Rock’n’Roll Jesus

by Mark Burger

In the beginning, there was the album.

A rock opera conceived and composed in the wake of Tommy, based on the last seven days of Jesus Christ’s life, marked an audacious collaboration between Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, two “upstart” newcomers.

That was Jesus Christ Superstar, which was released in 1970. Webber and Rice had envisioned it as an ideal stage project, but producers were wary of offending audiences. Thus, it was released as an album.

After the album became an international smash, theater producers saw the light.

The Broadway production opened in 1971 and earned five Tony Award nominations, including one for a sharp newcomer named Ben Vereen, who played Judas Iscariot. The Broadway production, which earned mixed reviews (including one from Webber himself), nevertheless ran 18 months. Webber won the Drama Desk Award as “most promising composer.”

The next year, the London production opened. It would run an astonishing eight years, making it the longest-running musical in London’s theater history – a record that has since been broken, amusingly enough, by other Webber shows.

In 1973, Norman Jewison’s film version of Jesus Christ Superstar was a box-office hit and earned three Academy Award nominations. It starred Ted Neeley as Jesus and Carl Anderson (who had succeeded Vereen on Broadway) as Judas Iscariot.

Neeley and Anderson (who died in 2004) would continue to reprise their film roles in various tours of the production, and Neeley (now 63) is still playing Jesus in a national tour that is being billed as his “farewell tour.”

Last year, a live concert benefit performance was held in Los Angeles, reuniting Neeley with fellow film cast members Yvonne Elliman (Mary Magdalene) and Barry Dennen (Pontius Pilate), with Vereen playing Judas and Jack Black (!) playing Herod.

Nowadays, Jesus Christ Superstar is mainstream. Countless churches and schools across the country have put on their own productions over the years. If anything, it seems the show is mainly remembered today as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s first major success (since eclipsed by the likes of Cats and The Phantom of the Opera).

The show has become so accepted as a part of theater lexicon that many young people who weren’t born at the time might be surprised to know that Jesus Christ Superstar inspired protests, picket lines, album burnings and heated debate for months – even years – after its initial release.

Now, the West Side Civic Theatre in Lewisville is mounting its own production of the Webber/Rice classic under the direction and choreography of the theater’s artistic director, John S. Rushton.

For Rushton, who is also one of the founders of the theater, reaction has been minor but nevertheless mixed. Some people wonder if he’s pandering to the religious right and others still remain offended – even after almost 40 years – by the rock ‘n’ roll approach to Jesus Christ.

Neither consideration, however, played a part in Rushton’s selection of Jesus Christ Superstar. Quite simply, he says, “It’s a great show.”

In addition, “religion fascinates me,” Rushton says. “The quote by Nietzsche, ‘God has no religion,’ is a great quote.”

An unabashed fan of Jesus Christ Superstar, Rushton has discussed the show many times and with many people since its initial release.

“One thing that strikes me, to this day, is people’s inability to accept Jesus as a man,” he observes. “I think that’s where a large part of the controversy stems from, whether it’s from this show, or Martin Scorsese’s film [The Last Temptation of Christ] – which I thought was tremendously misunderstood – or Mel Gibson’s [The Passion of the Christ].

“To me, that’s one reason it works,” Rushton says. “He was the son of God, born of man. The message is so simple. His teachings are all about love, and that’s precisely what’s depicted in the show. It’s the last seven days of Jesus’ life, right out of the Bible. But some people were offended because it was set to rock ‘n’ roll music.”

The show focuses on Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem and his conflicted relationship with Judas, who is so emotionally torn by what he perceives as Jesus’ indecision that he betrays him – ultimately betraying himself, as well. It is their relationship – loving but combustible, contemplative but combative – that propels the narrative forward, all of it set to rock music.

Rushton previously directed a production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Stained Glass Playhouse in Winston-Salem, but the opportunity to present it in an expansive, outdoor production – and on his home turf – proved irresistible.

“I was a little bit reluctant at first,” Rushton admits. “It’s a very specific show, for the orchestra and for the performers. This has also been the tightest, toughest schedule I think I’ve ever worked on. It was a challenge, but I love challenges!”

The cast includes Mikey Wiseman as Judas Iscariot, Laura Human as Mary Magdalene, Richard Clabaugh as Herod and, in the pivotal role of Jesus Christ, 18-year-old Matt Morris.

Morris worked previously with Rushton and the West Side Civic Theatre on such productions as West Side Story, South Pacific and the most recent show, Seussical. He also played one of the apostles in Rushton’s previous production of Jesus Christ Superstar.

“But this is probably my dream role,” says Morris, who’s been growing a beard, practicing the songs and working out daily to maintain his stamina onstage. “I’ve got to put my heart and soul into it, and it’s tough – both physically and emotionally.”

“It’s a little demanding to be Jesus,” Rushton adds with a smile.

“I’m taking a leap of faith, so to speak,” Morris says. “But that’s what it’s all about.”

Jesus Christ Superstar “is still my favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber show,” says Rushton. “I know he’s subsequently done shows that are more successful, but I think it’s his best. There is not one weak moment in the entire show.”

One reason for Rushton’s affection for the piece is that he was a boy when the album was originally released, and he remembers firsthand the firestorm of controversy surrounding it. Here was a fresh new approach to the Gospels (particularly the Gospel of John) that came along at just the right time, when he was just the right age.

“I had a Sunday school teacher who actually played it instead of breaking it,” Rushton recalls. “It was one of the albums that I virtually wore out as a kid. Not only was the music cool, but it made Jesus cool. This wasn’t like a sermon. This was rock ‘n’ roll!”

As a result, “I wanted to know more about the story it told and about the characters. To me, it wasn’t the least bit offensive. Just the opposite – it got me more interested.”

Unlike a lot of adults at that time, “my parents were totally cool with it,” Rushton says, and “despite the controversy, way more people were turned on to the message than were turned off.”

For someone not yet 19, Jesus Christ Superstar might seem a faded relic from the Austin Powers era, but when Morris came across his mother’s copy of the album – an artifact of her own youth – it struck a chord in him, as well.

“I was blown away,” he says. “It is such an emotional journey and unbelievably spiritual. I really responded to it.”

Playing Jesus, Morris says, “is absolutely the biggest chance for me to give something back to an audience. It’s a huge task, but I’m up for the challenge, and with John’s help I’m sure I’ll get there.”

Rushton has been revisiting several films that have depicted Christ’s life or some aspect thereof, including Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (“I remember having to cross a picket line at the Thruway Cinema to see it,” he says), Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, Franco Zeffirelli’s mini-series Jesus of Nazareth and even The Da Vinci Code.

(He hadn’t gotten around to King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told at the time this interview was conducted, but “they’re in my Netflix queue,” he says.)

In addition to the show-stopping numbers, Rushton wants his actors to find the human side of their characters – to go beyond the preconceived notion of exactly who these characters are, and find the beating heart beneath.

History has shown that the music works, but unless the audience finds a common empathy with the characters, particularly Jesus and Judas, the show might simply be an empty spectacle.

“We’ve got to engage their emotions,” Rushton says. “We all know the story and the characters, and we all know how the story turns out, but we’ve got to keep that underlying message to have faith in yourself. That’s what reaches an audience.”

Seventeen-year-old Human was intrigued, and slightly wary, about playing as powerful and complex a character as Mary Magdalene. She’d only just made her West Side Civic Theatre debut with a featured role in Seussical.

“I went from a very silly role to, like, ‘Wow!'” she recalls with a laugh.

Like many who had read or seen The Da Vinci Code, Human was concerned about how her onstage relationship with Jesus would play out. But, she reasoned, this was Jesus Christ Superstar and not The Da Vinci Code.

“I like the idea that Jesus was both a full man and a full god,” Human observes. “He was able to love a woman yet fulfill his destiny at the same time. He doesn’t love her in that way, but he does love her. She’s very conflicted by that. It’s such a great role and a great message, and it’s such a great opportunity.”

Jesus Christ Superstar is only the latest in a long line of large-scale productions that Rushton has overseen at the West Side Civic Theatre, and he admits that he occasionally wishes he could do a more intimate show. But the size of the venue dictates the scope of the shows, and Shallowford Square is a large venue. Therefore, putting on a big show is a big concern, although not so big as putting on a good one.

One problem with an outdoor venue, however, is the weather. This has been an especially hot summer, and during the month of July an especially rainy one. That put something of a damper, literally and figuratively, on the production of Seussical, where most performances had to be called because of rain or lightning.

“It’s a shame because it was a good show,” laments Rushton, who also directed it.

“I just hope,” he adds with a smile, “that no one upstairs has a problem with us doing Superstar.”

Rushton’s wife Joy, herself an actress and a mainstay of the West Side Civic Theatre, is acting as the show’s musical director. How did she land the gig?

“I work for cheap and I don’t take his crap,” she jokes, gesturing toward her husband. “We both share a common vision: Whatever really works best for the show, go with it.”

Very often, the vision is achieved after a period of trial and error.

“Some things we know we can do and some things we know we can try,” she says. “If there’s something I’m adamant about, John will step back and say, ‘Okay’ – and it’s the same with him. It’s simply a matter of what it takes to make the show the best that it can be.”

Next year will mark the West Side Civic Theatre’s 10th anniversary, which proved an instant hit with local audiences. Hundreds attended the very first show, the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! In more recent years, as many as 3,000 to 4,000 people will attend a single performance. Admittedly, it’s an outdoor venue and it’s free, but on certain weekends it seems as if the entire population of Lewisville is planted in Shallowford Square.

“And that’s just how we like it,” quips Rushton.