From my sister’s Blog, “Liberus Lunaris”:
“My family agrees on two things: we all like Jesus Christ Superstar and we all like John Lennon. Two of my favorite all family outings were when we attended a local production of JCSS and when we went to the Rock n roll Hall of Fame and saw the Lennon Exhibit.
It was after the former when I realized how much the average person doesn’t know about musical theater when my brother, usually rather hip about artistic things, expressed surprise that the character of Herod would be interpreted as a Drag Queen. It’s a traditional theatrical convention almost as sacred as Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest being played by a man…”
My family actually have agreed on many things in their history. One of them being my sister’s penchant for revisionist history. Well, I don’t think she will ever cop to it. But then – I really don’t think my Father liked Jesus Christ Superstar or John Lennon all that much either. And he never went with us to the local JCS performance. But her blog subtitle says “It’s not a lie – it’s a gift for fiction” and really – that’s how we all see it too. Lots of the facts are correct but sometimes she changes a detail here or there that others may have done or said. That’s the broadest, most diplomatic way I can paint it. We all (my family) have memories that exemplify God’s British style sense of humor.
I’ve been to three local performances of JCS. One in Indiana, PA in 1987. One in 1992 when Ted Neely and Carl Anderson revived it. And I know I went to at least one of them with my family. I am 90% certain that the one she is referring to was the 1994 ‘official traveling Broadway’ version which was memorable for two reasons:
1) Dennis DeYoung played Pontius Pilate
2) They abandoned the hydraulic crucifixion stage.
Now, there are things you need to know about me and JCS. I LOVE Jesus Christ Superstar. I mean – forget Madonna, Stevie Nicks and 60’s Brit Girl Go-Go-Boots Pop – my most secret musical pleasure is listening to JCS. The original 1970 British album recording. The BROWN double album with the gold graphic logo. Not the photo-cover movie soundtrack. And NOT the American Broadway cast version. I listened to this album SO much – I can tell the difference in any of the recordings within the first 4 seconds of the ominous Overture’s drone cellos. I know all the words to all of the songs. I secretly rehearsed the Judas role when I was younger in hopes that our school would put it on and I would get the part. I can do it right now for you if you like.
I really, really like this album.
You can take all the general bad will, disdain and derision I harbor for live theater as a whole and musical theater as a subgroup and it wouldn’t equal up to the love I have for JCS. And as it turns out – there are understandable reasons for this.
First – The original British recording (Brown album) with Ian Gillian (Deep Purple) and Murray Head is the absolute only one worth listening to. The weird thing about JCS is that it was not a musical first. It was released as a studio ‘rock opera’ album first. Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice, both nineteen at the time, created this opera and got the most amazing bunch of singers and musicians that could be found, coupled them with traditionally superior British recording engineers and made a transcendent rock album. Not an album done with the cast of a show already in existence or even planned.
ust – a rock album.
It was a hit. Then the show went to Broadway in 1971. Then BACK to London’s West End in 1972. Then the guy that played Pilate on the original brown album decided to direct it as a movie in 1973. The original brown album’s music and singing were so much better than any subsequent version because they had rock musicians doing it. It was supposed to be a “ROCK opera”. But, after that album apparently the cast decisions have been made based upon theater experience vs. rock chops. So in every version since we get overly emotive, loud, vibrato-filled performances where the only criteria for Jesus’ role was to be able to hit the high arena rock notes of “My temple should be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves!” (if there is any doubt here – witness the recent choice of Whitesnake’s Sebastian Bach in the Jesus role. Then witness the reviews.) Don’t get me wrong – Ted Neely and Carl Anderson were fantastic too, possibly better than the originals. And of course Yvonne Elliman, as the single Kevin Bacon thread that made sure she got herself into EVERY version of the show including, I think, an Icelandic touring production – wasn’t bad either. But the instrumentation of every other recorded version blows. The secondary and tertiary characters’ singing almost all stink. The engineering and mixing all suck. So – if this makes you curious – only listen to the big gold logo brown album version. (which apparently has been digitally remastered as a big gold logo white CD version)
Conversely – I will sit through any live rendition of the show at all. Aboriginal touring cast? Sure. Eighth grade school for the deaf production? Sign me up. I don’t know why. I just love this show. And there is something amazing about the fact that both Ted Neely and Carl Anderson revived their roles like 4 times since 1972, the last of which was 3 years ago. Carl Anderson was slated to be doing Judas now, during this current tour but sadly died of Leukemia in 2004.
So – here was my family at this 1996 “revival” of the Broadway show with ex-Styx singer Dennis DeYoung as Pontius Pilate. Apart from the mixed signals that were being triggered in my brain from the ridiculous juxtaposition of “I dreamed I met a Gallilean” being sung by the same voice that blasted “Rockin’ the Paradise tonight” in my headphones in 1975 – the show was pretty good. The only crap thing was when they got to the crucifixion scene – no hydraulic lift stage.
Now – my sister has thrown the gauntlet down that I am lacking in knowledge about ‘sacred theater conventions’ and I pray to all that’s holy that she is right and will stay right about that for the rest of my life. However, I do know a few things about theater. I know that even, nay especially in theater if a “sacred theater convention” comes into existence over the years then sure as Pooh Bear loves honey – there will be plenty of fabulous, desperately-breakthrough directors that will strive to discard those conventions as if their lives depended on it.
“We’re doing CATS but with no music!” “We’re doing an all black, hip-hop version of Annie Get Your Gun!” “We’re doing Hamlet except with all women!” and one of my sister’s favorites – “We’re doing the Wiz with an all-white high school cast!” (that one was real, it was 1979, I played the Wiz – seriously. Is there any wonder I am left with a bad taste for live theater?)
So while I NEVER would have been surprised by the idea of Herod being played as a Drag Queen – being as the original Mike D’abo part was supposed to have been Elton John on the album and then went to the movie version as a Benny Hill romp with Josh Mostel prancing around like Charles Nelson Reilly in Lidsville on fire like the freaking Ohio Players. However, a few productions of the show did NOT always take Herod over the top and this 1996 version we had seen seemed to have toned down much of the ‘spectacle’ aspect to the show (other than the aforementioned Come Sail Away flavor and I DID comment that I thought it was odd that THIS version was doing the Herod drag queen thing. Because THIS version couldn’t even keep alive the one true “sacred theater convention” that it really needed which was the damn hydraulic lifting stage for the crucifixion!!
One last bit of JCS trivia that brings it all home. In July of 1971, after the original concept album was such a big hit – Weber and Rice were planning to take the show to Broadway but needed to debut the show in an arena setting and still have it be sort of a ‘one-off’ tryout show to gauge the public’s acceptance. If it tanked – it might not have gone to Broadway. If it did well – it would arrive with much less trepidation from the producers. Remember this was the first time what was essentially a rock concert would be staged on Broadway. So they did a single, fantastic blowout show to prove what they had envisioned. Before London’s West End. Before Broadway’s Mark Hellinger Theater debut. The very first EVER live staged production of Superstar, personally directed and conducted by Weber and Rice themselves took place in July, 1971 in Pittsburgh at the Civic Arena for a crowd of 13,000.
God Bless Rock and Roll