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Show Business: The Gold Rush to Golgotha

18 minute read

Must then a Christ perish in torment in every age to save those that have no imagination? —Shaw

You cannot serve God and mammon.—Jesus

Vulgarity: something vulgar—for instance, seating a chimpanzee at a formal dinner. —Webster

I just like to stir people up.—Tom O’Horgan, director

DEPENDING on how one looked at them, the happenings in and around Manhattan’s Mark Hellinger Theater last week would have confuted the claims of Jesus, or confirmed the dark suspicions of Oswald Spengler, who liked to think that the twilight of Western civilization will be marked not by true religion, but by an upsurge of fervid religiosity. Jesus Christ Superstar, the rock opera that is rocking Broadway’s new season, is show biz with a twist: Director Tom O’Horgan, who was influenced by Olsen & Johnson, has made it into a sort of Heavenzapoppin.

Inside the theater, on boards once trod by such creations as Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle, a white-robed, rock-age Jesus Christ now strides barefoot. He arrives onstage most phallically, rising like a glittering crocus out of a chalice that somewhat resembles those silvered bowls in which hotels serve grapefruit. He departs crucified on a Daliesque golden triangle that is slowly projected toward the audience by a hidden cherrypicker lift. In Jesus’ company come a sweetly sensuous, cheek-kissing Mary Magdalene, a quintet of Jewish high priests who call for a “final solution” to their Jesus problem, and King Herod—a queen in full drag. There is also the traitor Judas, played by a black whose considerable talent and limitless energy sometimes upstage Jesus. Clad in silver jockey shorts, Judas returns from the dead on a butterfly-winged acrobatic bar to ask the doomed Jesus “Why you let the things you did get so out of hand?” He does not sing Swing Low, Sweet Iscariot. But, over a heavy blues-rock beat, he does sound the show’s provocative theme:

He’s a man—he’s just a man He’s not a king—he’s just the same As anyone I know.

Outside the Mark Hellinger, police patrolled the sidewalk at curtain time on opening night while pickets marched in protest. Queues of buses continue to disgorge paying customers who have bought seats in blocks: suburban klatsches of all sorts, whole schoolfuls of children, and Protestant, Catholic and Jewish lay groups, many of whom have heard Jesus Christ Superstar on records at church or temple. Simultaneously, religious groups, often from the same denominations as those flocking inside, proclaim outrage at the show and lament that it does not include Jesus’ Resurrection. YOU’VE GOT YOUR STORY TWISTED! JESUS is THE LORD. The American Jewish Committee soberly considered whether Jesus Christ Superstar is good or bad for the Jews and decided that it’s bad. It issued a seven-page study asserting that the show’s creators rival even the Passion Play of Oberammergau in blackening Jewish character and posing a threat to “Christian-Jewish relations.”

Pleasure or Rage

Such comments, and the attendant controversy, have had the inevitable result. Almost overnight they guaranteed that Jesus Christ Superstar, already jingling along three days after its opening with one of the largest ($1.2 million) advance sales in Broadway history, will become the one show of the season that must be seen to be believed —or doubted. Superstar tickets are $60 a pair from your friendly scalper.

British Producer Robert Stigwood is cheerfully predicting that the show, in all its numerous concert and stage guises and disguises, will gross $20 million by this time next year. Whether the crowds who come get their money’s worth or not, they are likely to be at least as stirred to pleasure or rage as the first-night audience was. They can hardly be more divided than the New York critics, whose judgment ranged from “flat, pallid and actually pointless” (Post) to “stunningly effective” (Daily News).

Fortunately, critics did not have to review Stigwood’s opening-night party for 1,000, which took place at The Tavern on the Green. Like an army of extras for a Fellini movie, the guests turned out to nibble at hams decorated to resemble Indonesian masks, and to dance until 4 a.m. to live rock. Transvestites right out of The Damned, complete with dark red lipstick and 1930s feather boas, shouldered their way slinkily past matrons from Westchester. One unidentified chap wore a beige net jumpsuit with nothing on underneath, and a woman in gray velvet knickers pulled her off-the-shoulder blouse well below her bosom, while photographers immortalized the view.

Broadway is used to money, boffo musicals and first-night madness. Box-office records, like prices, gradually escalate. Even by those commercial Broadway standards, Jesus Christ Superstar has a good deal going for it besides controversy: eclectic, tuneful rock music, a dramatic book with the most famous cast of characters in Western history, frenetic staging. But there is more to the phenomenon than that.

Spiritual Fervor

To begin with, as a sign of the electronic times. Superstar is the only Broadway musical ever to have grown from an LP record album that sold in the millions before the opening. First its theme-song single, then the concert album, and finally two concert production groups swept campuses, parishes and high schools in the U.S., appealing to young and old alike. (“I know a woman who’s at least 45 and she’s going,” said an amazed teen-ager from Utica, N.Y., about a local concert.)

More important, Superstar’s popularity is a symptom and partial result of the current wave of spiritual fervor among the young known as the Jesus Revolution (TIME cover, June 21). Whether it is a sign of Spenglerian decadence or religious renaissance, there is an obvious yearning to consider Christ not merely as a fellow rebel against worldliness and war, but as history’s most persistent and accessible symbol of purity and brotherly love. As a conservative Protestant weekly, Christianity Today, pointed out: “Many Christians have ignored this generation’s questions about Jesus. For those who will listen, Superstar tells what young people are saying.”

On these terms Jesus Christ Superstar is simply a pop musical forced to stand in for “the greatest story ever told.” It does not pretend to span the enormous scope of the Gospels, simply the last seven days in Jesus’ life but with the divinity of Christ and the Resurrection left out. JCS was created by two talented, engaging young Englishmen, Lyricist Tim Rice, 26, and Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, 23.

They admit that they were fascinated by “the incredible drama” of the Christ story, as well as by a number of human perplexities: Why, for example, did everything go so wrong for Jesus? Why didn’t he choose to make his appearance on earth today, when he could have the benefit of mass communications to teach his followers? Armed with a paperback edition of Fulton J. Sheen’s Life of Christ, which compares and calibrates the Gospel stories, Lloyd Webber and Rice burrowed and borrowed from Matthew, Mark, Luke and John to create a libretto. The first three Gospels, says Rice, seem more dependable, since John “was much hotter on visions and supernatural things.” They concentrated on Christ’s reputation as a humanitarian thinker, the charismatic leader of a dissident movement and a victim who might variously suggest latter-day martyrs like Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. “A big point of Superstar,” Rice explains, “is to show the way people react to him.”

No one in Superstar reacts to Jesus quite like Judas. Indeed, to the extent that the show has any personal continuity, it is carried by the relationship between them. Lloyd Webber and Rice admit to a feeling that history and the Scriptures have been unkind to Judas. If Christ was really divine, after all, then Judas was merely the instrument of his will. And if Christ was merely a great teacher and prophet who in mid-career fell prey to delusions of grandeur and a persecution complex, then Judas —those 30 pieces of silver aside—was merely doing what he thought was right. The latter is the view, anyway, suggested by Jesus Christ Superstar. From the beginning, Judas worries about Jesus the way a friend and key adjutant would advise an adored rock singer who has gone spoiled, or the leader of a political movement who suddenly begins to take his press notices seriously:

Jesus! You’ve started to believe The things they say of you You really do believe This talk of God is true And all the good you’ve done Will soon be swept away You’ve begun to matter more Than the things you say. . . They think they’ve found the new Messiah And they’ll hurt you when they find they’re wrong

And at one point, enraged Judas even threatens to thwart Jesus’ outrageous ambitions by not betraying him at all.

Somewhat more consistent with the Gospels is the view of Caiaphas and other Jewish high priests, who regard Jesus partly as a heretic but mainly as a rabble-rouser who threatens to bring down the full weight of Rome upon occupied Palestine. Jewish groups who protest that Superstar is anti-Jewish because it makes the high priests meaner and more bloody-minded than they are in the Gospels may have a point. But they have missed the contemporary echoes that Superstar trades on with audiences likely to know little of the Bible and less of history. The high priests are not so much Jews as caricatures of all officials whose job and ambition is to suppress disorder. John Mitchell and Mayor Daley, for instance, might almost as well protest as the American Jewish Committee.

Yet Jesus Christ Superstar is free of the simplistic good guy-bad guy division of humanity that one might expect. Except for Mary Magdalene, everyone uses or abuses Jesus. Even the Apostles, who might well have come on as some sort of ideal commune brotherhood, are clearly presented not loving Jesus but wanting to ride with him on some sort of spiritual trip. They also display an ambitious yen to retire and “write the Gospels, so they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died.”

Bone Bridge

Superstar’s vulgarity is less in the realm of religion than of theatrical taste. Serious Lloyd Webber and Rice fans, in fact, may well be advised to open a new chapter in the age of McLuhan by turning down a chance at the show “because I loved the record.” On LP, Jesus Christ Superstar is abstract, intimate, capable of subtly engaging the mind and the imagination. Director O’Horgan’s frenetic Broadway incarnation is rarely any of those things. It is, instead, a frequently breathless and occasionally stupendous son et lumière show, crowded with mechanical contrivances, and a headlong rush of happenings that, as designer Robin Wagner puts it, “overlap like arrows in flight.”

Sometimes O’Horgan, like Cecil B. DeMille, overwhelms through extravagance. The most dramatic example (see cover) is Jesus rising from the stage floor on a hidden elevator; a $20,000 robe cascades in gleaming folds beneath him, after covering layers have been stripped off, suggesting the radiant emergence of a butterfly from a chrysalis. O’Horgan’s aim is mainly to shock the sensibilities; often, alas, that is all he manages to do.

As the show opens, a fortress-like curtain wall leans dramatically backward to form a sharply raked stage, bodies clinging to it as to the sides of a sinking ship. When Pontius Pilate appears, it is through a doorway modeled after the head of Caesar. As it telescopes open, bearing a throbbing resemblance to an Excedrin ad, it reveals six sets of eyes. The high priests descend on a bone bridge that looks as if it had been left over from one of Alley Oop’s dinosaurs. During Christ’s prayers to God in Gethsemane, a universe box is lowered over his head, variously suggesting the Almighty, a small computer, or the ark of the covenant as crafted by Magnavox. Even the singers, carrying microphones on long power cords, seem plugged into some vast machine.

What with skeletons from above, electrical lines snaking about and two-ton floor slabs heaving up and down, the production is downright dangerous for the players. So far, only a few toes have been broken, but the cast has already asked for extra danger pay. Fortunately they are young (average age 21) and fleet of foot, as well as accustomed to the fast pace that O’Morgan likes and that they had to follow in putting the show together. O’Horgan took over at a moment of crisis in August, and eventually had to cast Superstar’s 40 parts in a two-week marathon session. The smell of burning pot and ambition filled the theater, as some 500 candidates, more than a hundred each for the major roles, tried out. One unsuccessful competitor recalls that you couldn’t tell the Judas candidates from the Jesus candidates, except that some guys “would periodically kiss someone and burst into gales of maniacal laughter.” Many were from the Superstar concert companies, as well as from 14 companies of Hair, O’Horgan’s biggest hit.

It was a little like the old New York Yankees summoning up 20-game winners from the farm system. Various Hair troupes produced Superstar’s Judas and Jesus. A Superstar concert tour and the LP provided Mary Magdalene and Pilate. “There’s a special kind of singer needed for rock opera,” O’Horgan explains. “It’s much more gut, more street. We have vocal ranges in this show that no one could produce without a mike, not even Birgit Nilsson.”

Pale Galilean

As personified by a slender tenor named Jeff Fenholt, 21, the Christ of Superstar bears a startling resemblance to those portraits of the pale Galilean that used to be hung in children’s bedrooms all over the country—a vision that has helped turn so many of the hip young off contemporary religion. Hawaii-born Yvonne Elliman, 19, has just the right combination of sweet, gentle good looks and crooning pop ballad style to suggest that Magdalene is really two Marys rolled into one. As Judas, Ben Vereen, 24, has one of the more physically demanding roles in the history of Broadway. Not only must he sing at great length—in a style that suggests Sammy Davis Jr. imitating Chuck Berry—but, in the torment of guilt, he hops and dances around like a man in the grip of epilepsy or leeches.

One reason that O’Horgan’s staging is a marathon exercise is that Lloyd Webber’s music never stops—a rarity for Broadway musicals. The musical score has been criticized for being something less, or more, than rock. It is, in fact, an elegant pastiche, swiftly paced and highly styled, that does not sound like show music but has something for everybody: a curtain-raising blues number to loosen up the audience, a winsome torch song sung to the sleeping Jesus by an awed Mary Magdalene, and a campy Charleston-like piece that allows King Herod, outrageously turned out as a transvestite, to make fun of Jesus: “Prove to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool.”

The music does not outdo the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Ray Charles, Prokofiev, Orff, Richard Strauss or any other of the influences to be found in it. But it does fuse those elements into a new kind of thespic amalgam that has high dramatic point, melodic joy, and rarity of rarities, wit. Tim Rice’s lyrics occasionally turn mundane in the otherwise commendable effort to speak in contemporary terms, but his psychologically aware variations on the Gospels are often adroitly arresting. Already beginning to doubt the steadfastness of his friends, Christ tells the Disciples at the Last Supper:

The end

Is just a little harder when brought about by friends

For all you care this wine could be my blood,

For all you care this bread could be my body.

With only two published works to their credit (the other is a children’s musical play about Joseph in Egypt), the young team of Lloyd Webber and Rice have pushed forward the frontier possibilities of rock opera and made, just for starters, what Rice calls “a million quid” apiece ($2.4 million). They are becomingly modest about their talents, grateful for their extraordinary luck and sensibly reserved about future plans.

False Prophets

Lloyd Webber, dark, slender and intense, likes to point out defensively that this is his first opera—a defense that only someone who knows Verdi’s first opus can fully appreciate. Rice, tall and blond, finds inspiration in the rhyming dictionary, talks like a character out of a book by his favorite novelist, P.G. Wodehouse, and looks like somebody’s kid brother home for the long hols. If fame and fortune have not yet disturbed them, it may be because so much of it has come in the U.S. “The LP record is an absolute dud in England,” Rice explains. “Only three weeks ago a friend of my mother’s said, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Tim could make a living out of that song.’ ”

An incredible skein of dramatic rights, record rights, concert rights, managers’ cuts, royalties, subsidiaries and merchandisers’ rights (buttons, T shirts) holds Superstar together. But infringement suits and restraining orders, just to keep people from pirating words and music, have cost MCA and Producer-Manager Stigwood $125,000 in lawyers’ fees already this year. Their record to date: 15 court actions, dozens of unauthorized shows closed down. With the success of the original LP, Stigwood moved toward developing a stage version and launching touring concerts less than a year ago, only to find that he had been beaten to the punch. By whom? By churches, in cities and towns large and small from New Jersey to New Mexico, who were using Superstar to stir up their congregations.

Such infringements were mostly overlooked, especially at first. But as real pirate shows proliferated, MCA and Stigwood swung into action. Even an order of nuns in Sydney, Australia, were smitten like false prophets for planning their own staged production. “Like all Christians, these nuns believe Jesus Christ is theirs,” explained Sydney Impresario Harry M. Miller, sternly adding, “What they are forgetting is that there is such a thing as copyright.”

“Hi Kids, It’s Me, Jesus.”

Beyond, or below, the reach of Stigwood and MCA, the cash and carrying on over Jesus as an exploitable product continues briskly. Declaring that romantic films are through for now, Italian Director Franco Zeffirelli (Romeo and Juliet] has just announced that he is planning what he calls a “factual” film, to be called The Assassination of Christ. “This decade should be one of spiritual awakening,” continues Zeffirelli, “not even a movie director should ignore it.” Among those not ignoring it are the Pop and head shops offering Jesus Christ jockey shorts. And for the ladies: Jesus Christ bikinis. A radio ad for the new Jesus Watch runs as follows: “Hi kids, it’s me, Jesus. Look what I’m wearing on my wrist. It’s a wristwatch with a five-color picture of me on the dial and hands attached to a crimson heart.”

Honest men may differ as to just how dreadful, hopeful or insignificant the commercial Jesus fad is, including Jesus Christ Superstar as its centerpiece. Balanced against the enduring metaphor, the bitter and sweet mystery that the life of Christ embodies, Lloyd Webber and Rice’s rock opera seems sad enough. It is depressing to imagine what certainly is the case, that too many Americans, whether religious or not, will know no more of the Gospels and the Passion than Superstar presents. Yet with all its sins of omission and commission, the production very well dramatizes one transcendental meaning of the Passion, the Christian belief that all the men around Jesus contributed to his suffering, and that their fears and worldliness variously helped crucify him.

Equally notable is the corollary fact that anyone who sees Superstar, as opposed to the average Broadway musical, is forced to think about whether Christ was the Son of God or a man—a concern, however brief, that must be more elevating than wondering whether Lauren Bacall will lose her boy friend. There is also the consolation, not inconsiderable these days, that things might easily have been worse. For a while Tom O’Horgan was toying with the idea of a “vinyl-clad, hip Christ crucified on the handle bars of a Harley-Davidson.”

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