Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Concept Corner: Jesus Christ Superstar

Tis the season! For guilt! That's right, with the changing of the weather comes the least celebrated Christian holiday, Easter, all about that wild cat Jesus and that whole dying and resurrecting thing he did. Most people who celebrate have a tradition of easter egg hunting, or maybe a big ham dinner, but for me it's been returning to an album (and subsequent film adaptation) that covers our boy JC in an interesting (and arguably heretical) light. Of course I'm speaking of:

Concept Corner: Jesus Christ Superstar

Jesus Christ Superstar was written in 1969 by aspiring musical composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, both of whom went on to become household names, Webber with stage productions like Cats and Phantom of the Opera and Rice writing lyrics for Disney films Aladdin, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast. But those were far in the future for this pair, who at the time were at 20 and 24 years old, respectively, with only one success to their names, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. They wanted their next project to continue the biblical theme, and after the prospect of a musical theater run was rejected by producers, the duo decided to make it an album instead, recruiting talent from both rock bands and musical theater. Of course, the album did gangbusters, leading to a theater run, a film adaptation, and numerous revivals. But we'll be narrowing the scope to the initial album, because that's what I do on this thing.

The Story

Disc 1

We open in the town of Bethany with Judas Iscariot, a disciple of Jesus, voicing his growing concerns about the man and his movement. He worries about peoples' idea of Jesus' divinity, and how there could be backlash from the Israelites and the Roman government if things continue on their present course. [2. Heaven on Their Minds] Later on, the rest of the disciples badger Jesus with questions about their plans and future, to which Jesus rebuffs them that not only do they not want to know, they likely won't care if Jesus came or went. Mary Magdalene soothes Jesus' face, which prompts Judas to ask why he'd associate himself with someone of her profession (prostitute) since it will only hurt their cause and hasten retribution from the state. Jesus responds angrily. [3. What's the Buzz/Strange Thing Mystifying] Mary Magdalene calms Jesus with myrrh for his head and feet, which again Judas criticizes, stating that an expensive oil such as that could have been sold to feed the hungry and poor instead of wasting it on one man. Jesus counters that the poor will always exist, but he will not, so cherish what is there for the present. [4. Everything's Alright] We're then brought to Jerusalem a couple days later on Sunday, where the Pharisees and High Priests have a discussion on what to do about this new messiah everyone's talking about. The possibility that his popularity leads to his followers crowning him King, provoking a violent response from the Roman authorities worries the Priests to the extent that they conclude Jesus must die to protect themselves. [5. This Jesus Must Die] Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Jesus is greeted by a crowd of excited followers and chastised by the High Priest Caiaphas for the rowdy nature of the mob. [6. Hosanna] Simon, one of the apostles, eggs Jesus on, extolling that with his current popularity, Jesus could easily overthrow the Roman government. Jesus chides Simon, explaining how he has knowledge that far outweighs Rome and Jerusalem. [7. Simon Zelotes/Poor Jerusalem] The next day, Pontius Pilate, Roman governor, wakes from a dream he had of a Galilean with an unfortunate fate, and the feeling that he would be blamed [8. Pilate's Dream] Burdened by the knowledge of the future, Jesus has an outburst at merchants in the Jerusalem temple. Upon exiting, he is overwhelmed by the unfortunates that plead for his help, claiming, "There's too little of me," and "Heal yourselves!" [9. The Temple] Mary Magdalene comes to calm Jesus and lay him to bed. [9. Everything's Alright - Reprise] Apart from him, Mary thinks about how she has fallen for Jesus in a way she hasn't for any other man, and is even frightened of him and her feelings for him. [10. I Don't Know How to Love Him] On Tuesday, Judas comes before the High Priests to do something about Jesus despite his immense guilt for having come to that decision. They agree to have Jesus arrested, and even to pay Judas for his services. While he refuses the money, he tells the Priests where they can find Jesus and when. [11. Damned for All Time/Blood Money]

Disc 2

That Thursday night, (Passover to be precise) the Apostles luxuriate on their position and the future success it will bring. Jesus, becoming increasingly agitated, cries out that one of those seated before him will betray him, and another will betray. This makes Judas confront Jesus, bewildered that Jesus would even let the betrayal occur if he knows of it, as if he wants to be arrested. Jesus exhorts him to get on with it, so Judas leaves, his enmity towards Jesus and the way he led his movement prevailing. [12. The Last Supper] At the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus prays feverishly. He pleads to avoid the path set out before him, to be beaten and killed, or at least to know what will come as a result. After being granted no answer, he relents and accepts his coming execution. [13. Gethsemane] Judas arrives with the Roman authorities and High Priests. He identifies Jesus, and the disciples are ready to defend him violently before Jesus stops them. The emerging crowd wonders why Jesus does nothing to resist his detainment, becoming excited by the events. [14. The Arrest] People in the crowd identify Peter as someone close to Jesus, who denies the connection to three people. Mary Magdalene reminds Peter that Jesus foresaw what he just did, but how did he know? [15. Peter's Denial] Friday morning, Jesus is brought before Pontius Pilate as a revolutionary, a new king for the Jews. As Jesus is from Galilee he's not under Pilate's jurisdiction, so Pilate sends him to Herod. [16. Pilate and Christ] When Jesus is brought before him, Herod asks for a show of Jesus' divinity. Jesus refuses, which sends Herod into a rage, refusing to deal with him. [17. King Herod's Song (Try It and See)] Judas sees Jesus's condition, bent and bloody from the beatings, and feels ever more remorse for what he has done. The Priests try to reassure him that what he did was just, but Judas knows he will be known as the man who killed Christ. After echoing Mary Magdalene's words about Jesus, he cries out in anguish that God chose him for such a task. As a choir chants, Judas commits suicide. [18. Judas' Death] Back before Pilate, Caiaphas demands that Jesus be crucified. Pilate is reluctant, and questions what Jesus had even done to deserve it, while the crowd demands crucifixion. Pilate relents, giving Jesus 39 lashes in the hopes it will quench the mob's bloodlust. He tries one last time to get Jesus to say any words in his own defense, but Jesus demurs. The mob calls upon Pilate's devotion to Caesar, so he washes his hands of the matter and allows the execution. [19. Trial Before Pilate] The afterworldly voice of Judas and an ethereal choir question what made Jesus come to the world at that time and that place, why he had to die, or if it all worked out according to plan. [20. Superstar] Jesus is nailed to a cross and dies, crying out in agony to God. [21. The Crucifixion] Jesus' body is taken from the cross and laid to rest in a tomb in a garden. [22. John Nineteen Forty-One]


Well geez that got pretty heavy! Well, any Passion-play is going to end like this, but how Jesus Christ Superstar gets there is what makes it special. Most people (at least where I'm from) are pretty aware of the whole Crucifixion thing, but most of the time Judas' role is simply that of the bad guy that make Jesus go bye-bye. By showing the political and personal motivations behind it, you're much less quick to judge Judas in this telling. Everyone is scared of Rome. They're the occupiers, the police, the main state power. And the way some of the disciples seem raring to go overthrow Roman control, it's understandable why the Pharisees and Judas would be so apprehensive at Jesus's following. Of course, with the High Priests, they definitely show more of a cowardice than a sincere concern for the Jewish people. It's interesting how Judas justifies all his actions by first saying it's what Jesus would want him to do, and once he sees the results of what he's done, blames God for manipulating him. Oh, and he might be in love with Jesus.

Jesus himself is a departure from how one would expect. Seeing as how this is his last week of life and he knows it, the stress is kinda getting to him. A lot of the more controversial Gospel passages are displayed here, with Jesus (essentially) dismissing the plight of the poor, wrecking up a bunch of vendors in a Temple, then telling a bunch of blighted people to heal themselves. Really it looks like those are to provide context for Judas' betrayal, but they paint Jesus in a pretty human light. Like, shit, ain't nobody gonna be real stable when your expiration date is less than a week away.

It's interesting to note that the nature of Jesus' following mirrors that of the Beatles. This came out on the tail-end of the 60's, where mobs of frenzied fans would meet the Beatles anywhere they went. People even came up to them with the belief they could heal the sick. The thing the High Priests remark upon when Jesus arrives in Jerusalem is how much noise the people awaiting him make. When Jesus is arrested by the Roman,s the crowd of people outside act as mass media reporters, questioning Jesus on his next move, or how this happened. I haven't seen any interviews confirming this, but I have to believe they wrote Jesus as this sort of Superstar because of Lennon's claim that the band had become "more popular than Jesus." The familiar (to listeners at the time) scope of Jesus' following certainly helps one understand the magnitude of it all, and why those in power would be worried.

At the time a lot of religious figures found the album (and subsequent play) to be heretical in nature, primarily because it doesn't show the resurrection, the main thing people know about JC. It goes a little deeper than that, his divinity is questioned a few times through the album, primarily by Judas, who thinks the God stuff is megalomania from becoming so popular. Of course, the evidence is there, if you look. It's chiefly in JC's prognostication, like knowing that he's going to die, or that Peter would deny him. But really, the album is more about the people and culture around Jesus, rather than Jesus himself.

The Music

The orchestration is your general late 60's rock deal, with lead guitar, bass, drum set, and Hammond organ, but with some additions like piano and some big band instruments like flutes, brass, and clarinets This is likely what Webber was familiar with given his stage background, and that he likely planned on making this into a stage show eventually anyway. Though the style is pretty clearly of its time, like most musicals it gets away with feeling like a classic rather than dated.

Something Webber does with the composition is fill the first half with a bunch of motifs that come up again in the second half, so a few songs are reprises of earlier ones, but you get little callbacks during certain moments. "Judas' Death" takes its tune from "Damned For All Time" but takes the motif from "I Don't Know How To Love Him" and ends with the guitar riff from "Heaven On Their Minds." The theme from "What's the Buzz" returns in "The Last Supper" when the apostles get ready to defend Jesus from the Romans. All of this lends the album its own sort of language, where the echos of previous songs inform the latter ones. It's something musicals do more often than concept albums, and it's a trick Webber would use later in his more popular stage productions.

As for individual songs themselves, "Heaven On Their Minds" is a marvelous opening track, a thesis statement for the rest of the album. The staccato guitar lends a tension to the song, the feeling that a dam is about to break. It transitions to a piano and bass arrangement as Judas pleads to Jesus, a more conciliatory tone. Murray Head, a singer and actor who had been in a production of Hair before being approached by Webber and Rice, makes an excellent Judas all the way through. From soft crooning to anguished cries, his range adds a soulfulness that's needed to humanize Judas.

"Gethsemane (I Only Want To Say)" is one of the big standouts, a tormented song about a man facing his own inevitable death. Regal, yet mournful horns are joined by soft strings, punctuated by fervent questions to God.

I'd have to know I'd have to know my Lord
I'd have to see I'd have to see my Lord
If I die what will be my reward?
I'd have to know I'd have to know my Lord

Then Ian Gillan graces us with one of the best wails I've yet to hear. That "WHYYYY" is pretty much your benchmark for how good your JC is. (That NBC Live production did not make a good impression.) Gillan is most known for being lead singer of Deep Purple, and that metal connection seals the deal as my favorite singer for the part.

Jesus Christ Superstar is just a damn good album. Even though it's had many stage adaptations by now, none have had the same cast and energy of this initial release. If you don't have any exposure to this production, or even if you're familiar with the Live show or 1973 film, this album is worth a listen. The story, even with its Biblical roots, manages a new perspective, and provides food for thought even if one isn't religious. In short, it's easy to see how Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice got to be where they are today when they could make an album of this caliber at such a young age. I highly recommend you give this one some time yourself, or at least the film, which gave us gems like the one I'll leave you with, devoid of context:

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