What does it sound like?:
Jesus Christ Superstar is The Passion as Rock Opera, outlining Jesus’s last five days of life up to the crucifixion. It was originally conceived as a concept album but soon became a Broadway Musical, then a Hollywood Movie. The 1970 album, featuring Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan as Jesus, Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene and Murray Head as Judas, backed by most of Joe Cocker’s Grease Band, sold millions, especially in America. The combination of a biblical tale told from an unusual perspective, the glamour of the theatre, rock styling and commercial pop smarts paid dividends. It was Lloyd-Webber’s and Rice’s first big hit. Joseph And The Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, written before it, soon followed suit and their reputations as the exciting young guns of Musical Theatre were secured. Strangely, Superstar barely warrants a mention in David Hepworth’s 1971, despite being a bone fide Rock concept album packed with tunes and enjoying greater success than Carole King’s Tapestry.
It’s a piece that has endured, despite the early seventies slang, and has enjoyed a number of reboots. The latest is a live screening on NBC over the Easter weekend, staged as a Rock concert, replete with leather costumes, tattoos, dramatic choreography and a spectacular light display, plus a glorious chorus in a mosh pit. This live album is the soundtrack of that show.
The beauty of Superstar is the depth and complexity of the human relationships between the three leads. The key role is Judas, whose character, motivations and conflicts are expanded from the sketchy details in the Gospel. He is displayed as someone the audience can sympathise with, whose political opinions and discussions with Jesus carry the weight of good sense. He is far more complicated than simply a traitor for money. It’s a role that demands a good voice and great acting skills. Brandon Victor Dixon is mighty, especially during his anguished Damned For All Time/Blood Money. Yvonne Elliman made her name as the besotted and utterly loyal Mary Magdalene but Sara Bareilles may be even better. I Don’t Know How To Love Him is a gorgeous love song with a melody adapted from Mendelssohn. Bareilles’s rendition has an ache in her soul that is irresistible. Jesus is usually played by a Rock star. Casting John Legend, a man with a sweet, delicate voice, emphasises Jesus’s humanity, irritable, vulnerable and afraid, rather than the super being of the title, He is at his best in an impassioned performance of Gethsemane (I Only Want To Say). His lack of power is more than made up by the range of his expression.
Superstar also gives people in lesser roles a chance to shine. Norm Lewis and Jin Ha bring a sonorous pomposity to the High Priests. Ben Daniels, as Pilate, dithers bewilderingly, while Jason Tam’s Peter is suitably weak and impotent. Alice Cooper creates a bizarre and charismatic Herod, despite, or because of, his croaking voice and Erik Grönwall is a very persuasive Simon Zealotes Rock Rebel.
The real revelation on this recording, however, is the mosh pit chorus. It adds another dimension from the adulation of Palm Sunday, through the jaw-dropping betrayal and the baying for blood to the horror of the crucifixion itself and the hushed, respectful burial. It’s almost an additional key character, adding excitement, tension and a commentary to the drama as it unfolds, immersing the audience with it.
Pete Townshend wrote that the main goal of pop music is to reach a wide audience. Superstar was a step-change from Hair, the musical, and Tommy, the rock opera album, almost inventing a new, wider audience to reach. It did so with a bold, direct, challenging piece of great artistic merit, flexible enough to work across multiple media. There is barely a weak moment in the original studio album or this live version. How many double albums can you honestly say that about?
Jesus Christ Superstar is the greatest story ever told, told exceedingly well. Even without dynamic visuals, this live album is a refreshing reboot worthy of any Rock fan’s attention.
What does it all *mean*?
Jesus Christ Superstar deserves a more exalted and venerated place in Rock’s great pantheon.
Goes well with…
An open mind.
Superstar was banned in some countries for being sacrilegious, being seen as too sympathetic to Judas and too critical of Christ. Some Rock Snobs also deny its authenticity.
Might suit people who like…
America. One year after The Beatles split up, America took Jesus as Rock Star to its heart. Much later, it enjoyed the longest West End run of its time but it’s telling that this TV Special was screened in the US.