Jesus Christ Superstar
Jesus Christ Superstar

Jesus Christ Superstar Controversy: 50 Years of Challenging the Status Quo in Musical Theatre

A small, private Lutheran institution in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, staged an unauthorized performance of the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice on March 25, 1971.

A physics major served as music director for the stripped-down oratorio-style production, which was student-run and featured faculty members dressed in doctoral robes as high priests.

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

After several weeks of practice, the company learned that a court order forbade amateur companies from producing the play due to copyright issues.

Undeterred, the group chose to call the show a dress rehearsal and forgo printing any advertisements to stay out of trouble.

Over 1,200 people attended the event despite the lack of written advertising; some sat on windowsills or waited outdoors to hear the electric organ and drums.

Jesus Christ Superstar Controversy

“It was explosively glorious,” said Recla. “People could not sit still; they were up yelling and screaming. The applause after each of the shows lasted 10-15 minutes.”

A few months later, on October 12, 1971, a flashy, extravagant Broadway production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” debuted.

Although the reviews weren’t great (some called it cheeky, and Webber himself considered it filthy), the concert was already a hit thanks to a $1,000,000 advance sale and the support of religious demonstrators. The program marks its 50th anniversary this month.

The 1970 concept album was prohibited from BBC radio because it was sacrilegious. One investor termed Rice and Webber’s proposal for a rock opera passion play the “worst idea in history.” The album had a different outcome in the United States, where it became the year’s best-selling album.

“For many people, it was the visceral excitement of the music,” said Devin McKinney, archivist at Gettysburg College and author of “Jesusmania!:

The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College.” “It got your body moving and mind thinking and connected it with this religious impulse many kids felt or wanted to feel.”

The original CD used rock-infused Broadway songs like “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Superstar” to tell the story of the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion from the viewpoint of the betraying disciple Judas.

Before the Broadway staging, the popular album inspired numerous amateur versions of the musical.

The album’s release coincided with the emergence of Christian rock in the United States; in 1970, Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” topped the charts, and the Jesus People’s Movement was fusing evangelicalism with the electric sounds of the 1960s counterculture.

“Jesus Christ Superstar” hit the sweet spot: “This was literally the first time a thoroughly Christian message was coming through rock-and-roll music, the dominant cultural medium for young people at the time,” said McKinney.

The Broadway show didn’t enjoy the same initial success as the record. Reviewers derided the garish production, and Christians scoffed at the show’s portrayal of Jesus and Mary Magdalene’s relationship, its use of Judas as the narrator, and its omission of the resurrection.

Bob Graham stated that the production “bordered on blasphemy,” while Ted Neeley, who played Jesus on Broadway in the first production, stated in a 2021 interview that “every single performance was protested by people calling it sacrilegious.” They would make an effort to stop us from entering the stage door.

Some Christians find it difficult to swallow the show’s scriptural errors even now.

“I mainly love it, but I love it despite myself,” said Mark Goodacre, professor of religious studies at Duke University. “As a New Testament scholar, I have many problems with it.

But I so love the music. And I also think that many of Tim Rice’s rather cheesy lyrics occasionally hit that moment of genius.”

One issue is Rice and Webber’s portrayal of a human Christ who is overpowered by his devotees, worn out from his mission, and unsure about the purpose of the crucifixion.

“Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die, You’re far too keen on where and how, but not so hot on why,” he sings in “Gethsemane.”

Jesus’ friendship with Mary Magdalene provides additional insight into his human nature. According to a 1971 New York Times review, the two “fondle and kiss each other” in the original Broadway play.

Although more nuanced approaches in later versions, Mary Magdalene’s character is still primarily limited to her conflict with her desires for Jesus.

“It’s one of the most disappointing things about the show in many ways, that it simply buys into the once-popular cliché but complete fallacy that Mary Magdalene is a sex worker,” said Goodacre,

who noted how Rice and Webber conflated Mary Magdalene with other biblical figures such as Mary of Bethany, the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet in Luke 7, and the woman caught in adultery in John 8.

Additionally, Rice and Weber took a risk by having the crucifixion as the show’s finale. Still, according to Goodacre, directors must choose how to present Jesus during the curtain call;

if he does so in “beautiful arrayments” rather than the clothes he wore during the crucifixion, it may resemble “a type of resurrection.”

Jewish organizations opposed the show’s portrayal of Jewish high priests, who in the original production were clothed as gargoyles, while Christians protested the show’s lack of a god.

“It’s just a few years earlier that the Vatican council finally said explicitly that Jews are not collectively responsible for the death of Jesus,” said Henry Bial, chair of the theatre and dance department at the University of Kansas. “

You can understand why people might feel uneasy with the big-profile incident where the high priests of Israel plot against Jesus and come off as rather craven.

Both Rice and Webber, who were reared Anglican, claimed in interviews that they never intended to argue a particular point of doctrine regarding Judaism or Christianity. They had intended to create an engaging spectacle.

“People have read so much more into this than we ever intended,” said Rice in a 1971 New York Times interview. “

We were simply 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 focuses more on posing questions than providing answers. Who are you?” What have you given up?

“Who are you? What have you sacrificed?” Judas asks in the song “Superstar.” “Do you think you’re what they say you are?”

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It’s difficult to overstate the show’s influence, even fifty years later. It has been revived for arena tours, movies, international stage productions, and most recently, the 2018 Live NBC performance starring John Legend and Sarah Bareilles.

The music itself may be the most incredible enduring legacy of the program. It has given us many incredibly unforgettable songs, according to Goodacre.

I frequently find myself humming songs from “Jesus Christ Superstar” as I read about the New Testament’s suffering.

According to Goodacre, the song sparked a movement that exposed the Christian narrative to a generation that otherwise would not have been revealed.

It isn’t confessional. It purposefully isn’t reverent and isn’t offering you a Christian interpretation of the narrative. He said that, in my opinion, makes it very appealing to a broader audience. They don’t feel the gospel is being forced down their throats.

Although there have been many attempts to stage the Bible, according to Bial, “it is far and away the most commercially successful adaptation of the Bible that we can find truly in theatre history.”

The production also contributed to the development of the rock musical genre. According to Bial, the exhibition also sparked technical products such as mic modifications that enabled singers to be heard over electric instruments and the shrinking of rock concert gear for the theater.

Bial said the show helped pioneer the rock music genre and that, while it comes in a long line of attempts to stage the Bible,

“it is far and away the most commercially successful adaptation of the Bible that we can find in theatre history.”

In Bial’s opinion, these strategies generated enough momentum to make “Superstar” one of the first mega-musicals; “it virtually became a brand in and of itself,” he claimed.

The show itself was the biggest miracle for Recla. Being a part of the program “demonstrated what can happen when people of various backgrounds are united in a common purpose,” according to Recla.

It implied that I would continue to believe in miracles for the rest of my life.

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About Rose Martin 764 Articles
I'm Rose Martin, and allow me to take you on a journey through my life as a content writer. With many years of experience in the field, I've had the privilege of shaping narratives and engaging audiences with the written word. My journey into the world of content writing was not a straightforward one. I didn't always know that I wanted to be a writer, but my passion for storytelling and a deep love for words led me down this fulfilling path. As a child, I was an avid reader, always immersed in the pages of books, eagerly exploring different worlds and perspectives.

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