Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell are two of the most iconic theatre and film productions of the past fifty years that are based on the life and death of Jesus Christ. They portray a Christ that resonated with the culture at the time, and exposed two very different views of the Messiah, views that are as relevant today as they were when first produced.
The year was 1973. In the U.S. the Senate held hearings on the Watergate break-ins. The Supreme Court ruled on the landmark Roe vs. Wade case, legalizing abortion in that country. The last U.S. combat troops left South Vietnam . The twin towers of the World Trade Center became the tallest building in the world. In the Middle East, Egypt, Syria and Israel became engaged in the fourth Arab-Israeli conflict, the Yom Kippur War.
In the world of entertainment Carly Simon’s ‘You’re So Vain’, Roberta Flack’s ‘Killing Me Softly With His Song, and ‘My Love’ by Paul McCartney and Wings, spent multiple weeks at the top of the charts . Big budget blockbusters like The Sting and The Exorcist dominated the movie box office. Also hitting theatres, in March and August respectively, were two films that would become iconic in the portrayal of Jesus Christ in film, the musical, Godspell, and the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. Both were based on theatre productions that had debuted two years earlier. Both shows were created by young writers and composers in their early to mid-twenties–John-Michael Tebelak and Steven Schwartz for Godspell, and Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber for Superstar.
The youth of the creators is central to the feel of both stories—they both portray Jesus-as-rebel, as a young man with revolutionary ideas that spoke to the movement of the late sixties and early seventies. But there the similarity ends. Godspell is a light-hearted romp through the Gospel of Matthew, via the streets of early 1970s Manhattan. Superstar is presented as a rock opera within a movie, and portrays the Christian messiah through the eyes of perhaps one of the most reviled characters in western civilization, Judas Iscariot.
What’s it all about?
Opening with the backdrop of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre, ‘John the Baptist’ proclaims the coming of Jesus. Jesus, in ‘Mork from Ork’ trousers and suspenders, clown shoes, painted-on teardrops, and a red heart painted on his forehead, leads his ‘disciples’—young men and women of various ethnicities –through the streets. Together they sing, dance and act out Jesus’ parables. He preaches a gospel ripe for idealism of the Flower Child generation– ‘love for your neighbors’, of ‘turning the other cheek’, and calling out those who are truly ‘blessed’. Budgeted at $1.3 million (just over $7 million in 2016 dollars) Godspell is a simple take on the gospel of Matthew, with an innocence underscored by a smiling, enthusiastic, lovable Jesus.
Stephen Schwartz’s music is eclectic, ranging from a vaudevillian ‘All for the Best,’ to ‘God Save the People’—which has a contemporary Christian vibe–to the international hit, ‘Day by Day.’ ‘Day By Day’ which starts as a beautiful plaintive ballad, morphs into a joyous up-tempo dance number. Its lyrics are deceptively simple and beautiful: Day by day/ Day by day/ Oh, dear Lord, three things I pray/ To see Thee more clearly/ Love Thee more dearly/ Follow Thee more nearly/ Day by day. Sometimes less is definitely more.
Mr. Tebelak wrote the book for his master’s thesis at Carnegie-Mellon University, and composer Steven Schwartz wrote the music and additional lyrics. The theatre version opened Off Broadway in 1971 .
Before he died at age 36, Mr. Tebelak would go on to direct on and Off Broadway, and, according to the New York Times, wrote and staged liturgical drama for the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City, where he served as dramaturge .
Mr. Schwartz, a multiple Academy Award and Grammy winner, would go on to write music and lyrics for Pippin, Wicked, Children of Eden, among others. .
Director, Ernest Greene, brought the project to the screen two years after it opened Off Broadway. Victor Garber (Alias) played Jesus Christ.
Godspell is an airy, jovial piece of entertainment. Jesus is depicted as a likable—even lovable—leader and teacher. However he is harmless and undemanding. The piece is ‘based’ on the Gospel of Matthew in many ways but one—there is no resurrection. As a result, there is no divinity. Does this matter? For a casual audience member, probably not. It is a version of the Gospel not necessarily for Christian believers, but for those who are simply satisfied with a ‘feel-good’ version of the Gospel, with an entertaining, non-threatening Christ. However those who believe in the divinity of Christ may find it a bit wanting.
It was a production, right for its time. It played for five years Off-Broadway, and moved to Broadway in 1976, where it played for 527 performances .
Jesus Christ Superstar
What’s It All About?
Superstar, the feature film, presents the last seven days of Jesus’ life as a performance piece by a group of young actors and singers. The film opens with a long shot of a bus rolling through the desert. A group of young actors and actresses disembark and the rock opera begins.
After three years of preaching, teaching and performing miracles, Jesus has developed a strong following who believe that he is who he says he is–divine, the Son of God. Judas believes to the contrary, and is even more concerned that Jesus actually believes that he is God. In the song, Heaven on Their Minds, Judas expresses his fears about Jesus growing popularity: Jesus!/ You’ve started to believe/ The things they’ve said of you/ You really do believe/ This talk of God is true/ And all the good you’ve done/ Will soon get swept away/ You’ve begun to matter more than the things you say. Judas is concerned that Jesus’ followers will turn on him when—from his point of view– they discover that he is not divine, but, in fact, a fraud. He is also concerned that the Romans will retaliate if they believe that Jesus followers may be impossible to control if Jesus is not stopped.
Elements of the gospels’ record of Jesus’ final days are presented, for instance, the triumphant entry into Jerusalem with adoring crowds waving palms. The writers take some artistic license however in having Mary Magdalene comfort a tired Jesus and rubbing his forehead with ointment. The woman is then criticized by Judas. In fact, in the Gospel of John, Chapter 12, it is Mary of Bethany, the sister of Martha and Lazarus, who anoints his feet with oil, not Mary Magdalene .
Artistic license aside, Mary ‘Magdalene’ sings of her love for Jesus in the absolutely beautiful ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him,’ which became an international hit.
Superstar handles the sticky subject of Judas’ betrayal in a particularly novel way. Fearing the military might of the Romans descending on Jesus’ growing followers, Judas runs to the temple and tips the authorities off on where he can be found when alone, and not surrounded by crowds. The subject of the thirty pieces of silver is even trickier. The story gets around this by having Judas believe that the money will be given to the poor.
Jesus is arrested and flogged. Seeing Jesus’ suffering, Judas, wracked with guilt, hangs himself. Then, in a fantasy sequence, Judas reappears, as if from heaven, and speaks to Jesus, through the majestic title track: Why’d you pick such a backward time in such a strange land?’/ If you’d come today you could have reached the whole nation/ Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.
Finally, Jesus is crucified, but does not rise again. (So, in an ironic twist, Judas returns from the dead, but Jesus doesn’t.)
Cue the end of the play within the movie. The actors board the bus. But there is no Jesus.
Initially there was no interest by the musical community to produce Superstar–except from a representative for the MCA record company. The creators decided on an incremental approach to getting their musical made: Release a single and, if that succeeded, follow up with an album, and if that was successful, produce the rock opera. Their plan worked. The single, ‘Jesus Christ, Superstar’, was released first, followed by the album, which provided sufficient interest to produce the opera.
Here are a few comments from Sir Tim Rice on the making of the piece. They are taken from his commentary for the DVD of the film. .
On the initial idea…
“When I was fifteen, at public boarding school in England, a very church-centered school with a lot of divinity and scripture and religious instruction, I was always very intrigued with the role of Judas Iscariot, a rather unlucky chap. He happened to be around at the time and I thought, well, I think most people in that situation would have reacted as he did. I thought if I were a writer, or if I were a painter or a sculptor, which I’m not, that would be a very good topic, Judas Iscariot. The idea of Jesus, from Judas’ point of view, intrigued me from a very early age, even before I met Andrew.”
Pitching Superstar to Andrew Lloyd Webber…
“We’d had a minor success with a piece done for children called Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, so we were aware we could write entertainingly about religious stories. In 1968-69 we were looking for topics…then I said ‘what about Judas Iscariot?’ Somehow that clicked with Andrew as well, and bit by bit, we put this musical together…”
Reflections on Jesus in Superstar…
“I saw [Superstar] as a human story. It was Jesus as a man we were interested in…we wanted to portray Jesus as a human being, who had doubts. We wanted to bring out the human side of him without making a statement one way or the other re: his divinity. Superstar doesn’t say Jesus is God—it certainly doesn’t say he wasn’t. It is Jesus through the eyes of Judas…I believe Judas didn’t believe he was God, and I believe that’s why Judas believed he had to turn him in because he felt that here was an man, a man who, he, Judas admired, was now getting out of control.”
Reflections on controversy…
“I think we were aware that anybody who had fundamentalist, rather extreme, in my opinion, views of Jesus as God might be offended…but we do not say he wasn’t God—it’s up to you.”
Superstar, the rock opera opened, on Broadway in 1971 and was an immediate hit. Tom O’Horgan, the original director of Hair—the ultimate musical for the hippie generation–brought Superstar to the stage. Twenty-four year old Ben Vereen, (Pippin, All That Jazz) played Judas; nineteen year old vocalist Yvonne Elliman, (‘If I Can’t Have You’) played Mary Magdalene, and Jeff Fenholt, 21, played Jesus. The musical opened in October of 1971 and ran for 720 performances. The piece was criticized by Christian and Jewish organizations alike. .
Film and music producer, Robert Stigwood (Saturday Night Fever, Grease) produced the film version, with Yvonne Elliman the only one of the three leads to reprise her role. Hollywood gave the film top treatment. Norman Jewison (In the heat of the Night, …And Justice for All, Moonstruck) directed the $13 million project. .
An examination of Superstar would be incomplete without a reference to the controversy surrounding the race of the actors who played Judas in the original Broadway production and feature film. According to both Mr. Jewison and Sir Rice, the role simply went to the actor who was best for the part, Ben Vereen for the Broadway production, and the late Carl Anderson for the feature film, both of whom happened to be black. Is it coincidence that one of the most treacherous characters in history was ‘best’ portrayed by two black actors? Could Jesus have been black, or of some other ethnicity, in 1971 or 1973? In all likelihood, Judas and Jesus were not that dissimilar as far as their ethnicity was concerned. So if a black Judas was acceptable, why not a black Jesus?
Should Christians be concerned about works of fiction like Jesus Christ Superstar? An artistic take on the life of Jesus is nothing new. In his novel The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis chose to pump up Jesus’ ‘human’ quotient and have him fantasying about a life with Mary Magdalene, instead of fulfilling his mission to save mankind from sin. . Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code suggests that Jesus was in fact was married to Mary Magdalene and had a daughter. In 1977 the author, Taylor Caldwell published, I, Judas, which has been described as an ‘ambitious if only partial exoneration of Judas Iscariot from the guilt he had borne’ .
Honorable Mention – Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus
On March 31, 1973, months before Godspell and Superstar hit movie theatres, Johnny and June Carter Cash released a musical feature based on the life of Christ, Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus. Time Magazine named it one of the ten best ‘Jesus Films’. “The Man in Black, who had recently embraced Christ, ambles through the Holy Land while telling a story of Jesus’ life and sacrifice.” Richard Corliss, Time Magazine, Top Ten Jesus Films, April 09, 2009 . John Denver, Larry Gatlin, Kris Kristofferson and other top country artists contributed tracks to the project. Cash, himself, wrote and performed eight songs for the film, including the title track.
Godspell and Superstar present a secular take on the life of Jesus. But the two are extremely different. Godspell tries to be as faithful to the spiritual legacy of Jesus, as presented by the Gospels, as is possible in a secular theatre world. Superstar takes itself far more seriously. It asks us to consider Judas’ point of view—that, perhaps, Judas was not such a bad dude after all. Maybe his motives were in fact honorable. Maybe he has been treated unfairly for two millennia. It’s clear where Hollywood’s heart was with these films—Superstar received ten times the budget of Godspell, together with an A-list director. (Granted, Superstar had a track record –a hit Broadway show and album.)
These stories present am image of Jesus that is probably palatable to non-Christian audiences, in that they shy away from the essence of what Christianity is all about—the divinity of Jesus, seen through his resurrection. But these works beg the question: why a continued secular fascination with a Jesus other than the one we are asked to accept from the New Testament? Why this‘re-examination’ of the man? Why the continued ‘alternate’ take on the Christian messiah? Why the continued fascination with a man with whom there is such fundamental disagreement?
© Weldon Turner 2016 All Rights Reserved
Next month: John Newton and Amazing Grace
Scene from ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’
Credit: Universal Pictures / Handout
Editorial license secured.
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