Chapter 4: Jesus Christ, S.R.O.
(Standing Room Only)

Just as a choir was responsible for bringing Jesus music to America's hit charts, a schoolboys' choir was indirectly responsible for what turned into one of the high points in Jesus music's history.

   In London, Alan Doggett, head of the music department of Colet Court School, needed a musical piece for his schoolboy choir to sing at their end-of-term concert. Doggett appointed two young British men to compose the appropriate piece.

   The result was a fifteen-minute ''operetta'' entitled Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, first performed March 1, 1968, at the school by the schoolboy choir. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat was just what the title implied: a contemporary musical story of Joseph. By incorporating the varying styles of rock and roll, the Joseph story took on new life, and the presentation was a success.

   The musical was performed again during the several months following its debut, and by late 1968 it had been lengthened to thirty minutes and recorded. The initial album of Joseph was released in England in January, 1969 and, in the words of Joseph's composers, it ''received several good reviews but did not set the commercial pop world alight.'' Copies of the libretto started finding their way into churches and schools in America, but not much more attention was given to it.

   By mid-1969, the composers of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, decided to ''have a go at writing something else'' since they had been fairly successful with Joseph.

   Both Webber and Rice had been raised in the Anglican church, but neither found themselves believing in the deity of Jesus Christ. Rice was to later express to Time magazine, ''It happens that we don't

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see Christ as God, but as simply the right man at the right time in the right place.'' This perspective is most likely what prompted Webber and Rice in 1969 to begin their second work together, one which would view Christ through the eyes of Judas Iscariot, perceiving Christ as a man rather than the Son of God.

   The two composers started full steam in that direction. To drum up backing for the musical's completion, the duo composed Judas' theme song, which was also the theme of the opera-to-be: Jesus Christ Superstar.

Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ

Who are you? What have you sacrificed?

Jesus Christ Superstar

Do you think you're what they say you are?*

   The production of the single record ''Superstar'' was accomplished in September 1969, only two months or so after the song had been written; Murray Head was the singer chosen to record it. Released in late 1969, the recording only reached #74 during the seven weeks it was on the American charts.

   ''Superstar'' broke no popularity records at first outing. Its brazen questioning of Christ was too radical for many people. On the surface the record didn't appear to stir much interest in the American public. But John K. Maitland, the newly appointed head of Decca Records, was impressed by the preliminary work of the full opera he had heard and gave the monumental musical a full go-ahead.

   And monumental it was. The project called for eighteen months of work, four hundred hours of studio time, a cast of eleven lead singers, two choirs, six major rock musicians selected from the finest British groups, and a Moog synthesizer. As if that wasn't enough, also employed were the strings of the City of London and an eighty-five-piece orchestra directed by none other than Alan Doggett, who had first commissioned Webber and Rice to write Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. The man chosen to portray Jesus was Ian Gillan, star of the popular rock group Deep Purple.

   Jesus Christ Superstar was tagged a ''rock opera,'' a term which had been first used in billing a highly successful work, Tommy, only


*Jesus Christ Superstar. Words and music by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. © 1969 by Leeds Music Ltd., London, England. Sole selling agent Leeds Music Corporation. New York, New York for North, South and Central America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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a few months earlier. The Superstar material was written between October 1969 and March 1970, when the recording of the work began. By July the sessions were completed and the historical release date was October 27, 1970.

   The eighty-seven-minute, two-record rock opera immediately drew publicity from all corners. The New Yorker quoted a ''major religious leader,'' Pastor Ralph E. Peterson, as saying ''I liked it. It reached me. But the composers are hung up on old-fashioned piety.'' The writer quoting the pastor said, ''Theology-wise, updated, reworked, some nice points, wanders from the book.''

   Time stated: ''What Rice and Webber have created is a modern-day passion play that may enrage the devout but ought to intrigue and perhaps inspire the agnostic young.'' Newsweek called the rock opera ''Nothing short of brilliantand reverent. . .'' ''A rock opera about the Passion of Christ is a double-barreled provocation. It trespasses on a sublime musical terrain and threatens to profane Western civilization's most sacred religious belief.''

   From the Christian press came views confirming the prophecies of Time and Newsweek. Cheryl A. Forbes, in Christianity Today, observed that ''the wordless finale . . . leaves Christ in the grave. No faith and no victory emerge from this weary music, but the relentless quest remains, haunting and hollow.'' But Forbes also conceded, ''Superstar tells what young people are saying.''

   The Jesus Christ Superstar album was sure to be controversial. The shock of hearing a song about Jesus, much more one questioning Jesus, was traumatic for many Christians. For others, the recording was a breakthrough—the first time the person of Jesus Christ was put in a ''believable'' light. Said one observer:

A common reaction to Superstar is: It was the first time I ever thought of Jesus as a real person. The Phantom-like portrayals of an other worldly Christ on decades of funeral home calendars and Sunday School walls apparently makes the focus on Jesus as a real person a remarkable revelation to this generation.

   For some young people, Superstar was a crack in the dike of staunch antipopular-music feeling within the established church. Not long after the debut of the album, Superstar songs were being used in church services all over the country. One theater group, The American Rock Opera Company, managed to perform twenty-two unauthorized performances around the nation before the copyright holders put a halt to the ''bootlegging.''

   By early 1971 talk was beginning about a Broadway presentation

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of the successful rock opera. Successful, in this case, would be an understatement. According to Business Week, ''in eight weeks, a touring troupe of about 25 singers and 30 musicians took in more than $2,000,000 in box-office receipts,'' while by October of 1971 the album had sold 3.5 million copies, for a total gross of $40,000,000. As a Tom Paxton song said, ''Jesus, You're S.R.O. on Broadway.''

   The machines of big business had never before seen so much profit off the Man from Galilee. Time described it as ''the Gold Rush to Golgotha.'' The title of the rock opera turned out to be prophetic, too. Newsweek said that

the opera makes it natural to see Jesus as a superstar, the new Messiah, who's at ''the top of the poll,'' with Mary Magdalene as chief groupie, Judas as conniving manager, the Apostles his turned-on band, the priests the blind guardians of rigid law and order, Pilate a kind of smooth university president, and Herod, governor of the state.

   Opening night at the Mark Hellinger Theater was the epitome of superstardom for Webber and Rice's Jesus, with advance sales at $1.2 million, one of the largest in Broadway history. People from all sorts of backgrounds attended the theater to see this man called Jesus to which the marquee in the east had led them. The majority of the public attending loved the show, and the critics generally hated it. The production of Tom O'Horgan (who had also staged the first American rock musical, Hair), had turned a fairly acceptable rock opera into a series of ''bizzare effects and for-the-shock-of-it images.'' Time stated, ''O' Horgan's aim is mainly to shock the sensibilities; often alas, that is all he manages to do.''

   And then there were the protestorsplacard-carrying pickets marching outside the theater, rebelling at the Superstar hat being placed on their King of kings. The American Jewish Committee issued a seven-page study condemning the anti-Semitic feeling of the play.

   Billy Graham wrote in his 1971 book, The Jesus Generation:

I don't particularly like the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar because it treats Christ irreverently and perhaps sacrilegiously. But its fatal flaw is that it doesn't go far enough—it leaves Christ in the grave. And without the Resurrection there is no Christianity, no forgiveness, no faith, no hope nothing but a hoax.

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   However, a rock music publication later quoted Graham as softening his stand against Superstar:

It doesn't mean that they accept Him, but they are taking a new look, because the young can identify with Him. He taught love, peace and forgiveness. He had a beard and long hair. He is seen as a revolutionary in whom they can believe and with whom they can share an experience.

   Another writer responded to Superstar with this observation:

Pastors who are looking for the record Jesus Christ Superstar to make more Christians are going to be greatly disillusioned. A warning is also in order for those who seek after the novel. But, for a look into the souls of men who have confronted the person of Jesus and have not known what to do with Him, Jesus Christ Superstar will provide a window. One student remarked that it was too bad that a Christian had not written the contemporary religious sensation. That's right, it is too bad, but then we would not know how the unbeliever feels. Of course, don't get offended by the confusion of the disciples, the scheming of Judas, the political maneuvering of the priests, etc. This is just the way we all would have acted, if God had placed us in that history instead of the present. I get the impression that the composers would have preferred that Jesus would have never existed. They can't and don't want to believe in Him, but they can't get rid of Him.

   Jesus Christ Superstar had its pros and cons, but one thing was for sure: the rock opera, the play, and the movie (which was released in the summer of 1973) opened several avenues for Jesus music. In the first place, it came into popularity at the same time the Jesus movement was reaching its fullest strength. Whether Superstar helped the Jesus movement receive more news coverage, or the national awareness of the Jesus movement helped draw more crowds to Superstar is still open to conjecture. Most likely, each helped the other.

   Another avenue opened by Jesus Christ Superstar was the financial backing behind it. It would have been a hard task indeed for any Christian body or corporation to utilize the publicity and finances in getting a show off the ground with the same strength and

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success as MCA managed in promoting Superstar. Even though the play nullified the divinity of Christ, it did, as Billy Graham had stated, draw many people to the point of considering Jesus for the first time.

    Thirdly, Jesus Christ Superstar encouraged struggling contemporary Christian musicians to work harder than ever at producing quality, up-to-date Jesus music. These musicians saw that the public did respond to music about Jesus much more than they would have imagined, and who was to say it couldn't happen again, this time from the Christian camp?

   Perhaps the hardest pill to swallow for Jesus musicians was the fact that someone in the secular world took the honors for creating mass awareness of Jesus, limited though the perspective was. Encouragement and a challenge, however, came from Cheryl A. Forbes in Christianity Today right after the Superstar album was first released. ''Perhaps,'' she wrote, ''some Christian composer will take the cue and produce a rock opera about Christ that ends not with hallow questions but with triumphant answers.''

Chapter Five  ||  Table of Contents