Jesus Christ Superstar

Andrew Lloyd Webber

Tim Rice

album cover

Heaven on Their Minds

Okay, so the source material—the story of Jesus—was pretty good. And the idea of adding a rock backbeat and turning it into a parable on the messianic worship of celebrity, that was inspired. But what separates this project from virtually everything else Andrew Lloyd Webber, the British treacle merchant, and lyricist Tim Rice developed together is the tunes—alternately spangley and cathedral-worthy, full of conflict and overrun with the bustle that followed this miracle worker and his large entourage everywhere.

The songs trace the last few weeks in the life of Jesus Christ, using rock backbeats, slang, and other modern allusions to change, slightly, the biblical context. Though it's not the first rock musical—that distinction might go to the far less hooky Hair, or even Bye Bye Birdie—Jesus Christ Superstar is the first to arrive with its own distinct sound, a set of signature character cues and motifs that connect into what's technically an operetta, since there's no spoken dialogue in the whole thing. When the story gets tense, the band provides gnarled, hectic accompaniment; the moment of Judas's betrayal is set against a staccato electric guitar figure that dramatizes a traitor's roiling inner conflict. Judas, played here by rocker Murray Head, shines throughout; an even bigger rock star, Deep Purple's Ian Gillan, plays Jesus. When our protagonists are stealing a quiet moment—see Yvonne Elliman's restive confession "I Don't Know How to Love Him"—the music catches a placid, idyllic mood, but much of Superstar, even the crowd scene "Hosanna," ripples with an undercurrent of turmoil. Unlike later Rice–Lloyd Webber collaborations, virtually every one of these songs gets under your skin without being overbearingly emotional.

Jesus Christ Superstar incited outrage from religious leaders when it arrived on Broadway in 1971. It became a massive hit and, in another delicious pop culture irony, within a few years was credited for sparking renewed interest in religion among young people. What's more, this soundtrack is frequently mentioned by subsequent generations of rockers as a formative listening experience. Sure, it's heavy and symbolic, but it's also riveting, the unlikely Sunday school lesson that's also a guilty pleasure.

Genre: Musicals
Released: 1970, MCA
Key Tracks: "What's the Buzz/Strange Thing Mystifying," "I Don't Know How to Love Him," "Damned for All Time/Blood Money"
Another Interpretation: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Catalog Choice: Evita, Original Broadway Cast
Next Stop: Anything but Godspell
Book Page: 850

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Comments:

#1 from x, earth - 01/24/2009 12:04

Just make sure its the original brown cover LP version. The acid-rock version with Ian Gillian of Deep Purple as Jesus. It’ll blow your mind. You don’t want the movie soundtrack version, it’s not as good.

#2 from Regina, PA - 08/13/2012 10:50

I pull this one out during Lent every year to give it a listen with new(older & wiser?) ears. It’s everything Tom said, and I learned more from it than I ever learned in 12 years of Catholic school!

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