It all started with The Brown Album.
A half-century ago, a young English composer named Andrew Lloyd Webber teamed up with a young English lyricist named Tim Rice to create an audacious new retelling of the last days of Jesus Christ.
The work debuted in late 1970 in the form of a double-disc vinyl record album, which also contained the libretto. The album cover was a rich, somewhat textured solid brown, bearing the title “JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR” in all caps over an embossed gold logo of two identical, facing figures that looked as if the Virgin Mary had sprouted angel wings. Just looking at the album, one knew it was important.
What emerged from the grooves of that LP was unlike anything we had heard before – the Passion of Christ told through a blending of symphonic, rock, and theatrical musical styles. The story was entirely sung. With Jesus Christ Superstar, the rock opera soared to new heights.
JCSS took the pop/rock world by storm. The album topped the Billboard Pop charts, beating out such heavyweights as Carole King’s Tapestry and Janis Joplin’s Pearl. Mary Magdalene’s plaintive “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” became a hit single for the album’s Yvonne Elliman and an even bigger hit for Helen (“I Am Woman”) Reddy.
When young Stephen Gabriel got The Brown Album in the early Seventies, he was transfixed. “I learned how to play guitar in part by listening to Jesus Christ Superstar,” Gabriel, now a theatrical producer, told the Chronicle in a recent phone interview. “Later, I had a rock band in high school and tried to persuade my school to perform Jesus Christ Superstar. But at the time, some folks thought it was sacrilegious because of the rock idiom.” Nowadays, the work is considered a classic and has been performed for the pope. And rock music has worked its way into many contemporary church services. “Superstar had an enormous influence on people who grew up listening to it,” says Gabriel. “I see Rent and Hamilton from that lineage. Superstar was a game-changer for music that was acceptable in the theatre.”[image-2-right]
And Gabriel still has his passion for JCSS. He and his company, Work Light Productions, are producing the new North American tour that plays Oct. 8-13 at Bass Concert Hall. More on that later.
Between the album’s debut almost 50 years ago and the current stage version, JCSS has enjoyed many incarnations, including the 2018 NBC “live” television event starring John Legend as Jesus.
A fully staged JCSS opened on Broadway in 1971 to mixed reviews – The New York Times liked the music though not the director’s concept – but it ran for almost two years. The London production, which opened in 1972, fared better, running eight years. Director Norman Jewison’s 1973 film version added to the worldwide popularity of JCSS and literally gave Texas-born Ted Neeley the role of a lifetime as Jesus Christ. He reprised the role in several subsequent stage productions. Even 45 years later, at the age of 75, he was still playing JC – and pulling it off fairly well. (The beard and long hair helped; never mind that Jesus was in his 30s when he died ….) That particular tour played the Long Center in Austin.
JCSS made its Austin stage debut in 1980 as the summer musical at Zilker Hillside Theatre, where huge crowds flocked over two weekends. In addition to being the most ambitious Zilker show up to that time, this production is also remembered as the one where the actor playing Jesus (Gary Powell) was almost crucified himself, when the giant cross on which he was hanging came crashing to the stage floor on opening night. (Full disclosure: This writer kicked up his heels as King Herod in that same production.) A grainy, 27-minute documentary about the Zilker JCSS can be found on YouTube.
Almost 20 years later, JCSS surfaced again locally, with a splendid production from Austin Musical Theatre, staged at the Paramount. (Writer Ada Calhoun had a somewhat different take on that staging in her review for the Chronicle.) And in 2007, Zach Theatre staged the first bilingual production in the city, Jesus Christ Superstar/Jesuchristo Superestrella.
In 2016, a new staging of JCSS was a huge success at the open-air theatre in London’s Regent's Park. Stephen Gabriel heard the buzz and went to London the following year, when the show returned to Regent's Park. “It took my breath away,” Gabriel recalls. “Absolutely the best production of Jesus Christ Superstar I had ever seen. Many times when I’ve seen it in the past, there’s not been a deep emotional connection with what’s happening onstage. But that’s what struck me with this production. Not only is it a rock concert, but it really emphasizes the story as well. And the choreography is sensational.”
Gabriel pursued the U.S. touring rights to the new JCSS production, hoping to add another successful notch in the belt of decade-old Work Light Productions, which had already produced successful tours of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s In the Heights, and Mamma Mia!, among other shows. Work Light partnered with London’s Barbican Centre to remount the Regent's Park production for a traditional proscenium stage. After the Barbican run this past summer, Gabriel says, “We packed up the set, shipped it to the U.S., and here we go!” The Austin engagement marks the official opening of the U.S. tour, after a period of technical rehearsals and “preview” performances in Syracuse, N.Y. The tour features an all-American cast, which took more than a year to assemble due to the vocal and choreographic demands of the show.
Is Gabriel worried that audience appetite for Superstar may have been temporarily satisfied, following last year’s widely watched NBC broadcast? “Interestingly, we were planning this tour before the NBC production was even announced,” he says. The broadcast version – which is widely regarded as the best of the “live TV musicals” yet – has only seemed to intensify interest in the tour.
Gabriel has been in Syracuse with director Timothy Sheader, choreographer Drew McOnie, and the cast and crew while they've been putting the final touches on this latest envisioning of JCSS. The legendary Brown Album had no photos or graphic depictions – other than the iconic logo – to guide the theatre visionaries that would bring this glorious work to the stage. It’s as if Lloyd Webber and Rice were inviting each listener to create his or her own visual canvas to accompany their music and lyrics. Different visions have been coming forward now for almost 50 years. Gabriel and representatives from Lloyd Webber’s Really Useful Group will be present in Austin to see how audiences are responding to the latest one. The tour is currently booked through next August. Rest assured, after that, someone will resurrect Jesus Christ Superstar yet again … and again … and again. The staging may be different, but the musical essence of it, The Brown Album, should always be the same.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs Oct. 8-13, Tue.-Fri., 8pm; Sat., 2 & 8pm; Sun., 1 & 7pm, at Bass Concert Hall, 2350 Robert Dedman, UT campus. For more information, visit www.broadwayinaustin.com.
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