NEXT week an acclaimed new production of Jesus Christ Superstar arrives at Bradford’s Alhambra theatre.

Theatre critic MICHAEL COVENEY looks back at the history of the legendary show: After their initial success with a 20-minute version of Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 1968, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were taken up by producer David Land, given a weekly wage of £20 and an office, and encouraged to write anything at all, with just one request: Steer clear of the Bible. Land had had enough religion.

So of course they wrote Jesus Christ Superstar. First conceived as a stage show, it entered the world as a double album, featuring some of the best rock musicians of the day, including Ian Gillan of Deep Purple as Jesus, his voice a rasping gurgle, and Mike d’Abo of Manfred Mann singing King Herod’s camp ‘challenge’ number (“Prove to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool”). Mary Magdalene was played by 19-year-old Hawaian Yvonne Elliman whom Lloyd Webber had found singing Blowing in the Wind for £5 a night in a club on the King’s Road.

The album was original and exhilarating. The music had tremendous energy which, blending with Rice’s cynical, quizzical lyrics, never stood still. Lloyd Webber’s taste for unusual time signatures made a stunning debut in Mary’s Everything’s Alright. There was the majestic entrance to Jerusalem - Hosanna Heysanna Sanna Sanna Ho, Sanna Hey Sanna Ho Sanna, Hey JC, JC won’t you fight for me? Sanna Ho Sanna Hey Superstar’ - and the howling anguish in the Garden of Gethsemane. And as Jesus died on the cross, the orchestra gathered in one of the most sweeping and melancholy of all melodies.

And of course there was I Don’t Know How to Love Him. One critic made comparisons with the fierce, Eastern European modernist composers Ligeti and Penderecki. When Dmitri Shostakovich, arguably the greatest composer of the 20th century, came to London shortly before he died in 1975 to attend the British premiere of his Fifteenth Symphony, he asked to see Jesus Christ Superstar at the Palace Theatre. He was so impressed he went back the following night.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Hannah Richardson as Mary Magdalene and Joshua Hawkins Hannah Richardson as Mary Magdalene and Joshua Hawkins (Image: Paul Coltas)

It was the subject matter as much as the music that caused the stir that followed the album’s release. In 1966, John Lennon declared that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, and there was a short time when it seemed possible he might take the lead in Superstar. A more secular approach to religion was part of the mood of the time. And even that mood wasn’t all that new. The medieval Mystery plays had shown the human side of the Passion. The more ambivalent, sexual connotations of Superstar were also part of the cultural currency. Nikos Kazantzakis’s 1955 novel The Last Temptation of Christ, filmed many years later by Martin Scorsese, was at least as interestingly outspoken.

Unlicensed concert performances of the double album started springing up in America, and in February 1971, as the album topped the US charts, Rice and Lloyd Webber, with David Land, went to New York to discuss strategies. Producer Robert Stigwood was wiping out these unlicensed performances with legal action. He put out his own concert version, like a rock ‘n’ roll tour. A 20-strong choir beefed it up with a 32-piece band. It was a triumph. The first live concert performance had an audience of 12,000 in July 1971. After a four-week tour it was raining money, and by September a second tour was on its way. There followed a college tour. Then Stigwood licensed performances worldwide.

On October 12, 1971, Rice and Lloyd Webber made their Broadway debuts with Superstar. Huge angels swung on psychedelic wings across shimmering, surreal sets with laser beams and wind machines, dancing lepers and a crucifixion scene on a dazzling golden triangle. Evangelist Billy Graham inveighed against it, the theatre was picketed by the National Secular Society and one irate nun carried a banner declaring ‘I am a Bride of Christ, not Mrs Superstar!’

Lloyd Webber’s reaction was to return to basics, insisting on an austere London production suited to the rawness of the work. It opened in 1972 and was an instant hit. It became the longest-running musical in West End history, overtaking Lionel Bart’s Oliver! The London cast included Paul Nicholas as Jesus. The production was stark, gripping, dignified and very moving. The chorus of unknowns included Floella Benjamin, Elaine Paige and Richard O’Brien, later renowned for writing The Rocky Horror Show.

Norman Jewison’s 1973 film, with a script by Melvyn Bragg and a score conducted by Andre Previn, stands up as theatrically and cinematically interesting: a fit-up show by a travelling troupe of hippies in the desert.

Bradford Telegraph and Argus: Shem Omari James as Judas in the current stage productionShem Omari James as Judas in the current stage production (Image: Paul Coltas)

The show has outlived its own notoriety and survives in a score of vibrancy and power, witnessed in many revivals. In 2014 an arena tour starred Ben Forster, who won Lloyd Webber’s talent-spotting TV show Superstar, as Jesus, Matilda composer Tim Minchin as Judas, Spice Girl Melanie C as Mary Magdalene and DJ Chris Moyles as Herod.

The current production, at the Alhambra from November 27 to December 2, was reimagined by London’s Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, to celebrate 45 years since the show’s Broadway debut. It won an Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival and the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical.

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