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In praise of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ a generation’s cool take on the gospels

Sara Bareilles will play Mary Magdalene, with John Legend as Jesus, in NBC's live concert production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" Sunday night. | NBC

If you’d come today you would have reached a whole nation

Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication …

In the first nine months of 1971, a total of only six albums reached the top of the Billboard charts:

“All Things Must Pass” by George Harrison

“Pearl” by Janis Joplin

“4 Way Street” by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young

“Sticky Fingers” by the Rolling Stones

“Tapestry” by Carole King.

Oh, and the concept album for “Jesus Christ Superstar” (music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, lyrics by Tim Rice), which was actually recorded and released before the musical was ever staged.

Those first five albums are widely considered to be among the greatest in pop/rock history. The soundtrack for “JC,” as far as I know, has never made a list of the greatest albums of all time, and, like the musical and the movie and most of the various reboots over the years, it has often been derided as schlocky, sacrilegious, middlebrow claptrap.

I don’t care. I’m a major disciple of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” I felt that way when I heard the hit single for the first time (no doubt on WLS or WCFL), and I still feel that way this week, as I’m keenly anticipating the live staging of “JC” on NBC, with John Legend as Jesus Christ, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene, Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas Iscariot, Ben Daniels as Pontius Pilate and Alice Cooper as King Herod.

Yes, Alice Cooper! Hey, the lead singer of Deep Purple once voiced Jesus. The lead singer of Styx has played Pontius Pilate onstage. Why shouldn’t the man who gave us “Welcome to My Nightmare” portray the hedonistic Herod?

• • •

“Superstar” the single was released in November of 1969.

Murray Head sings the lead. (Some 15 years later, he would have a monster hit with “One Night in Bangkok” from the musical “Chess,” with lyrics by Tim Rice.) I’m sure the 10-year-old me didn’t even realize it at the time, but “Superstar” is told from the viewpoint of the spirit of Judas Iscariot, who has betrayed Jesus, has committed suicide — and is now challenging Christ:

Buddha, was he where it’s at? Is he where you are?

Could Muhammad move a mountain or was that just PR?

Did you mean to die like that, was that a mistake or

Did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?

Yeah, I could see how the Roman Catholic Church wasn’t exactly thrilled when “Jesus Christ Superstar” became a Broadway sensation, when Time magazine featured Jesus in a glittering robe and sparkling crucifix on its cover, when the movie version hit theaters, etc., etc.

Ian Gillan in 1972. | SUN-TIMES FILE
Ian Gillan in 1972. | SUN-TIMES FILE

As a kid who attended St. Jude the Apostle in South Holland from grades one through eight, sat through hour after hour of religion classes, attended mass about, oh, a MILLION times, I just thought it was cool there was a rock opera about the last days of Jesus Christ.

I was probably 12 or 13 when I got the soundtrack album, which featured Ian Gillan as Jesus. The guy who pleads with God the Father on “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)” on the “Superstar” soundtrack was the same guy taking the lead on “Smoke on the Water,” awesome!

The cast album also featured Yvonne Elliman’s heartbreaking and beautiful “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” and “Trial Before Pilate,” with Barry Dennen’s Pontius Pilate pleading with Jesus to listen to reason and give Pilate an excuse not to crucify him.

Don’t let me stop, your great self-destruction

Die if you want to, you misguided martyr

I wash my hands of your demolition

Die if you want to, you innocent puppet!

I didn’t find cheesy or disrespectful or slight. I thought it was a fresh way to tell a story I’d heard a thousand times before.

• • •

At that point in my life, “Jesus Christ Superstar” the production existed only in the theater of my mind. (It wasn’t exactly in the family budget to make trips to New York to see Broadway shows.) So the first time I actually saw the full presentation of “Superstar” was when the movie version was released in 1973.

Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson in the 1973 film version of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” | UNIVERSAL PICTURES
Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson in the 1973 film version of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” | UNIVERSAL PICTURES

Directed by Norman Jewison (whose prolific career includes “In the Heat of the Night,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and “Moonstruck”), the film had a clever framing device: At the outset, the performers arrive in the desert via bus. They unload props, laugh and joke with one another, get into costume and get ready to put on a show. After the story is told, the cast gets back on the bus, with everyone in a much more somber and reflective mood.

Ian Gillan turned down the role of Jesus, being busy with the whole lead-singer-of-Deep-Purple gig. Ted Neeley, who had played Jesus on Broadway and looked like the traditional, old-school (and no doubt historically inaccurate) Holy Card rendition of the Son of God, played the role to great effect. Carl Anderson was sensational as Judas, Elliman was wonderful as Mary Magdalene, Barry Dennen was appropriately slithering as Pontius Pilate and Josh Mostel was a flabby hoot as Herod.

My favorite number in the film is the joyous “Hosanna,” which takes place on Palm Sunday. Caiaphas warns Jesus, “Tell the rabble to be quiet, we anticipate a riot,” but Christ tells Caiaphas he’s wasting his breath, as he allows himself to bask in the love of the masses.

Beautiful stuff.

• • •

It was a good 20 years before I finally saw a stage production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” In the 1990s, Neeley (who by then was nearly twice the age of Jesus) and Carl Anderson reunited for a touring company production of “Superstar,” which at various times featured Irene Cara of “Fame” as Mary and Chicago’s own Dennis DeYoung from Styx as Pontius Pilate. It was probably ’93 or ’94 when I first saw “Superstar” onstage. Over the years, I’ve seen it three or four more times, and it still gets me.

Obviously, I’m not the only one who feels that way. The revival tour went on for years, with Neeley playing Jesus well over a thousand times in various productions.

Evan Tyrone Martin (center) plays Jesus of Nazareth in Paramount Theatre’s 2017 production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)
Evan Tyrone Martin (center) plays Jesus of Nazareth in Paramount Theatre’s 2017 production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Last spring, the Paramount Theatre in Aurora presented “Jesus Christ Superstar” with an all-black cast, drawing rave reviews. Last summer, London’s Regent’s Park Open-Air Theatre staged a re-imagination of the play by Timothy Sheader that was named best musical by the Evening Standard. In April, the Lyric Opera will present the North American premiere of Sheader’s production.

And this Sunday, it’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” live in concert.

Church in the morning, family time in the afternoon, “Jesus Christ Superstar” in the evening.

Now that’s an Easter Sunday right there.