In New England – as in so much of the Western world – church attendance has been on a severe decline, and outreach is a priority for all Christian congregations. Yet one of the most effective (and scantly used) heralds for that cause remains a 35-year-old rock opera by two genius Brits that is a landmark in modern music and religious history.
In 1970, my older high-school age sisters introduced me to “Jesus Christ Superstar,” a double 33rpm album with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
At the time, the work caused sensation and uproar: In the creators’ own country, the BBC banned all “Superstar” songs from its airwaves as blasphemy. But on the charts and in global sales, it couldn’t be held back.
Based on the Gospels of Mark, Matthew and Luke, and American Catholic theologian Fulton J. Sheen’s “The Life of Christ,” “Superstar” is a melodic Passion play, recounting Holy Week from Palm Sunday to the Crucifixion.
But its appeal rests in elements that take the sacred tale of Christ and morph it into an alluring, sometimes fun, yet still reflective rendition that enhances the original’s spiritual import.
First, there’s not much artistic license with the actual events. Rice and Webber stayed true to their source documents; this was particularly important in light of the expected backlash from some religious corners.
Next is the music. While the 1973 movie and all later stage renditions tinkered with interpretation of “Superstar” melodies, the original album was a production based on the evolution of the Brit boy band sound into the harder rock of the Vietnam era.
In addition, jazz, blues, gospel and classical were nicely mixed in to create a score that could survive any musical trends, peaks, and valleys.
Finally, the lyrics are brilliant. Taking the most classic of stories and putting it into contemporaneous 1970-speak was a Herculean labor. Yet in “Superstar” there are passages and other exchanges between the characters that are cleverly modern but remain faithful to the Gospels.
Here’s an example between Caiaphas, Annas and another priest in “This Jesus Must Die,” as Palm Sunday crowds echo “Hosanna! Superstar!” in the background:
ANNAS: What then to do about Jesus of Nazareth, miracle wonderman — hero of fools?
PRIEST: No riots, no army, no fighting, no slogans, CAIAPHAS: One thing I’ll say for him — Jesus is cool!
Along with mastery of modern parlance, the original casting for the album set a standard no subsequent production could quite match. Still, the 1973 film came close, and to this day the venerable rock opera is a worldwide theatre favorite to packed houses .
Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan as Jesus and Hawaiian chanteuse Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene gave signature performances. Murray Head as Judas remains the paradigm for how to interpret that role with treachery, doubt, frustration and love, all in a 1970s raspy rock delivery.
It certainly left an impression on me, then just in 5th grade. Within a few weeks, I had heard my sisters playing “Superstar” so much that I knew every song by heart — which I still do.
At a time of my life when I tagged along with my mother to long, nearly unintelligible Greek Orthodox liturgies because that’s what was expected of good Greek sons, “Jesus Christ Superstar” was my personal Revelation.
Finally, in language I understood and tunes to which I rocked my air guitar, Easter — Christianity’s defining moment — came to life. I imagine it was the same for many kids, globally.
Despite my own Doubting Thomas struggles with religion since then, in recent years I’ve slowly come back to church with some apprehension, but also hope.
And while staying true to my Greek roots as best I can, here in Portland, with the help of the good people at St. Ansgar Lutheran Church (and in Vermont at my other home, Redeemer Lutheran), I’m able to bring myself back to when “Superstar” opened my eyes to spirituality past just drudgery and dogmatism.
Both of those congregations have accepted my oscillating skepticism and haven’t turned me away. Isn’t that what Christianity is supposed to be about, after all?
And this is how art imitates life. Three decades later, Rice and Webber’s career masterpiece, the original “Jesus Christ Superstar” studio album, still rocks the roof off the house.
So on this Holy Week – with worldwide terrorist attacks on Christian men, women and children seemingly in the news every day – I resurrected my cherished album set. Playing it again after a long spell on my vintage turntable, complete with scratches and skips, I sang along the road to Golgotha, shed tears with each one of Judas’ soul-searching agonies, and yep — jammed on my air guitar.
Because in our increasingly troubled and violent world, everyone, even a doubter, needs something more inside than just himself.
Telly Halkias is a national-award winning newspaper columnist.
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