Although I had just turned 14 when it was released, I still remember the controversy over Jesus Christ Superstar. While it wasn’t the first “rock opera” (Tommy came out about 18 months earlier), this one attracted attention because of what it did, most notably humanizing the events in the last days of Jesus’ life.
Like Tommy, this was a concept album as opposed to the soundtrack of a stage musical. Created by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice, it didn’t reach the professional stage until mid-October 1971 and was the first such musical for that duo. Yet the two-LP album spent a week at number one on the charts beginning Feb. 20, 1971, some four months after its release. But since Easter was still two months away (which would return the album to number one for another two weeks), it became a hot topic. In fact, I specifically recall a late night AM radio talk show with a heated debate over whether the album was blasphemous.
Perhaps that was one of the things that initially intrigued me. In part because I’d attended a Catholic grade school, the Catholic Church’s ire over the album made it seem like forbidden fruit. Yet I didn’t buy the album. It was a gift from my favorite aunt at Christmas 1970. But not only did I come to love the music, it actually opened my eyes to something that my Catholic education never really seemed to seriously consider.
But first the music. The role of Jesus was sung by Ian Gillian, then the lead singer for Deep Purple. As far as I’m concerned, it may be Gillian at his finest. More than any of the Deep Purple and his later solo albums, Jesus Christ Superstar portrays the full extent of Gillian’s talent. He’s not just the front guy of a hard rock band who can belt and bellow it out. There is subtlety to some of his performances on this LP while at the same time his vocal range is fully on display. There are also some other excellent vocal performances, many by artists who we’d never heard of. One who really gained from it was Yvonne Elliman. Singing the role of Mary Magdalene (which she would reprise on Broadway and in the 1973 film), she reached the pop charts with “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Finally, the musical ensemble included some top-notch rock musicians, giving the LP an honest to goodness rock edge.
From an educational standpoint, the LP seemed to explore aspects of the events not commonly discussed. One is the political nature of what transpired. For example, prior to entering Jerusalem, Judas expresses concern about how Jesus may have lost control of his followers. Among other things, he notes, that Jesus may have come to mean more than his message. Similarly, when Mary Magdalene anoints Christ’s head and feet, Judas’ response is that starving people are more important and the oil could have been sold and the money used for the poor. And Simon Zealotes thinks Jesus should use his increasing popularity to rally the crowds to the advantage of the Jews, urging him to “add a touch of hate at Rome.” As a result, for the first time in my life I realized that there were political overtones to these stories, not just religious ones.
This was just part of the impact on my views of Judas. Catholic school essentially taught me he was a traitor, an evil man undoubtedly condemned to hell. Yet not only does Jesus Christ Superstar indicate his betrayal may have been motivated by perhaps legitimate political concerns, it raised an even more interesting question. If this was all part of God’s plan, wasn’t what Judas did foreordained? Wasn’t it God who gave him that role? This was reinforced by an exchange between Judas and Jesus at the Last Supper, where he says Christ wants Judas to betray him. “What if I just stayed here/And ruined your ambition?” Thus, Judas comes off more as a tragic figure whose fate was predetermined than an architect of evil.
Undoubtedly, though, the most telling part of the music is the humanization of Jesus, the emphasis on the latter aspect of being both God and man. That idea runs through much of the performance but it is perhaps best expressed in “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say),” where Jesus is praying in the garden before his arrest. Like a man, he does not want to die. Not only is he not as sure of God’s plan, he is scared, wonders what his death can accomplish and seeks an explanation of why it is necessary. Yet Christ ultimately concludes: “Take me, now!/Before I change my mind.” Certainly, no one I knew in the Catholic Church, whether teacher, nun or priest, would ever have suggested that Jesus would be scared, let alone that he might have or want a choice in these final acts.
Perhaps these views of Judas and Jesus didn’t and don’t comport with tradition. For many, however, emphasizing the human side of these events did not diminish Jesus but made him more accessible. Regardless of what one thinks of Weber and Rice or the quality of the lyrics or music in Jesus Christ Superstar, that says a heck of a lot for any musical work.
Can you show me now that I would not be killed in vain?
Show me just a little of your omnipresent brain
Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die
You’re far too keen and where and how, but not so hot on why
“Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say),” Jesus Christ Superstar