The idea of portraying Jesus Christ as the world's first self-confessional hippie rock star was downright blasphemous in 1971. But today, Jesus Christ Superstar is not only one of the most enduring musicals from the hefty catalogs of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, it's a stage institution and a cable TV favorite. Yesterday's grandmothers picketed outside the theater; today's can sing along with every word of Mary Magdalene's "I Don't Know How to Love Him."
Jesus Christ Superstar was the second collaboration (after Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat) between composer Webber and lyricist Rice, then in their early twenties. And it was unlike anything ever seen on stage at the time -- part Greek tragedy, part satiric send-up, part screeching guitar rock concert, part bombastic Broadway showstopper... and all about Jesus. The show was entirely sung, and, in a reversal of tradition, the two-record soundtrack was released before a production was mounted.
"It was very progressive, and it changed musical theater forever," says Jamie Rocco, the New York-based director and choreographer for Theatre Under the Stars' revival. "It was a new way to reach a new audience. And it led the way for an entire new movement in Christianity."
He knows whereof he speaks. Rocco, whose work was most recently seen in TUTS's recent production of Guys and Dolls, also directed the theater's 1990 version of Jesus Christ Superstar. "It's kind of exciting to revisit it. I find it very potent because of the subject matter, and it allows me to further explore not only my spirituality, but also that of the cast and audience," he says. "And having been in it as a performer, I know there's an overwhelming kind of energy with this show, a relationship that happens between the audience and the cast."
In 1989 Rocco played Judas, who, according to Superstar, was not an evil villain. "It puts out there the possibility that you could consider the Judas concept differently," he says. "I believe that he was a pawn in this whole scenario. He had to do what he did, otherwise the story couldn't have happened. He thinks he's helping, but it gets out of hand."
But perhaps more interesting than Superstar's religious implications are its musical reverberations. "There was no such thing as Christian rock before this," says Rocco. "It made it possible for Amy Grant, Russ Taff and Sandi Patti to do what they do. It expresses the story in modern ways, letting the audience decide for themselves things that have always been [presented] as fact: Do you think this man is a superstar? Do you believe it?"
-- Bob Ruggiero
Theatre Under the Stars presents Jesus Christ Superstar at the Brown Theater in the Wortham Center, 510 Preston, from July 6 to July 18. Showtimes are Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m.; Sunday at 7 p.m.; with Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m. Call 1(800)678-5440 for tickets, $16-$57.