Buy the original album recording

Jesus Christ Superstar

Apollo, Oxford, Sat 9 Jan 99
Buy the 1996 touring version

Directed by Gale Edwards
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics by Tim Rice

"Jesus Christ Superstar" is a product of its time and I don't just mean that some of the keyboard sounds have dated. Criticised as blasphemous when released, not long before those cries would have been too loud to ignore. Yet, paradoxically, it is perhaps too Christian to have been made nowadays, too un-PC.

Charges of blasphemy are ridiculous. Tim Rice's version of events is more loyal to the Bible than any mediaeval passion play—save perhaps for the opening number, Judas's "Heaven on Their Minds", with its indictment of 'Christ-ism'. Actually, "Jesus Christ Superstar" is something of a passion play for its day. Its pro-Judas position and depiction of the apostles is a rather cogent analysis, drawing on modern theological perspectives. The real blasphemy for many when it was first released was simply to associate Jesus with the sin of rock music. (Given what Christian contemporary music has become in the US, perhaps it should be considered blasphemous!)

And I do mean rock music. While we think of Lloyd Webber as a writer of populist musicals, this is a rock opera and part of the same movement in rock music that gave us progressive rock and bands like Yes, Genesis and ELP. Lloyd Webber made effective use of rock instrumentation in his score. There are some very good electric guitar riffs and percussion lines in there. Ed Macan, in his seminal text "Rocking the Classics", has described the importance of dynamics in progressive rock. Contrasting sections of quiet and loud, light and dark are a staple of much prog and very much the driving force here too. As with its near contemporary, The Who's "Tommy", "Jesus Christ Superstar" is full of rapid mood changes—sometimes very effective, sometimes rather too frantic. We also have a classical structure of repeating themes undergoing variation applied to rock music forms—another standard of prog. When Jon Anderson swore to confound the critics of Yes's Close to the Edge by putting the Bible to music in a prog epic for the band's next work, he seems to have forgotten that "Jesus Christ Superstar" had already done it. (In the end, Yes's next album, Tales from Topographic Oceans, chose a different religion.)

This latest production began in the West End and has since been touring. In 1999, what could they bring to this rock opera passion play musical? The results were satisfactory but rarely stunning. Of the individual performances, only Simon shone. Pilate and Herod got the best lines and did them well, but from the three stars, Judas and Jesus were only quite good, while Mary disappointed. A number of sections, particularly in Act I, were unintelligible, although I do not know whether to blame the house mix or the performers. Act II was generally stronger, with the performance rising to the drama.

It was the same with the orchestra: adequate performances, but little brilliance. Rock instrumentation lends itself more to individual virtuosity and I rather feel "Jesus Chris Superstar" is served well by something of a superstar rock line-up of players, as with the original album recording. Few tonight rose to the challenge. The percussionist had some good moments; the flautist a few dodgy ones.

The choreography was again uninspired: lots of climbing up and down the set and running around for the apostles. This simple approach could work for "Joseph and His Technicolor Dreamcoat" and Herod's scene tonight, which is very reminiscent of Pharoah's in "Joseph", was one of the best moments, but the drama and subtlety of "Jesus Christ Superstar" call for something rather more.

One felt that one was meant to be shocked by the use of modern dress, but surely that is of no significance in '90s theatre. Anyway, the costumes actually ranged somewhat erratically from traditional to modern to highly stylised. While individual pieces were effective enough, the wardrobe and design as a whole lacked coherence—why the kinky rubber for the girls at the end?—coming off as pantomimesque at times.

The whole production plays safe. There is so much that can be done with Rice's story. Judas is cast as a spin doctor by the very first song, so imagine Judas as Peter Mandelson and Jesus as Tony Blair! OK, this adaptation did start before the 1997 General Election, but the themes are still apparent, as are those on the question of armed insurrection (and those issues are hardly any different now in Israel as they were in 30AD). One theme the direction did play up was Judas's antagonism for Mary, but that seems to me the most trite line to take. This plush, bright but friendly, adaptation seems as sophisticated a response to the piece as the cries of blasphemy it once elicited. As if the predictability of Lloyd Webber's later work has been transplanted back in time, it seems a nostalgia for the piece was more important than breathing new life into Lloyd Webber and Rice's most dramatic work. Pleasant enough, but I had hoped for much more.

Set list:
Overture (instrumental)
Heaven on Their Minds (Judas)
What's the Buzz/Strange Thing Mystifying (Jesus, Mary, Judas, Apostles and Women)
Everything's Alright (Mary, Jesus, Judas, Apostles and Women)
This Jesus Must Die (Caiaphas, Annas, Priests, Ensemble)
Hosanna (Caiaphas, Jesus, Ensemble)
Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem (Simon, Jesus, Ensemble)
Everything's Alright (reprise) (Mary, Jesus)
I Don't Know How to Love Him (Mary)
Damned for All Time/Blood Money (Judas, Caiaphas, Annas, Priests, Ensemble)

- interval -

The Last Supper (Jesus, Judas, Apostles)
Gethsemane (Jesus)
The Arrest (Jesus, Judas, Peter, Apostles, Caiaphas, Annas, Lynch Mob)
Peter's Denial (Peter, Mary)
Pilate and Christ (Pilate, Jesus, Annas, Ensemble)
King Herod's Song (Herod)
Could We Start Again Please? (Mary, Peter, Ensemble)
Judas' Death (Judas, Caiaphas, Annas, Ensemble)
Trial by Pilate (Pilate, Caiaphas, Annas, Jesus, Ensemble)
Superstar (Judas, Soul Girls, Angel Choir)
Crucifixion (Jesus, Ensemble)
John 19:41 (instrumental)

Lee Rhodes: Jesus
Ben Goddard: Judas
Golda Rosheuvel: Mary
Fred Johanson: Pilate
Nathan Harmer: Herod
Matt Cross: Simon
David Durham: Caiaphas
Michael Shaeffer: Annas
David Wilder: Peter [understudy]
Gordon Adams, Leroy Charlery, Perry Douglin, Andrew Jeffery, Hugh
Maynard, Hans-Petter Moen, Anthony Moulton, Tom Pearce: Apostles etc.
Garry Kilby: Priest 1
Christopher Howell: Priest 2
Ryk Burnett: Priest 3
Irene Alano, Jo Bingham, Cat Simmons: Soul Girls [although three are credited in the programme, we were missing one in tonight's performance]
Yildiz Hussein, Samuel James, Neil A. Reynolds: Swings

Kate Young: keyboards, musical director
Peter Corrigan: keyboards, assistant musical director
Malcolm Maddock: piano
Scott Povey: flute, clarinet, tenor saxophone
Stephanie Rees: horn
Neil Brough: trumpet
Frank Dawkins, Alistair Marshall: guitars
Garry Cribb: bass
Damien Fisher: drum kit
Sasha Johnson: percussion

Designed by Peter J. Davison
Choreography by Anthony van Laast
Costume design by Roger Kirk
Lighting design by Mack McCullough
Sound design by Richard Ryan
Musical supervision by Simon Lee
Musical direction by Kate Young
Orchestrations by Andrew Lloyd Webber

Henry Potts, 14 Feb 99; revised 23 Oct 2005

Originally posted to and

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