Jesus Christ Superstar and Me

The rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar is an interesting piece of work. Originating as a a two-disc rock album in 1970 written by the then very young composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, featuring the lead singer of the band Deep Purple as Jesus Christ, the work was controversial even before reaching the stage a year later and the silver screen in 1973.  The composer was raised mainline Methodist, the lyricist an agnostic; the work neither endorsed nor denied Christ’s divinity, problematic for many Christians already, and further complicated by being told largely from the viewpoint of one generally considered an antagonist in the Passion narrative, Judas Iscariot.  This, mixed with the theologically problematic lyrics resulting from the former circumstances, makes the piece generally unacceptable to Christian viewers and hearers.  How is it, then, that a secular rock opera about Jesus Christ played a monumentally pivotal role in my spiritual life?

When I was fourteen, I saw Andrew Lloyd Webber’s most famous musical The Phantom of the Opera at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta with my grandparents after becoming fond of its score when a teacher played the original cast recording in class. I was curious what else the composer had written. My mother recalled a rock opera that her brother had listened to on LP growing up, Jesus Christ Superstar. I managed to procure a copy and listened. I was enraptured by the classic rock songs telling the story of the Passion of Christ. The late 60s guitar mixed with a full orchestra in the Overture captured my imagination. The raspy, blue-eyed soul voice of Murray Head as Judas straining in his opening soliloque “Heaven on Their Minds” was mind-blowing (and every bit as much all the way to Judas’ posthumous commentary “Superstar” before the crucifixion), and then came along Ian Gillan’s Jesus in the third number with what one might be tempted to call “the voice of a god” were it not a bit too cliché for the circumstance. His stratospheric screams were something I never thought I’d find in a musical, culminating in his powerful lament to God in “Gethsemane.” Aside from Phantom, I didn’t even like musicals… but I loved this!

As I listened to this high-fidelity retelling of the Passion Week, however, there was much I didn’t understand. Having not been regularly to church in about four years or so at that point, my Bible knowledge was more than a bit rusty. The last track on the album was titled “John 19:41,” but I had no clue what that passage was. I managed to dig out the King James Bible I had been given as a young child and looked up the passage, which read:

Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid.

The piece ended with Christ being laid in the tomb. Interesting. I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but I was certainly unsettled by the feeling that this wasn’t the end, and had the conviction for the first time in years that this was an important story. The question of the mystery verse answered, I found myself continuing to read in John and then Luke, trying to figure out what in the bizarre rock opera was actually in scripture and what was, as we might say, dramatic license. I finished both of those gospels in a month’s time, eventually going through Matthew and Mark as well. Meanwhile, I watched the film version of the rock opera starring Ted Neeley as Jesus and Carl Anderson as Judas. The humanity the lead actors lent to the roles broke down ideas of a stiff, unfeeling Christ and company that many previous films and perhaps too many flannel graphs had instilled in my mind.

In a year’s time, as I began to sign up for classes going into tenth grade, my interest in the story of the gospel narrative and the historicity behind it had grown to such an extent that I signed up for a released-time program at the Gilmer Christian Learning Center. My relationship with Jesus Christ Superstar never truly ended, whatever theological objections I could think to raise about some of its lyrics. I eventually saw a stage production starring Carl Anderson shortly before his death, and the original double album still finds its way into my car’s disc changer from time to time. I can’t loose myself of it. It was simply a life-changing work of art that raised all the right questions at the right times and was used by God to make a difference in my life. What else can we ask a piece of art to do?

Murray Head, the original concept album Judas, in a concert performance of “Superstar”:

Ted Neeley, Jesus in the 1973 film, in “Gethsemane”:

(Illustration: the original cover art for the American release of Jesus Christ Superstar: A Rock Opera, the concept album.)