Jesus Christ Superstar

Jesus Christ Superstar

Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice (1970)

Some would argue this work was more of a theatrical performance than an album, and others would object to it being counted among influential “rock” recordings, but it proved to be an internationally successful crossover in both respects. Jesus Christ Superstar was the brainchild of musical composer Andrew Lloyd Weber and lyricist Tim Rice. The two were mild fans of more uptempo musical genres, and managed to miraculously (no pun intended) merge those styles with a musical theater format in this production, while pleasing fans of both.

It actually has a fair amount of rock cred: many of the songs are faithfully patterned after genres you wouldn’t expect to find in a musical, and they are rarely overdone or too bombastic. This subtlety and earthiness is doubly impressive considering the subject of the play; they manage to humanize Christ and his experiences while still hewing close to the source material of the Gospels. They never explicitly cater to the beliefs of one particular faith, allowing for some interesting “alternate” character interpretations. Another draw for rock fans is the casting of the larynx-shredding belter and Deep Purple frontman Ian Gillan as Jesus in one of the two main productions. Though it’s intended as an audiovisual experience, Superstar deserves recognition for its songs alone. They’re organized in the format of an opretta, and though Tommy had beaten Weber and Rice to the punch there, it was still a vital and fresh form, and the material and musical themes are presented in an interesting structure.

If it seems dry and antiquated at times, that’s because it established all the things we think of as “musical cliches” today. It’s bombastic, but has a sense of humor, and though the second half really drags until the finale, the first act is great fun. Along with George Harrison’s landmark masterpiece All Things Must Pass (which is waaaayyy better, but not as uniquely representative) it broke cultural boundaries and taboos between reverent religious music and mass media pop tunes.

Superstar managed to toe the line and remain ambiguous in regards to Christ’s divinity, making it a viable listen for agnostics and fundamentalists alike. In fact, it takes a remarkably low-key, cheeky and crowd-pleasing approach to the delicate subject matter, ultimately focusing on the very human emotions and motivations behind each nicely-realized character. Full disclosure: I’ve only had the tenacity to listen to one of the two famous productions, and I’m told the two have enough significant differences and change-ups to be treated as unique takes on the same libretto. I doubt I’d like the other one any more or less, though, and have no reservations about recommending this as a reasonably good musical work and important historical document. However, I will always have a special fondness for the two composers’ previous show, Joseph And the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. I grew up on its soundtrack, and find it to be more accessible, diverse and unabashedly fun/more lightweight (both understandable, given the topic). 

Key tracks: “Overture”, “Superstar”

See also: Joseph And the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – Andrew Lloyd Weber & Tim Rice (1969), All Things Must Pass – George Harrison (1970)

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