The controversial musical phenomenon turns 50

(RNS) – On March 25, 1971, in Gettysburg, Pa., A small private Lutheran college staged an illegal performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar. “ The stripped-down oratorio-style show was a wholly student-run endeavor featuring a physics major as musical director and faculty members wearing doctoral robes playing high priests.

“I can’t read music and I’m not a musician,” said Larry Recla, the seminar intern who produced and directed the production at Gettysburg College. “This thing exploded and took a life of its own.”

A few weeks after rehearsals began, the company received a court order barring amateur companies from performing the show on copyright grounds. Undeterred, the group decided not to print any commercials and call the show a dress rehearsal in order to avoid a lawsuit. Despite the lack of print advertising, the show drew over 1,200 spectators, some of whom sat on the windowsills or stood outside to listen to the sound of drums and the electric organ.

“It was explosively glorious,” Recla said. “People couldn’t sit still; they were screaming and screaming. The applause after each of the shows lasted 10 to 15 minutes.

Months later, on October 12, 1971, a lavish and exaggerated performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” debuted on Broadway. Critics weren’t thrilled – some called it’s brash, and Webber himself called it’s vulgar – but thanks to an early sale of $ 1,000,000 and attention from religious protesters, the show was already a phenomenon. This month, the show celebrates its 50e birthday.

Initially, Rice and Webber’s idea for a rock opera passion game didn’t take off – an investor called it’s the “worst idea in history” and the 1970 concept album was banned by BBC radio for being sacrilegious. The album had a different fate in the United States, where it became the best-selling record of 1971.

“For a lot of people, it was the visceral excitement of music,” said Devin McKinney, archivist at Gettysburg College and author of “Jesusmania !: The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College”. “It moved your body and your mind and connected it to that religious impulse that many children have felt or wanted to feel.”

The original album, with numbers like “I Don’t Know How To Love It” and “Superstar,” used rock-infused Broadway tunes to tell the story of the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, all told from the point of view. view of the disciple betraying Judas. The hit album inspired a multitude of amateur performances from the show that preceded the Broadway production.

FILE – In this October 8, 1972 file photo, producer-director Norman Jewison, left, shows how he wants an actor to wash Jesus’ feet, played by Ted Neeley, while filming the film version of the rock musical, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” in Bethlehem, Israel. (AP photo, file)

The album came just as Christian rock was starting to emerge in the United States – Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” topped the charts in 1970, and the Jesus People’s Movement mixed the electric sounds of counter- culture of the 1960s with evangelism. “Jesus Christ Superstar” has hit the right spot: “It was literally the first time that a deeply Christian message had passed through rock and roll music, the dominant cultural medium for young people at the time,” McKinney said.

The Broadway production was not as immediate a success as the album. Critics hated the garish production, and Christians bristled at the portrayal of the romance between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, his choice of Judas as the narrator, and his lack of resurrection. Billy graham noted the show “bordering on blasphemy” and in an interview in 2021, Ted Neeley, the original stunt double for the role of Jesus on Broadway, said:Each performance was protested by people calling it sacrilege. They would try to prevent us from entering through the stage door.

Even today, the show’s biblical blunders have proven too important for some Christians to digest.

RELATED: An Actress Playing Judas? Some theaters say yes

“I love him mostly, but I love him in spite of myself,” said Mark Goodacre, professor of religious studies at Duke University. “As a New Testament scholar, I have all kinds of problems with this. But I love music so much. And I also think a lot of Tim Rice’s rather cheesy lyrics sometimes reach that moment of genius. “

A sticking point is Rice and Webber’s portrayal of a human Christ who is overwhelmed by his followers, exhausted from his ministry, and not knowing what the crucifixion is for. “Show me there’s a reason you want me to die.

The human nature of Jesus is further explored in his relationship with Mary Magdalene. In the original Broadway production, the two “fondle and kiss”, according to a 1971 New York Times. review. Subsequent interpretations took a more subtle approach, but the character of Mary Magdalene is largely reduced to her struggle with romantic feelings for Jesus.

“It’s one of the most disappointing things about the show in many ways, that it just adheres to the once popular cliché but the complete mistake that Mary Magdalene is a sex worker,” Goodacre said, who noted the ways Rice and Webber confused Mary Magdalene. with other biblical figures such as Mary of Bethany, the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus in Luke 7, and the woman caught in adultery in John 8.

In 1971, Gettysburg College set up an illegal production of "Jesus Christ Superstar.

In 1971, Gettysburg College mounted an illegal production of “Jesus Christ Superstar”. Although they called it a “dress rehearsal” and did not print any commercials, over 1,200 people attended the show. Courtesy of Special Collections / Musselman Library, Gettysburg College

Rice and Weber also made the bold move of ending the show with the crucifixion. Yet, said Goodacre, directors must decide how to portray Jesus during the recall – if he returns in “glorious adornments” rather than crucifixion garments, the result may be “some sort of resurrection.”

As Christians protested the show’s ungodliness, Jewish groups criticized the portrayal of Jewish high priests in the show, who, in the original production, were dressed as gargoyles. “It was only a few years earlier that the Vatican Council finally explicitly declared that the Jews are not collectively responsible for the death of Jesus,” said Henry Bial, chairman of the theater and dance department at the University of Kansas. “To have this much publicized moment where the high priests of Israel are conspiring against Jesus, and they’re getting pretty cowardly, you can see why people would be uncomfortable about it.”

In interviews, Rice and Webber – both raised in Anglican – have said they never attempt to make a theological remark about Judaism or Christianity. Their goal was to create a captivating spectacle.

“People read so much more than we ever expected,” Rice said in a New York Times interview in 1971. “We were just trying to express our feelings about Christ at the time, trying to tell his story and make suggestions for the gaps. We weren’t trying to comment. Who are we to comment? “

Ultimately, the show is more about asking questions than answering them. “Who are you? What have you sacrificed? Asks Judas in the song“ Superstar. ”“ Do you think you are what they say you are? ”

RELATED: Christians, Jews, and the Dubious History of the Passion Play

Fifty years later, the impact of the series is hard to overstate. He has been resurrected for arena tours, films, theatrical productions around the world and most recently the 2018 NBC Live production starring John Legend and Sarah Bareilles.

Perhaps the most enduring legacy of the series is the music itself. “It gave us a whole bunch of extremely memorable songs,” Goodacre said. “When I read the New Testament Passion, I often end up humming ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ tunes.”

Goodacre said the music created a movement that opened Christian history to a generation that would not have otherwise come close. “It’s explicitly non-denominational. It doesn’t give you a Christian view of history, it’s deliberately not reverent. I think that makes it very acceptable to a wider audience, ”he said. “They don’t feel like they’ve got the gospel shoved down their throats.

In 1971, Gettysburg College set up an illegal production of "Jesus Christ Superstar.

In 1971, Gettysburg College mounted an illegal production of “Jesus Christ Superstar”. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Broadway show’s debut. For Gettysburg College’s first show, people crowded into the building in every way they could, sitting, standing in the back, or sitting on window sills. Courtesy of Special Collections / Musselman Library, Gettysburg College

Bial said the show helped kickstart the rock music genre and that, although it is a long series of attempts at staging the Bible, “it is by far the adaptation of the Most commercially successful Bible that one can truly find in theater history. “According to Bial, the show also led to technical advancements, including the miniaturization of rock concert equipment for the theater and adaptations at the microphone which allowed the singers to be heard on electric instruments.

“It proved that you can make a lot of money on a show that critics don’t particularly like,” added Bial, who said “Superstar” was one of the first shows to use word of mouth and early sales to promote the show before it opened. According to Bial, these tactics created enough momentum to launch “Superstar” as one of the first mega musicals – “it almost became a brand in itself,” he said.

Surprisingly, Recla, the seminarian who directed the pirate version of “Superstar” at Gettysburg College, is not a fan of the musical. “I haven’t seen any of the other productions, because it’s not the same,” he said. Instead, he is passionate about the event that took place 50 years ago in Gettysburg. This iteration, which predated the Broadway production by seven months, used a whole different approach, said Recla, who prioritized music over pageantry and staged a resurrection at the end of the show.

For Recla, the biggest miracle involved was the show itself. “Being on the show demonstrated what can happen when people of various differences agree to a mission,” Recla said. “It meant that I would believe in miracles for the rest of my life.”

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