Jesus Christ Superstar

Original Studio Recording

MCA Records, 1973

REVIEW BY: Michael Ehret

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 01/07/1999

Old joke - though we're not referring to "Waiter" who requested this review:

Diner: Waiter! What's this fly doing in my soup?

Waiter: It looks like the backstroke to me, sir.

Same joke if written by Andrew Lloyd Webber:

Diner: Waiter! What are these 500 flies doing in my soup?

Waiter: It looks like the backstroke to me, sir - in synchronization.

That is, essentially, the truth about Andrew Lloyd Webber - why just do something when it can be overdone? Nothing succeeds like excess.

And Lloyd Webber's excess is well on display with what is, arguably, his most controversial and most musical effort, Jesus Christ Superstar.

Let me just say at the beginning that if you come to Superstar hoping for profound theological truths or even to provide a musical background for your own faith, be forewarned: Lloyd Webber has "Disney-ized" the gospel story from the Bible stripping it of many of its most important and critical moments. For instance, there is no resurrection, which is only the capstone of the Christian faith and the culmination of Jesus' life on earth. Instead, at the end of this show Judas, the traitor, comes back for an encore.

And that's another complaint, Lloyd Webber and Rice have written a musical ostensibly about Jesus Christ, but who takes center stage? Who gets the best songs? Who gets the sympathetic treatment? Judas. Jesus is the moody, hard-to-get-along-with character and Judas is the one member of Jesus' entourage who is not portrayed as a buffoon. Go figure.

Anyway, let's talk about the music. Like any Lloyd Webber musical from Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat to Sunset Boulevard the music is the thing here. Story be damned, listen to the tunes! Aren't they gorgeous? And so emotive! And in Superstar there are plenty of good tunes to go around - all of them presented in the most grand of grand arrangements. Swelling violins. Crashing drums. Screaming guitars.

Screaming guitars? But of course, this is a rock opera, remember? (Hahahahahahahaha! What a ridiculous concept! But, I digress.)my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

There are a slew of Superstars to review, but the one I chose was the original concept album from 1970 - recorded before the musical ever hit a stage. I grew up with this album (and it was vinyl then) and still have the entire thing memorized. I will not comment on whether that is a good thing or not.

The cast includes Murray Head as Judas, Ian Gillan as Jesus, Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene, Barry Denne as Pilate, and Mike D'Abo as King Herod.

Head was, and still is, mesmerizing as Judas. You might recall the name Murray Head as the artist credited with the quirky hit "One Night In Bangkok" from the musical Chess written by the men of ABBA. Anyway, as Judas he presents a credible picture of a man torn between what he wanted to believe and what he couldn't believe. He sets the stage -- and the musical standard for the rest of the performers -- with the opening song "Heaven On Their Minds":

My mind is clearer now/At last, all too well, I can see where we all soon will be

If you strip away/The myth from the man/You will see where we all soon will be

Jesus! You're starting 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.

Unfortunately, Ian Gillan (yes, he of Deep Purple fame) is forgettable as Jesus. Ted Neely from the later movie version defined the role much better. Gillan sings fine, but most of the time he fails to find the humanity in Jesus, instead singing him as a strident, misunderstood preacher who is more often impatient with his congregation and disciples than pleased, nurturing or loving.

Yvonne Elliman (disco hit "If I Can't Have You" courtesy of the Brothers Gibb) makes a perfect Mary Magdalene. Her Mary is a woman trying alternately to soothe Jesus ("Everything's Alright") and expressing her confusion at being unable to find a way to love him in "I Don't Know How To Love Him". Helen Reddy mishandled this song mightily, but she got the hit record. Elliman gives it the proper amount of shading and has a far finer voice. You can sense her ache as she tries to find a new way to love.

Other highlights: D'Abo's turn as a campy King Herod in his song "Try It And See" ("Jesus I am overjoyed to meet you face to face/You've been getting quite a name all around the place/Healing lepers, raising from the dead/And now I understand you're God?/At least that's what you've said. ... Prove to me that you're no fool/Walk across my swimming pool."). Head's tortured performance in "Damned For All Time/Blood Money" is almost physically painful to listen to, but his singing on the title tune is stupendous.

Also notable is Pilate's lashing of Jesus 39 times ("The 39 Lashes") and his useless attempts to disavow his role in Jesus' death. This is another scene that's hard to listen to, especially for those who claim Christianity.

At times Superstar sounds a little dated -- it has all the rock and roll electric guitars of its era (early 70's) -- but mostly it hangs together well as modern musical theatre - but flunks roundly as theology.

Superstar has been revived more times than a Southern Belle in a nudist colony. If you've never seen the show, just wait. I'm sure some local theatrical troupe will put it on sometime soon. Or rent the movie. It's not as good as a live performance, but it's readily available. Just remember, it's only musical theatre, not the Gospel.

Rating: B

User Rating: B+


Comments

I love this album. It's one of the greatest musical recordings of all time. The only version of Gethsemane that I've heard better was Anthony Warlow songing it live. My God I almost came!!!








© 1999 Michael Ehret and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of MCA Records, and is used for informational purposes only.