Everything you need to know about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’
A timeless work, Jesus Christ Superstar is a rock opera set against the backdrop of an extraordinary and universally known series of events seen through the eyes of Judas Iscariot. The main characters are all familiar to anyone with a knowledge of the New Testament and this show follows the last week of Jesus Christ’s life. It contains hardly any dialogue and is quite gritty within the realm of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber’s canon.
Jesus Christ Superstar is a product of its era, fused with 1970’s rock, gospel, folk, and funk as well as modern colloquialisms and energetic choreography. The themes that appear throughout Superstar are fame, revolution, radicalism, and humility. This was the second collaboration between Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, who had previously created Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat together.
Superstar was introduced as an album first, and Lloyd Webber and Rice were able to streamline the score more effectively than they otherwise could have. In addition to making the work itself better, the album promoted the work so well, so when it finally hit the stage, everybody knew the entire score and the show had a built-in fanbase.
What is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar about?
Jesus Christ Superstar tells the story of Jesus in the final days leading up to his crucifixion. Loosely based on the Gospels, Superstar focuses on the personal conflicts between Jesus, his disciples, the people of Israel, and the leadership of Rome. Special attention is also played to the fractured friendship between Judas Iscariot and Jesus, as well as Jesus’s relationship with Mary Magdalene, a devoted follower.
When did Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar premiere?
The concept album of Jesus Christ Superstar was staged on Broadway in 1971 at the Mark Hellinger Theatre. Some critics hated what they saw as a brash production (including a drag queen King Herod) and Lloyd Webber made it no secret that he was not a fan of the original Broadway production which was directed by Tom O’Horgan, renowned for his work on Hair.
The negativity also garnered protests by Christians who were offended by the insinuation that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a physical relationship. They also thought the whole production made a hero of Judas, not Jesus. Protests later followed across the Atlantic, when the West End show premiered at the Palace Theatre.
Characters in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar
Jesus Christ Superstar is full of characters from the Gospels in the Bible, including the titular Jesus as well as his friends, enemies, and disciples. Here are some of the main characters in Jesus Christ Superstar.
- Jesus Christ - The title role, leader of the twelve disciples, called the "Son of God" and the "King of the Jews," he is the face of the revolution for Christinaity and is crucified.
- Judas Iscariot - The narrator of the rock opera, Judas is one of the 12 apostles of Jesus who is concerned for the poor and the consequences of Jesus's fame. He is Jesus’s right-hand man and feels shunned by his friend’s fame and later goes on to betray him. Tim Rice has described the Bible’s characterization of Judas as a “cardboard cut-out figure of evil,” and he set out to humanize him in Superstar. This was inspired by a Bob Dylan lyric “Did Judas Iscariot have God at his side?” from the 1964 song “With God on Our Side.”
- Mary Magdalene - A female follower of Jesus, Mary Magdalene is a prostitute who finds herself falling in love with him.
- Peter - One of Jesus's 12 apostles who denies Jesus three times upon the night of Jesus's arrest to save himself.
- Simon Zealotes - One of Jesus's twelve apostles, Simon urges Jesus to lead his followers into battle against the Romans.
- Pontius Pilate - The governor of Judea foresees the events of Jesus's crucifixion from beginning to aftermath in a dream and finds himself being presented with that very situation.
- Caiaphas - One of the main antagonists of the show, Caiaphas is a high priest who sees Jesus as a threat to the nation.
- Annas - The other main antagonist of the show, Annas is a fellow priest at the side of Caiaphas who is persuaded by Caiaphas into seeing Jesus as a threat.
- King Herod - The King of Galilee, Herod resents the fact that Jesus is being compared to royalty. There is scope to take dramatic license with this particular role. For example in the UK Arena Tour, Herod was created to be a Jeremy Kyle-esque TV chat show host version of King Herod. (More than likely a nod to Chris Moyles radio DJ history.) However in direct contrast, the Open Air Theatre Superstar production portrayed the character very camp and almost as if Herod was in a futuristic music video. For example, the actors in each production were dressed in a gold cape, and wore elaborate glittery makeup to symbolise high status and to stand out from the rest of the cast.
Songs in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar
Since it started as a concept album, Jesus Christ Superstar is full of songs that have become pop hits including, "I Don't Know How to Love Him" and the titular "Superstar." Here are all the songs in the musical:
- "Overture" - Instrumental
- "Heaven on Their Minds" – Judas
- "What's the Buzz" – Apostles, Jesus, Mary
- "Strange Thing Mystifying" – Jesus, Mary, Judas, Apostles
- "Everything's Alright" – Mary, Women, Judas, Jesus, Apostles
- "This Jesus Must Die" – Annas, Caiaphas, Apostles, Priests
- "Hosanna" – Caiaphas, Jesus, Ensemble
- "Simon Zealotes" – Simon, Ensemble
- "Poor Jerusalem" – Jesus
- "Pilate's Dream" – Pilate
- "The Temple" – Ensemble, Jesus
- "Everything's Alright" (Reprise) – Mary, Jesus
- "I Don't Know How to Love Him" – Mary
- "Damned For All Time/Blood Money" – Judas, Annas, Caiaphas, Priests
- "The Last Supper" – Apostles, Jesus, Judas
- "Gethsemane" – Jesus
- "The Arrest" – Judas, Jesus, Peter, Apostles, Ensemble, Annas, Caiaphas
- "Peter's Denial" – Maid by the Fire, Peter, Soldier, Old Man, Mary
- "Pilate and Christ" – Pilate, Annas, Jesus, Ensemble
- "King Herod's Song" - Herod
- "Could We Start Again Please?" – Mary, Peter
- "Judas' Death" – Judas, Annas, Caiaphas, Ensemble
- "Trial By Pilate/Thirty-Nine Lashes" – Pilate, Caiaphas, Annas, Jesus, Ensemble
- "Superstar" – Judas, Soul Sisters, Angels
- "The Crucifixion" – Jesus, Ensemble
- "John 19:41" – Instrumental
What awards has Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar won?
Jesus Christ Superstar has been nominated for and won a series of awards on both sides of the pond. Here's a look at some of the awards the production has won in various incarnations.
- Tony Awards - The original Broadway production was nominated for five Tony Awards, but the cast and creators went home empty-handed. (1972, Original Broadway Production)
- Drama Desk Award - Most Promising Composer (1972, Original Broadway Production)
- Evening Standard Award - Best Musical / Best Revival / Emerging Talent (2016, London Revival)
- Emmy Awards - Outstanding Variety Special (Live); Outstanding Technical Direction, Camerawork, Video Control for a Limited Series, Movie, or Special; Outstanding Sound Mixing for a Variety Series or Special; Outstanding Production Design for a Variety Special; and Outstanding Lighting Design/Lighting Direction for a Variety Special. (2018, NBC Live)
Major productions of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar
- Original Broadway Production, Mark Hellinger Theatre, 51st Street (1971) - The original director, Frank Corsaro, was replaced by Tom O’Horgan, who had directed Hair and had been brought in with the brief of “theatricalising” an oratorio. This production ran for 720 performances. Despite good sales, the hype diminished quickly and the show never made it to its second birthday and walked away with no Tony Awards despite making an impact on musical theatre history.
- Original West End Production, Palace Theatre (1972) - This performance became the longest-running musical in West End history, overtaking Lionel Bart’s Oliver! with its 2,620th performance on 3 October 1978 and closing in 1980 after playing for 3,358 performances and taking £7m at the box office. Steered by Australian director Jim Sharman who had previously directed the Sydney production, this production was a stripped back, uncluttered version.
- First Broadway Revival, Longacre Theatre (1977) - The musical came back to the Broadway stage in the latter half of the '70s and played for 96 performances in a production directed by William Daniel Grey, who also starred as Jesus.
- Second Broadway Revival, Ford Center for the Performing Arts (2000) - A second revival of the show opened on Broadway in 2000.
- Third Broadway Revival, Neil Simon Theatre (2012) - A revival of the show from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival directed by Des McAnuff came to Broadway in 2012 and played for 116 performances.
- UK Arena Tour (2012) - Beginning at the O2 Arena in London, this UK Tour was promoted via the ITV talent show Superstar, produced by Lloyd Webber. This reality series centered on a nationwide search, modelled on The Voice, to find the titular role of Jesus for an arena tour. This was eventually won by Ben Forster. The show was designed to feel more like a hyper-modern, rock concert with loud acoustics and a rock band. It was also a lot grungier within the set and costume design incorporating the street artist Banksy and social media. The tour was directed by Laurence Connor who has frequently collaborated with Lloyd Webber on other musicals including Joseph, Phantom, School of Rock, and Chess at ENO.
- Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London (2016) - This revival was the first outdoor production in the UK and due to critical acclaim returned to the same venue in 2017. It then transferred to the Barbican Centre from 9 July to 24 August 2019 prior to a 50th anniversary U.S. tour from October 2019 (cancelled from March 2020 due to COVID). The same production played at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre in a socially distanced environment in a concert staging titled Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert from 14 August-27 September 2020.
Celebrities who have performed in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar
Celebrities from around the world have taken the stage in the classic Biblical musical. Here are just some of the stars who have performed Lloyd Webber's iconic score.
- Tim Minchin, an Australian comedian who is also famous for penning musicals Matilda and Groundhog Day, played Judas in the 2012 UK Arena Tour alongside former Spice Girl, Melanie C as Mary Magdalene.
- Steven Balsamo, a Welsh singer and songwriter, is best-known for playing the lead role in the London production of Jesus Christ Superstar during the mid-1990s. He performs as a member of several bands and is also a successful songwriter. You can watch his rendition here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QozXX7Ndrk
- Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles played Mary in the NBC Live verion in 2018. Bareilles also wrote the music and lyrics for Waitress. She earned a Tony nomination for best original score and Grammy nomination for best musical theatre album. She also performed the role of Jenna, both on Broadway and in the West End for a limited engagement.
- John Legend - Legend earned is EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) for producing the NBC Live version of Jesus Christ Superstar, in which he also starred as Jesus.
Onscreen adaptations of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar
Jesus Christ Superstar has also made a splash onscreen, and there are several film and TV adaptations of the iconic story.
- 1973 film - A film adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar was released in 1973 and was the eighth highest-grossing film of that year. The film, directed by Norman Jewison, was shot in Israel and other Middle East locations. Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, and Yvonne Elliman were each nominated for a Golden Globe Award for their portrayals of Jesus, Judas, and Mary Magdalene respectively.
- 2000 film - A second film adaptation which was more similar to the original London stage version, was filmed in 1999, and released around the world on video in 2000. It starred Glenn Carter as Jesus, Jérôme Pradon as Judas, Reneé Castle as Mary Magdalene, and Rik Mayall as Herod, and was directed by Gale Edwards. This was shot entirely on indoor sets and Lloyd Webber has stated in the making-of documentary that this was the version closest to what he had originally envisioned for a film version of his stage musical.
- 2012 Arena Tour taping - The 2012 UK Arena tour was filmed and released on DVD, directed by Laurence Connor.
- NBC Live in 2018 - On Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018, NBC aired a live concert version of the show featuring John Legend as Jesus, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene, Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas, Alice Cooper as King Herod, Norm Lewis as Caiaphas, and Jason Tam as Peter.
Fun facts about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar
- Superstar originally began as a 87-minute concept album because no producer wanted to stage it. Lloyd Webber recalled that no producer wanted to invest in it, and one remarked, “...You have to be joking. This is the worst idea in history.”
- In 1969, Andrew Lloyd Webber was walking down Fulham Road, London and after forgetting the title song’s distinctive hook previously, it popped back into his head. He just happened to be passing a restaurant called Carlo’s Place and asked for a piece of a paper. But instead; Lloyd Webber was handed a napkin—and he quickly jotted down the main theme of Jesus Christ Superstar, unarguably the show’s most recognizable anthem, on it.
- Pope Paul VI was treated to a private advance screening of the 1973 movie version and remarked “I believe it will bring more people around the world to Christianity, than anything ever has before.”