Book & Lyrics by Tim Rice
Music by Andrew Lloyd Webber
adapted from The Gospels

INFO:

Opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre October 12, 1971 711 Performances
Original Director: Tom O’ Horgan
Original Choreographer: O’ Horgan
Original Producer: Robert Stigwood
Original Leads: Jesus: Jeff Fenholt (later Ted Neeley) Judas: Ben Vereen (later Carl Anderson) Mary: Yvonne Elliman
Cast Size: Male: 8 (some can double) Female: 1 Ensemble: At least 10 Total Cast Size:  no less than 16, but better with 24 +
Orchestra: 18, and needs that sort of orchestra to provide the mix of classical and rock sounds required.  Might be able to be done with about six pieces, if the traditional orchestration can be effectively presented on a synth or two, to go with the live rock instruments.
Published Script: Libretto published often with various album versions.
Production Rights: Rodgers and Hammerstein Library
Recordings: I like the original American release of the concept album as the best representation of the score. Ian Gillian as Jesus., Murray Head as Judas, Yvonne Elliman as Mary
Film: Directed by Norman Jewison, a fascinating version with Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson, true to the shape of the show, fascinating to watch, if a bit draggy at times and off to look at.
Other shows by the authors: Evita, Joseph And His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Webber also wrote Phantom of the Opera, Cats. Rice wrote Chess, The Lion King
Awards:Nominated for five Tonys, won none of them.

WHO SHOULD DO THIS SHOW:

This is a show for a College/University-aged cast to do, overall, though you may need a few older actors to play Pilate. The cast should be young, vital, sing very well, handle rock and theater styles well. They will need to move very well, and do some decent acting. The show is considered the first “rock opera,” and though it is not true rock music, it uses many of the devices of rock in conjunction with classical and theatrical musical forms. Local theater groups can certainly do it if they have the resources, as can Dinner Theater (harder…who wants to eat desert as Christ is crucified? If anything will make you feel guilty, I’d think that would do it…), stock companies, and pros.

By the way, a good outdoor show, for an amphitheater. Also, a good show for theater in the round.

Be Warned:

It’s a rock version covering the last seven days of the life of Jesus Christ. Even now, decades after this show made history as the first truly successful (and perhaps the best) rock opera, there are certainly people who are bound to be offended. Some church groups might thrive on a show like this. Others might despise it. It does present a sort of religious discussion, but truly, it’s far more interested as a show in the human aspects of the story.

Older groups should avoid the piece, the roles call for youth and energy.  Groups with small stages might not be able to place this show comfortably on the boards.

THE STORY:

ACT ONE: Judas considers that Jesus and his followers all have “:Heaven On Their Minds”, and have lost sight of why they started their movement in the first place. As the others wonder somewhat dully “What’s The Buzz”, Judas complains to Jesus’ face that it seems to him a “Strange Thing, Mystifying” that he’d waste time on the likes of a whore, like Mary Magdalene. Jesus let’s him know that, given what he’s gone through and what he is about to do, he has the right to some comforts.

Mary tries to calm Jesus so he can sleep. (“Everything’s Alright”) In the meantime, Jewish high priests, called “Pharisees,” decide that this Jesus, a Jew who some claim in King of the Jews (though he’s made no such claim) is a problem, and that somehow, someway, “This Jesus Must Die” for the sake of the survival of the Jewish people.

Jesus is surrounded by worshipers who cry “Hosanna”, and knows no peace. “Simon Zealots” recommends starting a movement to overthrow Rome, to build a greater power than has ever been seen before, around Jesus. People surround him and beg him for a healing touch, and he cries at them, to leave him alone.

Alone, Pontius Pilate, the Roman Prefect over Judea, has had a dream in which he sees millions of people crying out his name, and blaming him for something terrible he has done. (“Pilate’s Dream”) In Jerusalem at last, the city of Jesus’ dreams and nightmares, Jesus enters “The Temple:” and rages over the many businesses and uses in “his Father’s House”, causing havoc. His life is spinning out of control, and so are Mary’s feelings for him. (“I Don’t Know How To Love Him”)

The Pharisees have a plan. They will turn Jesus over to the Romans, for the Jews have no law that allows them to put a man to death, but the Roman’s crucify people all the time. They make a deal with Judas, who is deeply upset by what he perceives as a movement and a man spinning out of control. He will approach Jesus in a quiet place and kiss him, which will be the act that will identify Jesus for the Roman authorities, who will then arrest him. Judas knows that if he does this, he will be “Damned For All Time,” and though they offer him 40 pieces of silver, he says he does not want their “Blood Money”. He will do this thing in an attempt to save Jesus from himself, and save the movement.

ACT TWO: At what only Jesus knows will be “The Last Supper”, he advises his followers to remember him when they eat and drink. But it’s clear he’s surrounded by common men, incapable of much greatness, and he feels he will be forgotten, that he must be mad to follow through on this path. The others get drunk and, one by one, fall asleep, until only Jesus is awake. In “Gethsemane”, the garden where this scene takes place, Jesus asks God to let him off the hook. He doesn’t want to die. But he sees there is no way out, and longs for it all to end.

It is then that Judas betrays him with a kiss, and “The Arrest” takes place. The Apostles are nearly arrested, but they all deny they know Jesus, and in “Peter’s Denial”, he quickly denies Jesus three times, knowing his doomed Jesus to death, because he has done exactly as Jesus predicted he would.

Jesus is brought, bound and beaten, before Pontius Pilate. “Pilate and Christ” face off, and though Pilate feels badly for this deluded man, he has a part of an Empire he must run and take responsibility for. He decides to pass the buck, turning Jesus over to the Hebrew King, Herod. Herod has heard Jesus called “King of the Jews”, which happens to be his own title, and he clearly despises him. But he expresses his hatred humorously in “Herod’s Song”, asking Jesus to prove he’s divine by turning his water into wine, and walking across his swimming pool. Jesus is largely silent now, and Herod demands he be returned to the Romans to die, for again, the Jews have no law to put a man to death.

Judas sees Jesus beaten, physically destroyed, and out of guilt, hangs himself. (“Judas’ Death) Again, Jesus appears in a “Trial Before Pilate”, who is simply mystified why this man is putting himself through such torment. Jesus states that he’s never called himself the King of anything, and Pilate begs him to surrender his delusions and live. Jesus leaves his earthly fate in Pilate’s hands, but states that only God has any power. Pilate orders him crucified.

Judas’ ghost looks at this “Superstar”, on his way to his crucifixion, and wonders who he really is. Is he a great religious figure or some kind of fake? What did he really want, what did he do? But “The Crucifixion” moves forward, Christ placed up on the cross to die. There, he asks his Father to forgive them, and he passes. In “John Nineteen: Forty-One”, the apostles grieve over their fallen savior’s death.

THE SONGS:

“Overture”, “Heaven On Their Minds”, “What’s The Buzz/Strange Thing Mystifying”, “Everything’s Alright”, “This Jesus Must Die”, “Hosanna”, “Simon Zealots”, “Pilate’s Dream”, “The Temple”, “I Don’t Know How To Love Him”, “Damned For All Time/Blood Money”, “The Last Supper”, “Gethsemane”, “The Arrest”, “Peter’s Denial”, “Pilate and Christ”, “King Herod’s Song”, “Judas’ Death”, “Trial Before Pilate”, “Superstar”, The Crucifixion”, “John Nineteen: Forty-One”

Hits include “Everything’s Alright”, “I Don’t Know How To Love Him”, “Gethsemane”, “Herod’s Song”, “Superstar”

MY OPINIONS:

You may, as always, skip or ignore my opinions and rating.  ‘Cause, you know, everything’s alright, yes, everything’s fine…

I’m not really a big Webber fan. I like this show and Evita, and that’s really it. But I admit, I absolutely love this piece. It was a key part of my own misspent youth, and interested me in popular music before almost anything else did. I listened to the concept album many dozens of times, and memorized every note and word. My affection for it has never waned.

It’s an inherently dramatic story, of course. Few stories capture the imagination and emotions of an audience more than the Christ story. Rice and Webber have managed to find a way to make the story feel like today, contemporary and edgy. It is amazing that the piece has not dated, but it hasn’t. The music holds up very well, because it never was really “rock” to begin with. It’s just terrific, vital, explosive, versatile theatrical music that illuminates beautifully the edges of the story and inner-conflicts of the characters. Rice’s lyrics are very clever, and make good theater, though he often misses perfect rhymes by quite a distance. His sense of dramaturgy here is perfect. He gives us enough story to keep the character’s emotional conflicts in play, which is what he wisely focuses on.

I don’t know if this is “great theater,” though I think it can be very emotional and interesting theater. But the story is undeniably great “drama.” It would be up to the individual production, the director and crew, to make a great theater piece out of what was originally conceived to be a “concept album,” two records, a sound opera, almost like a radio piece. And indeed, it works well as “radio drama.” So the visual content will need to rise to a level as extraordinary as the story and characters. The original Broadway production was filled with strange, evocative, but ultimately unsatisfying imagery and juxtapositions of objects and bodies, in an attempt to create a visual impact that is modern and emotional. I believe the film version suffers from a similar problem. I think multi-media can help this show, but there must be some sort of central visual concept at work to drive the look of the show.

And I think the director should have an experimental instinct and a deep working knowledge of theater to do this show at all.

MY RATING: ** (An excellent show, well worth considering)

PRODUCTION CONCERNS AND IDEAS:

DIFFICULTY OF MUSIC:

The music is very well known, but that does not mean it’s simple. It’s not. There are lots of intriguing and challenging tempo changes. The ranges are sometimes operatic, or soar into the upper stratosphere of rock. The piece is a real challenge for your musicians, being as it is an intentional and violent mixing of musical ideas and forms. You’ll need a cast that sing and harmonize very well, and are not unacquainted with musicianship, if possible.

Jesus – Tough role to play. Needs a huge vocal range, well into high tenor, and must be able to scream/belt up there. Powerful, passionate, conflicted even while committed, his voice must have a wildness to it, to reflect the conflicts in his being.

Judas – Needs a big vocal range, a big belt, some rock high notes, but not as many as Jesus. Must sing rock/theater styles with extreme conviction and passion. As conflicted in his own way as Jesus, a voice filled with angst and fury.

Mary – Mezzo/alto, pop quality, good emotional expression required. Cast a singer first for this role. The range isn’t huge, but she must handle it well.

Pilate – A lyric baritone with a clear, emotional voice and decent range. Must sing well enough, but does not need a brilliant voice like Jesus and Judas.

Herod – Comic lyric baritone/tenor role, one song. Acting is more important in this role, singing is second, but he must carry the simple melody, and maybe belt a bit.

Caiaphas (the lead Pharisee) – Bass/Baritone, rumbling bottom notes.

Annas (Another Pharisee) – Weaselly, tinny tenor, a vocal contrast to Caiaphas.

Simon – Big, powerful rock feel, lyric baritone.

Peter – Tenor or lyric baritone, fair singer, pure voice, in the young side.

Ensemble – Priests, whores, people of Jerusalem, apostles, you name it. All should sing well, in theatrical and rock styles, harmonize very well, move well.

DIFFICULTY OF DANCE, CHOREOGRAPHIC CONCERNS:

Lots and lots of high-energy movement and dance. The numbers are charged with vitality, they move fast and hard. The ensemble must be choreographed thoroughly, creatively, and with extreme conviction. They’ll also need to be rehearsed to within an inch of their lives. This qualifies in some ways as a true dance show. Rock and gospel modes will determine the kind of movement used. And there’s even a quasi patter-soft-shoe piece, Herod’s song, that will need an old show-biz feel to it.

Judas MUST dance well, move well, with authority and vitality. It is not Jesus who is the core of this show’s energy and emotional impact, but Judas.

Jesus and Mary do not need to move much. Everyone else will probably double, outside your three leads. That means they all need to dance.

The choreographer should have a very strong concept for the type of movement to be used, going into auditions. This is always true, of course, but I think with this show, it bears particular mention. The auditions should help you spot the sort of talent that will be able to pull off what might be a very high-energy, detailed dance scheme. And you’ll probably want to have a strong dance captain in the cast to help whip things into shape and keep them there.

CASTING CONCERNS:

You need a young company of triple threats. A “triple threat” can act, sing and dance. Jesus does not need to dance, neither does Mary or Pilate. But everyone else will need to do all three.

Jesus – A humorless, wearying, emotionally exhaustive role. Besides singing like an angel and a demon at various times, he must pass through the play knowing he will be crucified at the end. Jesus is often angry, feels alone, and even feels betrayed at times by his Father. He is a very modern man in many ways, as presented here. Does not need to dance, but well, um, must look something like people’s idea of Jesus Christ. I think this could be cast multi-racial, but in your neighborhood it might lead to a riot for all I know. I’d cast for voice first, look next, acting last. But if he can’t act it, he can’t do the role, simple as that. And remember Jesus is not a kid, he’s 33 at the time of his death, almost making him an old man for this cast. A starring role for a star in the making, if you have one.

Judas – An incredibly dynamic, conflicted, fascinating role. Takes a great showman with a powerful rock/theater voice, and he must be able to move very well indeed. His acting has top be the, as well, and he experiences a lot of anger, disappointment, fury, which sometimes expresses itself with a sense of irony. He has more of a sense of humor than Jesus does. He is infected with the idea that a good man should behave in a certain way at all times, a stereotype that plays in his mind and poisons his affection for Jesus. A man torn apart by what he sees as right, and what he wants, two different things. He “loves” Jesus, and seems jealous to some extent of Mary, which begs some questions I personally have no interest in where this show is concerned. Another starring role. Any ethnicity or race.

Mary – Must sing and look good. Usually played sad, sorry for herself, even mopey, which I personally find unsatisfactory and annoying. I think I would be far better if she was strong, combative, determined to be of assistance to the man she considers has saved her. Is she in love with him? Perhaps, but there are all sorts of love. She hangs in there with him, almost to the end, and is one of the last to leave him to his fate, if in fact she ever really does. It would be smart, I believe, to place her at the trials, watching, perhaps even planning his escape without any hope or assistance. They could see each other from a distance, and he could motion for her to leave, to save herself. This third leg in the leading cast needs to be developed, more by the director and actress, and I think a good dose of interesting thought might make us root for her more than we usually do. Any ethnicity or race.

Pilate – The fourth leg of the show. He represents Rome, the power and the might of the world. He should be somewhat arrogant, patrician, with a sense of his position and power in the world. But it’s clear he feels some concern for this strange man who appears in trial before him. Pilate does not believe in pain, or excess. He believes in peace, in a smooth operation. He is not a “bad man” as portrayed in this show. He is the wrong man in the wrong place, and he confronts troubles with the power of Rome, and death, an elephant gun to kill a fly. Needs a strong actor who sings well, no dance required. Probably needs to be Caucasian.

Herod – King of the Jews. Dissipated, drunken, lecherous, fat, self-involved, on a life-long party. Sings what is basically an old-fashioned patter verse. (Just a thought. He could be played entirely different, and it might be a bit less insulting to we Jews out here. He could be in a suit and tie, educated, suave, too sophisticated for his own good, as the party and others crumble, he thinks and acts. It would be a more interesting approach, I think. And would allow him to do just the smallest and most careful soft shoe so as not to dirty his clothes.)

Caiaphas (the lead Pharisee) – A political man, used to power, but also held down by greater powers such as Rome. A man who fears anything new, anything powerful, and Jesus is such a phenomenon. Be careful with all this, it’s easy to portray the Jews as the people who did Jesus in, in this show, but that isn’t really how the Gospels tell it. The Romans killed him. A singer first, actor second, may need to do minimal movement, and can double in the ensemble.

Annas (Another Pharisee) – Whatever physical type you cast Caiaphas in, make this man different. A whisperer and plotter in dark corners, a rat. Can double.

Simon – A man always looking for the best chance, the opportunity to assume some sort of power, and he sees Jesus as just such a chance. Ambitious, energized, the sort who latches on to a natural leader and takes over as much power as he can in the process. Must be a triple threat, and can double in the ensemble.

Peter – The apostle. Young, committed, but not yet at the point where he’s willing to lose his life.

Ensemble – Young (in their 20s-30s), energized, strong singing/dancing/ actors.

SETS:

Generally performed on a unit set consisting of a largely open stage. Suggestive, evocative pieces can be danced/carried/flown in, and these would include a very large cross to place the actor playing Jesus on, at the end of the show, and that all needs to be worked out so it’s safe.

A prime candidate for multi-media and creative approaches that will save money, while providing an interesting look. The action all takes place in a desert, in the Middle East. Jerusalem is in a vast desert. The feel of a dry, arid, unforgiving land in the colors chosen for sets and costumes, in the images projected or created, and in the set pieces wheeled or danced or flown in, will help provide a sense of the time and place, and the circumstances.

The show can look plain and dour, and needs help to sparkle. There are “magical” scenes, as when Judas sings to us after his death, that could be presented in a surreal manner. Put him on a cloud for “Superstar”, surrounded by angels. Or in the other place. Or in some theatrical heaven with other superstars like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis and Buddha nearby.

I really believe you need to get very creative about the look of this show. Jesus did not sing and dance, so far as we know, and showing too much respect for the actual period and look of the times will flatten out your production and leave it feeling under-produced and dry. I’m not asking you to expend huge amounts of dollars. I’m suggesting that you get very interested and creative about the look of the show, and the way you plan to present locations and move them in and out.

There are a number of locations. Make them each unique, and theatrical. I’d consider combining visual effects (on a screen) and actual three-dimensional sets.

The Garden of Gethsemane can be dropped from the ceiling, vines from trees with olives, an oasis of life and greenery that might surprise and even shock an audience.

Pilate’s palace should be white on white, with suggestions of columns, and a white throne for him to sit upon. Clean, civilized, extending into the heavens and suggesting a great power. Perhaps a floor to ceiling banner or two with the symbol of Rome. (All this can be projected except the throne…)

Give some thought to the tree that Judas will hang himself from, and how you’d like to visually present this action. It could be done in silhouette, back-lit, symbolically. If multi-media, perhaps we see him place the noose around his neck, and on screen, we see his body blowing in the breeze under a scraggly, dead tree on a cliff, in a desert. But something dynamic will need to be done with this moment in the play.

And Herod needs at least the suggestion of a pool, and of a party that has gone on far too long. Want to go too far with Herod? Put drugs in the scene, it’s not like they didn’t have some.

All of this should be done while essentially keeping the center of the stage open for action and dance.  And a lot of it might just be suggested with strips of colored and textured materials.  It’s a show that calls for creative solutions.

COSTUMES:

I’ve seen Jesus and his followers dressed more or less in what we imagine the people of Israel wore at that time. A lot of near-rags, worn robes, linen-type loose pants, sandals, earth tones. Okay, but this is theater. This is a musical.

Jesus and his followers should be a bit more theatrical, and verisimilitude is not what you’re after. There should be hints of differences. Some men are fishermen, one a doctor, etc, we should see that. They might not all be poor.

Judas needs to be somehow set apart, his clothing more worldly perhaps, less of the desert, more aware of life around him than Jesus or his followers. He is not the same. A modern touch in his costuming might be fun and accomplish this.

The Pharisees wore specific sorts of clothing and hats, and you’ll need to research those. You may well need to build them.

The Romans wear their famously Roman Legion attire, with blood read capes. These can almost certainly be acquired at a costume shop if you don’t want to built them.

This show has an unhappy tendency to appear a bit dark and dour. I would combat this approach and instinct with flashes of color in the costumes of characters we need to pay attention to, and in unusual hats or shapes connected to some of the characters.

For big numbers like “Hosanna”, intended to be a sort of quasi-gospel thing, you might change up the look completely into an American Southern Baptist look, suits and ties and Sunday dresses. That would startle and move the show suddenly into the 20th century, at least.

For “Superstar”, I suggested a set and an approach above that would be great fun for a costumer as well.

This show demands the creativity of your designers be put to work, extended to their limits. And it demands, I think, that your designers and director decide they will have fun with the story and characters, at least on a creative level.

PROPS:

A great big cross, which he may or may not carry. A hat of thorns. Wine glasses and bread for the last supper. Swords for the Romans, and maybe spears. Things for the people in the temple to buy and sell. Oil for Jesus’ hands and feet. A bag with silver in it. A noose for Judas to hang himself. Tambourines for “Hosanna,” and perhaps black Bibles that can be held aloft by the ensemble as they sing and dance. There are likely to be a fair number of props in a show like this, but not many you’ll need to build, necessarily. Coordinate closely with your director and other designers.

LIGHTING:

Very important! A bare stage isn’t much to look at, and the period, as mentioned, can get drab. This is a musical. It needs energy. There are big, aggressive numbers, and intense solos and duets. The look should be fluid and emotional. Numbers should often pop, explode with light at the right times. Jesus should feel isolated and completely alone during Gethsemane.

I believe you’re going to need a lot of instruments, or some smart instruments. Or both. And at least a follow spot, preferably two. I’d consider un-gelled lighting in places where the light should sear and burn, perhaps on the cross at the end, but maybe not. There are lots of ways to build an effect, and you should reach into your bag of tricks for this show.

This would be the wrong show to go cheap on lighting. Plan on it being a significant part of your design.

MAKE-UP:

I wouldn’t let the make-up become a distraction. For instance, when Jesus in beaten and bloody, let the actor make the case, not the make-up. Just straight, clean make-up that shows off features.

KEY PERSONNEL (The ones you MUST get right.):

Director, Music Director, Choreographer, Set Designer, Light Designer, Jesus, Judas.

MY THOUGHTS:

I don’t think Jesus Christ, Superstar would exist if not for Bach’s B Minor Mass. And I’m not suggesting that Webber stole music from that piece, though he certainly does borrow musical ideas and even themes from various sources, which trouble me less than it probably should. I’m suggesting that the presentation of the last days of Christ has many precedents, from Medieval plays, to Bach’s mass, and all the way up to this incarnation of that great story.

There were people genuinely disturbed that this show exists, starting with the first concept album which came out in the late 60s, and which I feel in love with at first listen – and I do not like Rock music. There are still people who do not accept the idea that the Christ story, sacred to Christians, can or should be presented in a contemporary manner. These people are blind to a very, very long history of such presentations. Yet, as a producer, you have to take them into account if there are enough of them in your area to damage your box office sales. At the time of this writing, the United States in particular is passing through a rather rabid fundamentalist Christian wave of sentiment among certain groups, largely in the South and Mid-West. These people will either see he show as devotional and asking important questions (some will, most of them wont), or simply hate what it is. I think it will be very important to gauge the current sentiment of your local audience before selecting this show. The younger the crowd, overall, perhaps the more acceptance you will find. That said, there are lots of old codgers like me who were raised on this show, know every note, and who might rush to the theater to see a good production. It is an extremely popular piece, and has been for decades. And it still feels reasonably contemporary, not dated, in part because its story will not yield to feeling old-fashioned. Jesus is presented as the ultimate revolutionary in a way, and there will always be revolutionary elements in the world who will respond to that aspect of the story.