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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Andrew Lloyd Webber: Jesus Christ Superstar


1) Overture; 2) Heaven On Their Minds; 3) What's The Buzz/Strange Thing Mystifying; 4) Everything's Alright; 5) This Jesus Must Die; 6) Hosanna; 7) Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem; 8) Pilate's Dream; 9) The Temple; 10) Eve­ry­thing's Alright (reprise); 11) I Don't Know How To Love Him; 12) Damned For All Time/Blood Money; 13) The Last Supper; 14) Gethsemane (I Only Want To Say); 15) The Arrest; 16) Peter's Denial; 17) Pilate And Christ; 18) King Herod's Song; 19) Judas's Death; 20) Trial Before Pilate (including The 39 Lashes); 21) Superstar; 22) Cru­ci­fi­xi­on; 23) John Nineteen Forty-One.

It makes good healthy sense to take a brief listen to Joseph before diving deep into Jesus Christ Superstar — if only for the sake of getting amazed at one of the most gigantic creative leaps of pop music's most exciting decade. Of course, the very idea of writing a musical / rock opera on the life of JC would preclude the authors from taking it too lightly: neither Andrew Lloyd, nor Tim Rice were dedicated Christians, but neither of them could have the audacity to take on an overtly humorous or satiric attitude towards the matter. Still, intention is one thing, and execution is an entirely different one; and where Joseph, execution-wise, was for the most part funny, fluf­fy vaudeville, JCS is, unquestionably, one of the grandest high-tragical works of our age.

In general, critical respect and continuous fan support for JCS is due to the fact that, out of all of Sir Andrew's works, it is the most «rock-oriented» one. The music as such does not relate nearly as much to the psychedelic / hard-rock / blues-rock movements of its era as it does to contempo­rary R&B, and the bulk of the melodies still have the typical Broadway show as their forefather; but the arrangements have been cleverly designed to get in tune with the rock crowds, and it is no coincidence that, for the original studio sessions, Webber and Rice got Joe Cocker's Grease Band to record most of the parts (including electric guitarists Neil Hubbard and Henry McCulloch), not to mention, of course, offering the main vocal lead to Deep Purple's Ian Gillan. The result is fun­ny — a totally non-rock'n'roll album that totally sounds like one.

But the real overwhelming success of JCS, of course, has nothing to do with electric guitars and Gillan's proto-metal screaming. It has everything to do with two people setting themselves one of the hardest tasks in music history — writing a rock musical about the last days of Jesus' presence on Earth — and pulling it off. If nothing that Webber ever did later can even come close to the effect of JCS, it is not because the effort drained him of all talent; it is simply because he would never again encumber himself with a task involving so much responsibility. If you are embarking on a project like JCS, you have to (a) make sure that your work produces a cathartic effect on al­most everyone, regardless of their religious feelings; (b) make sure that your work sounds con­temporary enough to not be laughed off as pretentious mimicry, yet also timeless enough to not let its effect wear off on the very next generation; (c) make sure that your work does not offend the religious, yet at the same time stay true to your own inner feelings about the matter, which may not at all be religious. If even one of these conditions goes unsatisfied — the result is a sure­fire failure which might cost you your entire future career.

It is utterly amazing, then, and still amazing to me after all these years, how perfectly all these conditions are met — consequently, resulting in one of the most perfect works of musical art of the entire century. Yes, individual moments, performances, interpretations may be deficient; and, in fact, this Original London Cast version, with Gillan at the helm, has never been my personal favorite. To my ears, it sounds a little rushed, almost like an «early rehearsal» attempt. The tunes are frequently taken at way too fast tempos; the singers do not seem to always have had enough times to properly «get into character»; the players do not seem to have practiced their guitar licks and brass kicks to perfection. In my opinion, the opera needed a certain gestation period, which is why the 1973 movie version boasts more subtlety and significant «character growth», so to speak. But I also understand those who prefer the rawer, less polished spirit of the 1970 version, which they might find more blood-boilingly-aggressive, thanks in part to Gillan's delivery.

Extolling the individual musical virtues of particular tunes would be pointless: if you have alrea­dy heard the record, you can probably do a better job for yourself than I can, and if you haven't, just stop everything that you are doing right now and go get it — there is no excuse for not being acquainted with JCS unless you have something going on against music in general. I might sim­ply mention that I myself knew the whole thing almost by heart upon the third or fourth listen, and that not even a single track on it — not even the briefer links — is devoid of a stunning ins­trumental or vocal hook, sometimes several of them. But it isn't «just» a collection of musical hooks: each theme and passage is perfectly adjusted to its lyrical and spiritual content. Dynamic, aggressive, neurotic-paranoid passages accompany the parts of Judas; coldly ominous, scary brass pomp represents Roman power; lightweight folksiness or silly-sounding R&B dance rhythms are associated with the Apostles (one minor point for which the church people could be left genuinely displeased with JCS is Andrew and Tim's presentation of Jesus' disciples as a bunch of fame-see­king idiots); beautiful balladry is reserved for the likes of Mary Magdalene, etc. — Wagner him­self could have been proud of these guys' use of leitmotifs.

I have occasionally heard people complaining about the crudeness or silliness of Tim Rice's lib­retto — complaints I have never understood, since, in general, the lyrics merely represent minor variations on the original text of the New Testament. A major exception is Judas, who gets to be the show's chief original hero, right from the opening salvos of ʽHeaven On Their Mindsʼ, in which he lays down his justification for the upcoming betrayal, and down to the album's big hit single ʽSuperstarʼ, in which he, already as a ghost, reasons that "If you'd come today, you would have reached a whole nation / Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication" (okay, these particu­lar lyrics do sound a bit stupid — but we have to remember that, in the age of Flower Power Guru Explosion, they did sound far more relevant than today).

On the other hand, it is fairly admirable how Rice and Webber manage to keep things in hand — not a single moment on the album lets us know for sure that they are genuinely presenting Jesus as The Sa­viour, The Son of God: throughout the opera, Jesus does not produce a single miracle, even when the lepers in ʽThe Templeʼ beg him to, and the music stops directly at ʽJohn 19:41ʼ ("Now in the place where He was crucified there was a garden. In the garden was a new tomb in which no man had ever yet been laid"), omitting any hints at the Resurrection. Yet, at the same time, not a single moment directly asserts the opposite, either — giving every devoted Christian a fair chance at admitting the opera into their canon of religious works. Some might see this as an intentionally commercial, even cynical attempt at recruiting fans on both sides of the fence, or as a sign of cowardice (two self-professed atheists afraid for the potential consequences of their ac­tions), but that's looking at things from a hatred point of view; I would rather just admire the skill with which they managed to guide their ship through the reef of fanaticism.

A bit of «crudeness» may be found, perhaps, in the constant references to the «superstarsdom» of Jesus — culminating in ʽKing Herod's Songʼ, for which Webber recycled the melody of his ear­lier vaudeville composition ʽTry It And Seeʼ (made into a hit by Rita Pavone); here, the original Biblical mention of Herod imploring Jesus to try out a miracle is basically turned into an allegory for a sleazy entrepreneur imploring his artsy-fartsy client to be a good lad and sell out like they all do. But, come to think of it, this particular projection has even more relevance today than it had in 1970, and ends up adding depth to the show rather than cheapening it.

A few more words are in order regarding this particular version of the opera. As I said, I find it flawed, and not least of all due to the relative ineptness of some of the performers. The major cul­prit is Murray Head as Judas: his lungs are nowhere near as steel-caged as Gillan's, which puts him in a bad position (the role requires him to be way more of a passionate screecher), and his phrasing is frequently muffled and, well, just less expressive than the melody easily allows it to be. Victor Brox as Caiaphas is fairly mediocre as well, coming off more as a mediocre Pharisee meddler than as the iron-willed symbol of conservative evil that the authors must have had in mind. Even Barry Dennen as Pilate does not hit the same heights here as he will do three years later. The only cast member I find beyond reproach is Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene — the true «miracle» of the sessions, since Webber and Rice almost literally picked the lady off the street, where she was doing serious drugs and living off slim barroom pickings; who knows, may­be that was the major reason for which she slipped into the role so quickly and so comfortably (and the decision to release ʽI Don't Know How To Love Himʼ as the album's second single was one of the wisest marketing choices they could have made at the time).

As for Ian Gillan in the title role... he sings it well enough, and there is no question about ever calling his interpretation «wooden» or any of those other well-known nasty names. But the per­formance still occasionally suffers from too much speed (the timing of ʽPoor Jerusalemʼ, for in­stance, is abysmal compared to the movie version — it's almost like, «hey guys, I'd like my pro­phecies to be more heart-wrenching and convincing as much as all of you, but I've still got ten more rallies scheduled in all of the city's quarters, so we'll have to get it over real quick»), and, perhaps, from a bit too much «Deep Purplism»? Basically, just ask yourself the question if you're all right with the same guy who just finished singing ʽChild In Timeʼ to go on with this Jesus role. If you are all right with the idea, Gillan is your personal Jesus for all time. If you're not, you'll just have to wait for Ted Neeley.

Also, there is this small matter of the original version being too short — omitting certain non-cru­cial, but still important character-building numbers, such as ʽThen We Are Decidedʼ (Caiaphas and Annas talking about Jesus' fate prior to the general priest meeting in ʽThis Jesus Must Dieʼ) and the Peter/Mary duet on ʽCould We Start Again Pleaseʼ, and criminally shortening ʽThe Trial Before Pilateʼ, giving Barry Dennen even fewer chances to prove himself firsthand. These may come off as minor quibbles, but they are not: the original cast version, once we get acquainted with the future of the opera, does not come across as «well-rounded».

Still, it is the original cast version — the one that announced JCS as a cultural phenomenon, the one that already ensured Sir Andrew's future knighthood (I will always prefer to think that the man was knighted for JCS and not for Phantom Of The Opera, even if the Queen herself proves me wrong), the one that sold the most copies and produced the most hits, and the one that best fit the Zeitgeist, since, by the time 1973 came along, hard drugs and assholes had already resulted in an entirely different spirit. Hence, even if this is not my favourite version (and even after all has been said and done, it may still easily be a matter of personal preference), it is clearly the most important from a historical perspective, and merits its thumbs up all the way.

Check "Jesus Christ Superstar" (CD) on Amazon


  1. this is one of my favourite albums. my brother and i spend like a month listening only to this and by the end we could sing it by heart. he even convinced the choir he was in to try and perform some songs from it.

  2. I have to say my favorite recording is the 1971 Original Broadway Cast. Ben Veeren kills it as Judas and their version of King Herod's song blows the others out of the water. The orchestration seems much livelier too. And some people complain about Jeff Fenhold being boring as Jesus but I think he is simply less over the top theatric and more resigned to his fate. Like I imaging Jesus would actually be.
    Only problem is, the only version available is the highlights CD so a lot of good parts are left out.

  3. Minor quibble: calling it the "Original London Cast Version" is a bit misleading, as at this point the play had not been staged yet; the plan was to record it as a conceptual album, and then, if it were successful enough, stage it. That's the reason for the omissions you mention; they were written afterwards, for the stage version.

    They repeated the same thing with Evita, in which they revised it after the album version (for the stage they left out, wisely, the stupid insecticide subplot, which meant that "The Lady's Got Potential" went missing until it resurfaced in the Madonna / Banderas movie with new lyrics)

  4. I think which version you prefer must, unsurprisingly, depend on which version you heard first or in my case grew up with. I find this version much more satisfying, moving and musically interesting than the film soundtrack.

    A lot of the more loose frasing and free vocal delivery in the soundtrack version sounds odd to my ears, and I generally prefer all the singers in the album version. In my opinion Gillian blows Ted Neeley away completely (and I'm not really a Purple fan), Gillians sounds much more like a charismatic leader, and Neeley's vulnerable delivery doesn't really work for me. Carl Anderson, in the film, is a really great singer, I appreciate that, but to me Murray Head will always be the ultimate Judas, his soulful and sad take on the part always moves me. And he's got vocal power enough for me.

    And I think this version is perfect in its musical shape. I think songs like "Then we are decided" and "Could we start again please" really interrupt the flow in the movie version, and I think you can tell that they were composed at a later stage, they sound much more West End than the rest of the rock opera.

  5. I like this version better than the movie one, although I can listen to that one. Ted Neeley doesn't do it for me, but I agree on Caiaphas. I made a mix where Then we are decided and Could we start again please are added to the Original version, as I do like these songs and for me they fit.

    This pretty much ranks as one of my favourite albums. Heaven on their minds sets the scen, and Blood money conveys the despair.

    Masterpiece, both music and lyrics.