: Christianity had flowered and was beginning to wilt by the time that Webber and Rice wrote their rock opera of Jesus. Although churches flourished in numbers, religious belief had eroded since the medieval period. Even so, some devout Christians were offended by Webber and Rice’s portrayal of Jesus as a man with human weaknesses, while others delighted in a refreshing look on a time-warn symbol. When the album was first released, churches all over the world incorporated its songs into their services, including some catholic churches, the Pope had just recently overruled the Church’s ban against playing music in services.

Today: Christianity continues to grow across the globe, in a resurgence of fundamentalism that exists side by side with widespread secularism, atheism, and skepticism.

Time of Christ: Women did not preach or hold any kind of office in the church, and did not attend services in the Jewish synagogue, because their presence was considered a potential distraction for male worshipers.

1970s: The women’s liberation movement sought greater equality for women in all walks of life, although actual change was slow in coming. Liberal Jewish synagogues allowed women to attend services, and a woman rabbi was ordained in 1935; however, orthodox synagogues were not as progressive.

Today: There are women preachers in many religions, although the Catholic church still does not allow them, and liberal and reformed synagogues have female rabbis and free seating for all worshipers. Some Orthodox synagogues have recently installed special one-way screens allowing women to hear the Torah being read and to observe other services, yet remain invisible to the male worshipers.

Time of Christ: Judaism was the religious faith of a group of persecuted people who held tightly to their customs and beliefs. It required following exacting rituals and extreme devotion.

1970s: Judaism had become more important to Jews as a sense of shared cultural and historical experiences than a shared system of beliefs. The religion had split into four main factions (orthodox, reformed, liberal, and conservative), and many Jews did not regularly attend services.

Today: Only about 20% of Jews attend regular synagogue services, and being Jewish still consists of one’s familial cultural heritage as much or more than one’s religious beliefs.

Media Adaptations

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A re-mastered version of the original cast recording is available from MCA Records, as is the original soundtrack from the film Jesus Christ Superstar, starring Ted Neely (Jesus), Yvonne Elliman (Mary), and Carl Anderson (Judas). A 20th anniversary production in London is also available on CD, through RCA Records. In 1994, a group of Atlanta-based rock musicians rerecorded the work as Jesus Christ Superstar: A Resurrection,, with Amy Ray singing the part of Jesus. The recording is available on Daemon Records. The BBC produced a 20th anniversary radio production around 1992, but has not released the recording. The original song lyrics and music score are widely available.


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Sources for Further Study

Baigent, Michael, Richard Leigh, and Henry Lincoln. Holy Blood, Holy Grail. New York: Dell, 1983. This well-researched book considers the possibility that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene and actually escaped with her to France.

Barnes, Clive. “Review of Jesus Christ Superstar.” The New York Times, October 13, 1971, p. 40. This, the original review of the stage production, attacks and rejects several aspects of the opera.

Coveny, Michael. The Andrew Lloyd Webber Story. New York: Arrow, 2003. A study of the work of Webber, including an excellent discussion of how he came to compose Jesus Christ Superstar.

Nassor, Ellis. Rock Opera: The Creation of “Jesus Christ Superstar” from Record Album to Broadway Show to Motion Picture. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1973. A full discussion of the creation and development of the rock opera, with consideration of the thematic issues.

Rice, Tim. Oh, What a Circus: The Autobiography. Philadelphia: Coronet Books, 1999. The autobiography of Tim Rice, with considerable attention to Jesus Christ Superstar.

Snelson, John. Andrew Lloyd Webber. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. An excellent overall study of the great composer with a strong discussion of Jesus Christ Superstar as an important innovative piece.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Duncan, David Douglas. "Jesus Christ Superstar" in Life, Vol. 70, no. 20, May 28, 1971, pp. 20B-26.

"Jesus Christ Superstar Anniversary Page" on http://, March 28, 1999.

Jewison, Norman, and Melvyn Bragg. Screenplay of Jesus Christ Superstar, based on the music and lyrics of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Universal Pictures, April 3, 1972.

Further Reading Anthem PD. "Jesus Christ Superstar" on http://, March 18, 1999. An Internet site promoting the 1998-1999 UK tour of the rock opera. It also includes background with audio clips of Rice and Webber describing the play’s genesis.

Daemon Records. "Jesus Christ Superstar: A Resurrection" on, March 18, 1999. An Internet site promoting the Daemon Records recording of the songs of Jesus Christ Superstar and the live Seattle production of 1996.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" on Superstar/1999, March 18, 1999. A promotional page for a theatre troupe production of Jesus Christ Superstar complete with play reviews and a summary of the twenty-five-year history of the rock opera.

McKnight, Gerald. Andrew Lloyd Webber, St. Martin’s Press, 1985. A biography of Webber’s rise to fame as a composer of hit musicals.

Nassour, Ellis, and Richard Broderick. Rock Opera: The Creation of Jesus Christ Superstar from Record Album to Broadway Show and Motion Picture, Hawthorn, 1973. A step-by-step description of the writing and publishing process of the play and film.

Walsh, Michael. Andrew Lloyd Webber: His Life and Works: A Critical Biography, Harry N. Abrams, 1989. An updated biography that describes the composer’s recent works as well as his early life and career.




Critical Essays