In the 1970s, an opera about Jesus of Nazareth helped blaze the trail between rock ‘n roll and musical theater. Though Jesus Christ Superstar's radical songs divided religious groups, they conquered the Billboard charts. The show also ushered in Broadway’s “British invasion” of the 1970s and 1980s, setting the stage for such mega-hits as Cats and Les Miserables. In 2018, a live version starring John Legend as Jesus and Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene aired on NBC. Here’s everything you need to know about the show.
1. IT BEGAN AS A CONCEPT ALBUM BECAUSE NO PRODUCER WANTED TO PUT IT ON STAGE.
Lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who met in 1965 when they were 20 and 17, respectively, enjoyed their first taste of shared success with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 1968. Next, the duo focused on another Biblical figure: Jesus of Nazareth. The pair envisioned a daring new rock musical that would retell—from Judas’s perspective—the story of Christ’s betrayal and execution. But Lloyd Webber and Rice couldn’t find anyone who was willing to produce the project as a stage show—Lloyd Webber recalled that they were told it was "the worst idea in history." So they transformed it into an 87-minute, two-disc concept album instead; it was released in 1970.
The apparent setback may have been a blessing in disguise. Both men have argued that, by writing Superstar as an album at the onset, they were able to streamline the score more effectively than they otherwise could have. “Doing it on record,” Rice said, “made it shorter, cut out the book, made it more contemporary, made it more rock, gave it more energy, and identified it more with a younger audience. All those things the record gave us. We didn’t really appreciate that at the time because, largely thanks to Andrew, we were trying to write for the theatre, not for records. But doing it that way around worked so well, because in addition to making the work itself better, it promoted the work so well, so when it finally hit the stage, everybody knew the entire score.” The show made its Broadway debut in 1971.
2. A BOB DYLAN LYRIC INSPIRED THE MUSICAL’S DEPICTION OF JUDAS.
That lyric was “Did Judas Iscariot have God at his side?” from the 1964 song “With God on Our Side.” Lloyd Webber later said the line was "Tim's starting point for the text ... clearly Iscariot was not an unintelligent man, and how much was the whole thing in the end an accident of what was necessary given the politics of the day?”
Rice has described the Bible’s characterization of Iscariot as a “cardboard cut-out figure of evil,” and he set out to humanize Judas in Superstar.
3. ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER WROTE PART OF THE TITULAR SONG ON A NAPKIN.
In a 2015 interview, the composer said he couldn't recall exactly when the now-iconic melody first came to him: “What I do remember though, is that I forgot it.” Then, one day in 1969, he was walking down London’s Fulham Road when the tune popped back into his head. "I was passing a restaurant ... called Carlo's Place, and I knew the owner a little bit ... I went into the restaurant and said 'Can you give me a piece of paper?'" He recalled. "I was so frightened I'd lose it." But instead of getting a piece of paper, Lloyd Webber was handed a napkin—and he quickly jotted down the main theme of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” arguably the show’s most recognizable anthem, on it.
4. THE MELODY OF “I DON’T KNOW HOW TO LOVE HIM” WAS TAKEN FROM AN UNRELATED SONG CALLED “KANSAS MORNING.”
“Kansas Morning,” an ode to the Sunflower State, was co-written by Rice and Lloyd Webber and published in 1967. ("I love the Kansas morning," the song went. "Kansas mist at my window.") Later, while composing Superstar, the musicians refitted their old ballad with new lyrics, and Mary’s Act I solo was born.
Webber has admitted that the melody does sound like a theme from Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor (1845). "Probably because of my family background," the composer said. "I just absorbed that."
5. YVONNE ELLIMAN WAS CAST AS THE ORIGINAL MARY MAGDALENE AFTER LLOYD WEBBER HEARD HER SINGING AT A NIGHTCLUB.
While rounding up vocalists for the concept album, Lloyd Webber visited the historic Pheasantry Club in Chelsea to see if a jazz singer performing there would be a good fit for Pontius Pilate. “I decided he was quite wrong for the part,” Lloyd Webber told The Daily Mail in 2012, “but his warm-up act—a gorgeous 17-year-old Hawaiian girl called Yvonne Elliman accompanying herself on the guitar—was extraordinary. Everything I had wanted for Mary Magdalene was there in front of me.” He called Rice, who “agreed that we had found our Mary.” Elliman would become the album’s only singer to reprise her role on Broadway, with the 1971 arena tour of the show, and in Jesus Christ Superstar’s 1973 film adaptation.
6. LLOYD WEBBER HATED THE ORIGINAL BROADWAY PRODUCTION.
The original, two-disc concept Superstar album was released in September 1970, and by February 1971, it hit number one on the Billboard charts. Soon, American fans began staging unauthorized live performances in churches and theaters around the country—so producer Robert Stigwood proposed putting on an official Jesus Christ Superstar concert tour. The first performance took place at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena on July 12, 1971.
The next logical step was to take the show to Broadway, and Superstar opened there in October. The production, directed by Tom O’Horgan, was panned by many critics—including The New York Times’s Clive Barnes, who wrote, “I must ... confess to experiencing some disappointment … 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.”
Lloyd Webber himself absolutely despised it. “Never in my opinion was so wrong a production mounted of my work,” he later said, calling the show a “brash and vulgar interpretation.”
Still, despite his misgivings, Superstar ran for more than 700 shows and got nominated for five Tony Awards (though it failed to win any).
7. IT OFFENDED RELIGIOUS GROUPS.
"In terms of controversy ... Jesus Christ Superstar is Christina Aguilera flubbing the national anthem before the Super Bowl," entertainment journalist Tim Cain once wrote. "Controversy ... swirled around it when it was released."
The show was protested by the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. American evangelist Billy Graham also wasn't a fan: He accused the musical of bordering “on blasphemy and sacrilege" and said he objected “to the fact that it leaves out the Resurrection. If there is no Resurrection, there is no Christianity.” (Though he did acknowledge that "if the production ... causes young people to search their Bibles, to that extent it may be beneficial.") Elsewhere, South Africa’s Publications Control Board temporarily banned Superstar in that country, lest it “offend the religious convictions or feelings of certain sections of the population.” The show also managed to irritate the British National Secular Society, which picketed Superstar’s opening night on the West End.
But a few organizations did rise to its defense. For example, in 1971, the Vatican’s radio station aired the concept album in its entirety, along with some remarks from Lloyd Webber, Rice, and various religious figures. “Nothing like this has ever been broadcast on [Vatican Radio] until now,” announced one papal spokesman, “but we feel that this is a work of considerable importance.”
8. POPE PAUL VI WAS TREATED TO A PRIVATE, ADVANCE SCREENING OF THE 1973 MOVIE VERSION.
Jesus Christ Superstar has twice been adapted to film: The first movie came out in 1973, and a straight-to-video remake was released in 2000. The former was directed by Academy Award nominee Norman Jewison (who also directed 1987's Moonstruck). He arranged a special screening for Pope Paul VI, who gave the flick a nice review: According to Ted Neeley, who played Jesus in the picture, the pope said, “Mr. Jewison, not only do I appreciate your beautiful rock opera film, I believe it will bring more people around the world to Christianity, than anything ever has before.'”
9. IT PROMPTED RICHARD O’BRIEN TO START WRITING THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW.
Following a stint with Hair’s touring cast, Richard O’Brien joined the London production of Superstar in 1972. “I was contracted to play in the chorus for three months and then take over the role of Herod,” he told Pink News. But O’Brien's Herod was a vain Elvis impersonator, and the powers that be were not impressed. “When push came to shove they decided they didn’t want me as Herod. They gave me three hundred quid and let me go,” O’Brien said. “I went home and started writing Rocky on my guitar. I was pissed off because they had the nerve to call Superstar a rock opera. There are some nice songs in there, but rock and roll it isn’t. Writing Rocky was a pleasure because my love of real rock and roll drove the songs.”
10. ONE PRODUCTION’S SEARCH FOR A LEADING MAN TURNED INTO A REALITY TV SHOW.
In 2012, Britain’s ITV launched Superstar, a televised contest in the vein of The Voice. At the time, a new Jesus Christ Superstar concert tour was being organized in the UK, and the series—produced by Lloyd Webber—allowed dozens of contestants to vie for the role of Jesus. In the end, Sunderland native Ben Forester was the winner; he appeared in the tour alongside former Spice Girl Mel C (who also served as a judge on the show).