JCS was actually the first produced musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. The two had in the mid-1960s written some songs and one musical that was not produced. Then they received a commission to write a cantata for London’s Colet Court School. They chose as the subject Joseph and his cloak of many colors. They wrote enough songs to fill 20 minutes and then kept adding to them. They decided to make a concept record album, and it became a best seller. The basic sound was late 60s British rock with calypso, country, pop and few others thrown in for good measure. On the basis of the success of that album, they wrote a single song “Superstar” that was released and became highly successful. The recording company asked that they develop a concept album that became Jesus Christ Superstar and was released in 1969.
The concept album was a dud in England but was a great seller in the US. For that reason Robert Stigwood in 1971 decided to produce Jesus Christ Superstar in New York first. The original director was Frank Corsaro, but he became injured in a automobile accident and had to withdraw. The hottest director in New York at that time was Tim O’Horgan. He had been the director for the Broadway production of Hair that he turned into sensation with the critics and public and a box office smash. He then created Lenny, a multimedia production about the comedian Lenny Bruce--another smash.
O’Horgan’s approach to JCS was similar to what he had done with Hair. He saw the work as a phantasmagoria, much like Hair. His direction and the work of the visual artists carried that approach through. It would be an over-the-top production. As the music started to play, the entire up stage wall began to slide down to the floor and cover it. It now revealed a huge cross hanging on the permanent up stage wall. The staging was hyperkinetic, and the sound was loud. It was one of the early Broadway musicals to use body mics, and the cast made a business of tossing the microphones around to each other. The crucifixion went beyond all boundaries. After Jesus was placed on the cross, it slowly began to be propelled on a forward thrust straight downstage toward the audience until it nearly reached the edge of the stage. The production was electric, exciting, excessive and vulgar (in the original meaning). It became a box office sensation but only for a few months. It did not manage to make it to its second anniversary.
When a production is a hit in either London or New York, the usual custom is that it is then replicated with the original director in the other city. The cast may or may not make the move. Both Lloyd Webber and Rice hated the New York production. They made sure that it would be a different production with a different director in London.
The London mounting was much simpler with platforms and curtains (and maybe projections). My first impression was that it was a staged oratorio. While the chorus had costumes, they were staged more like an oratorio chorus. They did enter and exit, but did not have much interaction with the characters. All the characters’ songs were fully staged. The production became a sensation in England and ran for more than eight years. It became the longest running musical in London’s history until it was surpassed by another the musical that Lloyd Webber wrote when he became king of the poperetta.
In 1969 The Who wrote and performed a concert work Tommy that they called a “rock opera.” With the success of JCS the way opened for more rock-operas, works that eschewed dialogue in favor of more songs.
There is an irony here. The original production of Hair, produced at the Public Theatre by Joseph Papp, was directed by Frank Corsaro. After the limited run concluded, Papp made a mistake that he never made again. He sold the rights for Hair, and it made history when it moved to Broadway transformed by Tim O’Horgan. The intended original director for JCS was Corsaro, but he had to withdraw. He was replaced by O’Horgan who then transformed JCS. Corsaro was a noted director for both plays and operas. He probably would have been a better director for the work that Lloyd Webber and Rice envisioned.
For interesting material on and an excellent analysis of Jesus Christ, Superstar, see the chapter on it in Scott Miller’s From Assassins To West Side Story; the Director’s Guide to Musical Theatre. In fact, for anyone interested in musical theatre all the books by Scott Miller are fascinating reading.
After the successful reception for Jesus Christ Superstar, it was decided Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat could be given a fully mounted stage production. The Young Vic in London did so first, and then in 1973 with additional songs it was given in London’s West End and on Broadway in 1982.
This is the third time that Springfield Little Theatre has mounted a production of Jesus Christ Superstar. A touring company with Ted Neeley (Jesus in the film version) in his farewell appearance in the role was presented at Juanita K. Hammons Hall.