Bob Dylan inspired Jesus Christ Superstar

I rescued my May 2020 column in CLAUDIA, talking about the 50 years of Jesus Christ Superstar. To read it in Portuguese, click here. The text is reproduced below.

“Could it be that Judas Iscariot had God by his side?”. This phrase, from the song With God on Our Side, by Bob Dylan, moved the (then young) Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice. The year was 1968 and the two had known each other for 2 years. They were coming off the resounding – and surprising – success of the religious musical, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, and had to decide what to do next. The suggestion was to tackle the story of Jesus Christ, which seemed obvious after Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. However, like all young people, they didn’t want anything conventional. It was a time of strong political conflicts and the hippie movement was the most common form of opposition, and Dylan was God for every generation at the time.

“Tim [Rice] used that line from the song as a starting point for the script. Clearly, Iscariot was not a man without intelligence, so how much of everything that happened was just an accident or was it necessary given the politics at the time?”, explained Lloyd Weber in an interview recalling the creation.

The two defined that the story of Jesus, more objectively his last week of life, would be told from the perspective of Judas. And it would be a rock opera. “It’s the worst idea ever”, was what the two heard as a negative. The resistance gave them confidence that they were on the right path. But, with no one funding the production, what now?

A Concept album with rock stars

If there was no way to go straight to the stage, it wasn’t because it was a bad idea. It was this certainty of the duo that moved them to prove that the proposal was good by showing how the opera would be. “Doing it on an album made it shorter, stripped down the script, and thus became more contemporary, more rock, with more energy and speaking directly to a younger audience,” acknowledged Rice. “At the time we weren’t happy, because thanks to Andrew, we wanted to write for the theater, not albums. But doing the opposite process worked for the best because it promoted the work so well that when it finally hit the stage, everyone already knew all the songs”, recalled the lyricist and screenwriter.

The first track recorded was with singer Murray Head as Judas, singing the title song of the musical, Superstar. In it, Judas questions Jesus for his decisions and apologizes “I just want to know”, he says in the chorus. Lloyd Weber thought of the melody while walking around London and – not to forget the song – wrote the notes on a napkin. The success of this track, which climbed the charts around the world, including Brazil, ensured the recording of the full album. The lyrics, however, shocked religious people by giving voice to a humanized Judas, with pertinent doubts and an acidic criticism. (He questions Jesus for choosing to come into the world in a pre-mass communication time, for example).

With the hit came the album. At the time, rumors were that John Lennon would take on the role of Jesus, and Yoko Ono as Mary Magdalene. In the end, the original Jesus was none other than the lead singer of one of the most famous rock bands of the 1970s, Ian Gillan of Deep Purple. Mary Magdalene was played by a singer discovered by Lloyd Weber in a bar, Yvonne Elliman, who reprised the role onstage and in film.

After more than 400 hours of recording with a full orchestra, a band, and choirs, Jesus Christ Superstar was released in September 1970. “What Rice and Lloyd Weber created was a modern piece that infuriates devotees but should intrigue and even inspire. the young agnostics,” they wrote at the time. With the successful album, Broadway was finally secured.

In two years, Jesus Christ Superstar went from stage to cinema

In less than six months, Jesus Christ Superstar was a pop phenomenon and opened on Broadway to mixed reviews. Lloyd Weber himself complained that the first montage was a far cry from what he and Rice had envisioned. Actor and singer Carl Anderson led the cast on stage when, in 1973, director Norman Jewison took on the challenge of making the feature, being the first name confirmed in the cast.

The film itself is another curious story. Jewison innovated at the time with a musical completely out of the known standards. Not sure how to adapt the play for the cinema, he traveled to Israel and toured the country listening to the score on a cassette. At one point, he came across a tourist bus and had the inspiration: Jesus Christ Superstar would be the assembly of a hippie troupe, strolling through the places where Christ passed and reliving his history. At that point, Jesus was defended by singer Ted Neeley, who today has played the role more than 5,000 times on stage. Like Anderson, Neeley appears at first inconspicuous among the actors until he is identified as Jesus. Filmed entirely on location, Superstar was even nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1973.

Jesus Christ Superstar, the film, shocked audiences as much at the time as it had two years earlier in the theater. For the first time, both Jesus and Judas were treated as human beings. “There’s always someone around with protest signs saying we’re going to destroy the universe with rock music,” says Ted Neeley.

In addition to Superstar, the other successful song is Gethsemane (I only want to Know), a song that requires a lot of stamina and maturity in interpretation for a few and that portrays the moment when Jesus questions God, before accepting his destiny. “Why do I have to die? Can you tell me today that my sacrifice will not be in vain,” he sings.

“The lyrics are about a conversation between a son and a father, just like I had with my father as a child,” says Neeley. “When I didn’t know something and asked him, we’d sit down and talk. I’m not ‘Jesus talking to God’ in this song,” he explains.

Classic still playing and several remakes

At Easter 2000, a new version of the musical was recorded and released directly to the video. It doesn’t come close to Jewison’s version, which remains current due to the unapologetically theatrical concept it chose. Neeley continues to perform across the US as Christ.

The latest remake featured John Legend as Jesus Christ and won multiple Emmys in 2018. “The concept of the show is interesting, the idea of ​​talking about human feelings like fear and doubt, resentment and betrayal,” says Legend. “In the musical Tim and Andrew suggest that Judas perhaps had an argument, perhaps he had good reason to question Jesus’ method of operation,” he suggests,

Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Weber became absolute stars in the theater after the musical and repeated the concept of first recording an album before opening the play with Evita, the musical they composed shortly afterward. After Evita, in 1977, the two never worked together again.

Adored by fans, the musical has cult status

If today few people remember Bob Dylan‘s song that inspired the production, it’s very difficult that they don’t know how to hum Superstar and the cult status surrounds all versions of the musical. “Without Norman Jewison, there would be no Jesus Christ Superstar movie and it certainly wouldn’t have the spiritual connection it still has today,” says Neeley. “My feeling is that Andrew and Tim wanted to look at the last 7 days of the man called Jesus of Nazareth as seen through the eyes of his friends and contemporaries. They saw him as a man as well as divine. In the musical we see them before his death and resurrection, this is the connection that people can identify with more than they think who Jesus was”, he suggests.

After more than 40 years of playing Jesus, Neeley remains grounded. “I’m inspired by those touching moments that are powerful through the music and lyrics we sing each performance,” he says. “It always lifts my soul and is always new,” he smiles.

Ah, although Jesus Christ Superstar has aroused criticism from various religious sides, according to the actor, Pope Paul VI personally approved the work at the time of its release. According to Neeley, Paul VI won a special session at the Vatican and would have told the director that “not only did I enjoy his beautiful rock opera, but I also believe it will bring more people to Christianity than any other work before it”. It is certainly already a classic.


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