Jesus Christ Superstar

Pheasant Run Resort, through Easter

By J.R. Jones

“Witness the most popular story in history,” the print ad urged–as if the gospel according to Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber had somehow been voted into the New Testament in a People’s Choice poll. Above a cocked photo of a crucified Jesus wearing a scraggly beard and a faint Presleyan sneer, bright copy described the Pheasant Run Resort’s winter family package–the pools, the health club, the shops of Saint Charles. The dinner theater was asterisked: seeing Jesus scourged cost extra.

Jesus Christ Superstar wasn’t always such a harmless bit of all-ages fun: MCA, which put it out as an album first, premiered the stage show warily in 1971, at Saint Peter’s Lutheran Church in New York, with slide projections of religious art and a boozeless reception afterward. That didn’t appease Billy Graham, who declared that it “borders on blasphemy and sacrilege,” or the folks who picketed it on Broadway shouting “Read the book!” My devout Catholic parents always insisted that my brothers and sister and I treat it with respect, listening all the way through and reading the libretto, but still the album cleaved their collection of show tunes like Moses parting the Red Sea. Anyone could tell this was a new kind of gospel, with no miracles, no resurrection, and no promises, and Jesus (Ian Gillan, whom Rice and Lloyd Webber plucked from Deep Purple) shrieking at lepers and temple merchants as though he might at any moment tear into “Space Truckin'”: Come ow-n! Come ow-n!

But it was Judas who truly rocked. We fought over who got to sing Judas: the protean one-string riff and Otis Redding chorus of “Heaven on Their Minds,” the frenzied, sax-driven MC5 ripoff “Damned for All Time,” the showstopping “Superstar.” Onstage Judas even got to hang himself like Alice Cooper. “The idea of the whole composition is to show Christ through the eyes of Judas–and also to reveal Christ as a man, not a god,” Rice said in a radio interview at the time. “I decided for the opera to view Jesus in one dimension instead of two or three….Having put forth one interpretation of what actually could have happened, we then found many, many parallels and arguments that are very relevant today.”

Like Rice and Lloyd Webber’s Evita and Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, Jesus Christ Superstar sets up an equation between fame and divinity–a decade before John Lennon’s murder, Judas was the ultimate disillusioned fan, selling his idol to the Man for 30 pieces of silver. But the last 27 years have brought fresh outrages, and the music that caused so much controversy has long since been overtaken by the celebrity culture it critiqued, absorbed into the ranks of suburban cabaret. The Pheasant Run production, directed by Diana Martinez, compromises Judas’s narration to make the show more palatable to conservative folk and waters down his searing rock numbers from the original score. Why–some might say it borders on blasphemy and sacrilege.

The opera originated in a gospel-rock single that Rice and Lloyd Webber recorded with Scottish singer and stage actor Murray Head. “Superstar,” released in November 1969, excoriated Christ for not arriving later, after the world had developed mass media to spread his message; it was packaged in a simple white sleeve, with the promise of a forthcoming rock opera titled “Jesus Christ” but no identification of the character singing the song. When newspapers reported that the story would be told from Judas’s point of view, the record label found itself with an increasingly dangerous–and marketable–property on its hands.

“I don’t see [Jesus] as God at all,” Rice admitted in the radio interview, “but the opera doesn’t categorically say he wasn’t; it leaves the question very open.” Judas, said Rice, approved of “what Christ was saying, general principles of how human beings should live together….What Judas was worried about was that as Christ got bigger and bigger and more popular, people began switching their attentions from what Christ was saying to Christ himself.”

Rice brought similarly sharp characterizations to Christ, Pontius Pilate, and Mary Magdalene using the best of Lloyd Webber’s varied–and sometimes overwrought–music. Rock fans who like Jesus Christ Superstar frequently feel the need to apologize: its vaudevillian turns can be hard to swallow, the property has been mishandled on both stage and screen, and the authors have since produced a plague of glitzy lite-rock musicals. But the original recording is nothing to be embarrassed about, a driven pastiche of musical styles and fine performances. Barry Dennen had played the master of ceremonies in Cabaret before being cast as Pontius Pilate and brought an icy hysteria to his role, especially his Weill-like interrogation of Christ. Yvonne Elliman, a 17-year-old Hawaiian singer Lloyd Webber found at a London club called the Pheasantry, scored a hit single with the torchy “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” As Jesus, Gillan delivered the Lord’s self-doubting prayer in “Gethsemane” from the bottom of his white-soul heart. And casting the rest of the album mostly with rock singers produced some strangely arresting voices–like Victor Brox, one of Screaming Lord Sutch’s Heavy Friends, singing the bass role of Caiaphas. Released in October 1970, the album sold over two million copies within a year and spurred numerous unlicensed theatrical productions in the U.S.

An aside: on record, Judas was sung by Head, but once the show hit Broadway the character became black. Ben Vereen played the role onstage, and his understudy, Carl Anderson, nabbed the part in Norman Jewison’s terrible 1973 film adaptation. Perhaps the producers felt only a black man would have the soul sensibility to sing Judas’s material; perhaps they thought dark skin connoted a dark heart; perhaps they intended a critique of Christianity as the religion of slavery. In any event, black he remains in Pheasant Run’s white-bread production.

Jesus Christ Superstar has remained popular with more adventurous community theaters, and in 1995 a 25th-anniversary production toured the U.S. with Anderson returning as Judas, his movie costar Ted Neeley as Jesus, and Styx’s Dennis DeYoung as Pontius Pilate. In 1994 a gathering of Georgia musicians released a two-CD “resurrection” of the opera on Daemon Records, run by Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls. Ray plays Jesus, her singing partner, Emily Saliers, is Mary Magdalene, and Michael Lorant of the Big Fish Ensemble sings Judas, with the proceeds going to gun-control organizations. Lorant, a childhood fan of the record, had always wanted to take the music back to its rock ‘n’ roll roots–with himself playing Judas, of course.

“It’s hard to explain what Judas means to me, having grown up Jewish,” Lorant told the San Jose Mercury News. “I learned a lot about Christianity through Jesus Christ Superstar. I always identified with Judas…. Contrary to what most people think, [the rock opera] is not really about Jesus. Jesus is not really as multidimensional a character as Judas was.”

Last year, in a production at a Greek resort, the English actor playing Judas actually hanged himself onstage. As reported by the Associated Press, he failed to attach the harness that would keep him safe as he staged the hanging; the lights went down at the climax of “Judas’ Death,” and when they came up, the actor dangled dead in full view of the audience. No one was sure why he’d done it; maybe the part just got to him. As Rice and Lloyd Webber wrote it, Jesus Christ Superstar still has the power to inspire faith. But the Pheasant Run show polishes off the edges for the sake of a hypothetical Christian family, transforming the passion play into an exercise in kitsch.

My wife had actually worked at Pheasant Run for about six months while she was in high school, so she came along. Though it’s a dinner theater production, no meal was served before the matinee, so we opted for coffee and doughnuts in the food court and watched elderly people and parents with children wander past. “Bourbon Street,” it’s called, with brick floors, old-fashioned lampposts, and railed balconies overhead. Behind one, a trio of wooden dummies were painted to look like (white) Dixieland jazz musicians. My wife told me about her job as a cashier in one of the retail shops off Bourbon Street. Once a man asked her to come stay with him in his condo in Toronto. She told him she was only 15. I peered around, wondering if any Humbert Humberts were prowling the area this afternoon. Before long the doors opened for the play, and we found our seats. Each table had a menu with the classic Jesus Christ Superstar logo of two angels in prayer; it offered novelty drinks like “Pilate’s Dream,” “Jaded Judas,” “The Denial,” and “Herod’s Revenge” (“You might lose your head over this commanding mixture of Peach Schnapps, Creme de Cacao, grenadine and cream”).

The show began with a frantic pantomime of Jesus’s life up to Holy Week, set to the instrumental “Overture.” Rice and Lloyd Webber told the story through Judas so the listeners would have to decide for themselves whether Christ were divine, but from its very first image–a female dancer miming the Immaculate Conception–this production erased that essential doubt. As Jesus and Judas, Jesse Kazemek and Nikkieli DeMone sang well until the parts called for some honest-to-God rock ‘n’ roll screaming; then they hemmed and hawed. As Mary Magdalene, Lara Filip showed off a great set of pipes, and Tom Hennings as Pontius Pilate stole the show with his powerful baritone.

“What’s the Buzz” and “Simon Zealotes” featured some good dance sequences, yet the performers were stymied throughout by Scott Stevenson’s computerized orchestration. (Since the entire play is set to music, wouldn’t a five-piece band have been a better investment than sets, costumes, or extra apostles?) Stevenson’s “updated” score incorporated some genre variations–a reggae version of “The Last Supper” (ganja not included) and a rigid metal-boogie version of “King Herod’s Song”–and stripped the percussive sax riff from Judas’s big freak-out, “Damned for All Time.”

DeMone identifies himself as a Trinitarian and gives thanks to God in the stage bill; he’s played both Judas, in a German concert of Jesus Christ Superstar, and Jesus, in Godspell. As he was preparing for the hanging scene, DeMone appeared to be having trouble with the harness, and he fiddled with it forever, racing the prerecorded music that would cut to silence as he fell. I held my breath, even prayed a little. When the music ran out, DeMone’s silhouette showed him to be dangling unharmed by his collar.

Christ’s lashing and crucifixion were more graphic than I’d expected, but nothing prepared me for the surreal grand finale. The last piece of music, after Jesus dies, is a string instrumental called “John Nineteen Forty-One”; it was the B side of the original “Superstar” single. John 19:40-42 explains how Jesus was removed from the cross and laid in his tomb; the music reprises the beautiful melody from “Gethsemane.” It’s by far the record’s most heartbreaking moment. At Pheasant Run, Jesus hung on the cross, a deep blue light behind him. Then, as dry-ice fog crept across the stage, the cross fell away, leaving him suspended in midair. After the scene faded to black, a tiny red laser beam swept the theater from floor to ceiling, and the house lights came up. I thought about ordering a Herod’s Revenge for the road, but they weren’t serving anymore.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): theater still.