It took half a century to fulfill this teenage fantasy. In 1971, I was introduced to the concept album “Jesus Christ Superstar”. It quickly soared to my #1 singalong album, dethroning The Who’s “Tommy” which held the top rank for barely a year. The rock opera found success shortly after its release, and opened on Broadway the same year. Sadly, a Broadway show was not in the cards for this poor boy from the South Bronx. Luckily, vinyl was cheap in the 1970s. I quickly wore down the grooves of that platter, but not before I managed to commit to memory the entire album: lyrics, music, and a sprinkling of choreography based solely upon album liner notes. Performing to an audience of one (a full-length mirror), I must have looked like a street musician with multiple personality disorder.
So here we are 50 years later, the “golden anniversary”. Appropriately, someone had the grand vision of using the occasion to take “Jesus Christ Superstar” on the road. Using London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production as the template, a number of different touring companies have assembled some very fine renditions of the iconic rock opera. We attended one such production at the ASU Gammage Auditorium in Tempe, AZ.
The production design is modern and industrial, scarcely changing as the story evolves. A humongous metallic crucifix reclines on the stage like a grotesque catwalk. Indeed, it is used for that very purpose through most of the show. Costumes take on an inner city flair, bordering on post-apocalyptic, and of a sort of hip hop fashion consistent with the style of the choreography. From a practical standpoint, it is a very good choice that evokes the mood of a suppressed society on the verge of major change. The music is performed live. It is piercing, throbbing, and tightly executed, true to the sound of the original recorded album. Musicians are positioned in alcoves on the stage. They are part of the mob while at the same time being ornamental pieces in the background.
From the opening staccato guitar riff, I am hooked. This live performance takes shape exactly as I remember. Thunderous notes of tension, unrest, and a seething cauldron of oppression about to boil over. The overture unleashes a medley of emotion, conjuring a kaleidoscope of vivid mental images culminating in the iconic lead-in notes to the title song: “Jesus Christ Superstar”. I feel myself bopping, stoner-style, to every syncopated beat. Under my breath, I sing along to every song from “Heaven On Their Minds” to “Blood Money”. Act I is a frantically paced sequence that follows the decline of Jesus’ friend and confidant Judas Iscariot (played by Elvie Ellis). Jesus (played by Jack Hopewell) is caught in this vertex, unaware and yet fully aware that his path has been chosen for him and that he is compelled to walk it.
My moment of reckoning comes half way through the second act when Mary Magdalene (played by Faith Jones) sings “Could We Start Again, Please”, a song I do not recognize. It wasn’t on the original album and likely first appeared in the subsequent stage play or movie. To my horror, I can not understand half of the lyrics, even though it is a slow ballad. I have only a vague notion of what Jones is singing about. Is this what my unprepared seatmates are experiencing? Throughout Act II, I steal glances to either side of me. The expressions I see are not those of recognition. Some appear confused. Others appear to be struggling with what they are hearing. Still others appear utterly bored. (My companion nods off.) It becomes clear to me that, though pitch-perfect, the emotion-charged, pipes-straining vocals and power rock music from the stage, while nearly identical to the sounds of the original recording, are nearly impossible to decipher without prior knowledge of the lyrics or context. It is as if we are watching an Italian opera without having first read the libretto. Only fluent speakers of the language could begin to understand what was going on.
So it is with “Jesus Christ Superstar”. The performance is a cleansing tonic to true aficionados but a noisy cacophony to the uninitiated. At least, that is my informed assessment after discussing it with my companion as we file out of the auditorium after the final curtain falls. That opinion is echoed all around us, mostly by older folks who may not have had the previous immersive experience that I had. For them, this may only have been a fond memory of the distant past. Reintroduced to it, their disappointment and confusion is obvious. “The whole thing was sung” says one. “I guess that’s what they did in the 70s”, says another. “No…”, I want to school them, “this is a rock opera and all operas are sung.” Sigh.
On the whole, “Jesus Christ Superstar” is a powerful rendition of a New Testament story — granted, told with some liberties — and an interpretation of the original musical work that is both faithful to the source and expertly executed. That said, the powerful lyrical story is distorted by the very authenticity with which it is told. If several pages of lyrics were included in the playbill, the impact of the production would improve exponentially. I do not know how practical that would be in a darkened auditorium, but I do know that my own enjoyment of the show was immeasurably improved by the hours I spent back in the 70s acting out my own version of the Bible story while wailing like a rock star to that disk of well-worn vinyl.
As for the Gammage Auditorium, Jesus has left the building, but the roadshow will likely continue for months to come. If you plan to catch a performance, please do take along your album liner notes.