Establishes the Rock Opera Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Jesus Christ Superstar generated intense controversy, but it legitimated rock music as a resource for theater composers, revitalized musical theater, and created a worldwide market for musicals.

Summary of Event

In April, 1965, seventeen-year-old Andrew Lloyd Webber, who had a classical music background and a desire to compose for the musical theater, was introduced to twenty-year-old Tim Rice, who had an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music and a desire to write hit lyrics. After three years of unprofitable collaboration, they were asked to write a short cantata, with at least some minimal religious significance, for Colet Court, a preparatory school. The result was a twenty-five-minute work called Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (Rice and Lloyd Webber) in the composing of which the two discovered they could relate action entirely in song without a narrative line. They experimented, changing musical styles freely throughout the piece, and discovering a kind of opera in the popular idiom. An expanded Joseph was recorded and unexpectedly became a hit album in England. Theater;rock opera Rock opera Musical theater Music;rock opera Theater;rock opera Rock opera Musical theater Music;rock opera Lloyd Webber, Andrew Rice, Tim Stigwood, Robert O’Horgan, Tom Wagner, Robin Barcelo, Randy

With the success of Joseph, Rice and Lloyd Webber concentrated on finding a suitable new project. Rice was struck by a question posed in a Bob Dylan song: “Did Judas Iscariot have God on his side?” Thinking it over, Rice got the idea to relate the story of the Passion of Jesus from the viewpoint of Judas. Lloyd Webber liked the idea, and the pair wrote Jesus Christ Superstar. First released as a double record album in November, 1969, it became an instant hit in England and the United States, creating some controversy because of its relative irreverence.

When a production of Jesus Christ Superstar opened on Broadway on October 12, 1971, new controversies erupted over the quality of the music and lyrics as musical theater and especially over the staging. Some denounced Rice’s lyrics as limp doggerel and Lloyd Webber’s music as not only bad theater music but also bad rock and roll. Others praised the achievement of using rock lyrics in a theatrical idiom and rock music as a flexible framework for the show. There was, however, almost universal disdain for Tom O’Horgan’s staging. Christ made his first entrance, draped in a silver robe, emerging upright from a silver chalice; Herod was a campy drag queen on platform shoes; gigantic caterpillar-like creatures wormed their way onto the stage for no apparent reason; and Judas returned from the grave on a trapeze, surrounded by feathered chorus girls. It was agreed that the direction served primarily to obscure the text of the libretto. Despite the negative reviews, the public’s enthusiasm sustained the Broadway production for almost two years. Lloyd Webber hated the irrelevant spectacle and moved to ensure that the Broadway staging was never revived. Nevertheless, he remained saddled with a widespread reputation that his musicals required overblown spectacle to succeed.

Tim Rice (left) and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the creators of Jesus Christ Superstar.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

After Jesus Christ Superstar, Lloyd Webber decided to venture in a completely new direction, writing the music for Alan Ayckbourn’s Jeeves (1975). He completely abandoned the rock idiom, trying to write a score in the style of Jerry Herman. When Jeeves flopped, Lloyd Webber decided never to write for a book musical again, and he resolved to try out everything he wrote before taking it public. It was a wiser but humbler Lloyd Webber who went back to Tim Rice, agreeing to write the music for a show about Eva Perón.

Evita (1976) Evita (Rice and Lloyd Webber) solidified the artistic approach that had been so successful in Jesus Christ Superstar. Every aspect of Rice and Lloyd Webber’s technique, however, had advanced, from the musical style and cohesiveness of the score to the dramatic structure of the libretto, which related character and narrative through lyrics. They did not want another O’Horgan to subvert the musical with an appliquéd concept, so they contacted veteran Hal Prince, Prince, Hal who listened to the music and wrote a three-thousand-word memo with his suggestions for rewrites. Lloyd Webber and Rice did not want to be subservient to anyone, however, so they finished writing the show and recorded the album before beginning a production. This unique approach became the pair’s method for ensuring artistic control whether working on projects alone or together: They would write a show and then record it, releasing singles to become hits and using the album to generate public interest, before stage production began. For better or worse, producers could thus make few changes in the work.

Lloyd Webber and Rice believed that Jesus Christ Superstar had alienated the New York critics, so they established another precedent, opening a show in London and allowing it to become established before moving it to Broadway. Evita opened in London in June, 1978, to generally positive reviews. The American production opened in Los Angeles and then San Francisco. As with Jesus Christ Superstar, some theater critics were confused by the operatic quality of a musical that had no dialogue and doubted the theatricality of a production that had first been a record. When Evita opened on Broadway on September 25, 1979, the pair’s worst nightmares proved true. The critics savaged everything about Lloyd Webber and Rice’s abilities, from their subject matter to their ability to write music and lyrics. Once again, however, popular response to Evita established it as a solid hit.

Although Lloyd Webber and Rice did not continue to collaborate after Evita, they remained business partners. Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita established the artistic approach that both would use on their independent projects. During the 1980’s, Rice wrote the librettos for two musicals, Blondel (1983) and Chess (1986); Chess was an enormous hit in England but ran for less than two months on Broadway.

Lloyd Webber, on the other hand, became the most financially successful composer in the history of musical theater by composing the music for Cats (1981), Song and Dance (1985), Requiem (1985), Starlight Express (1984), Phantom of the Opera (1987), and Aspects of Love (1989). Despite his success, he continued to be criticized for pandering to the lowest common denominator of an undiscerning public, for relying on repetitive and derivative themes, and for requiring overblown technical theatrics to mask his deficiencies. His supporters countered that he displays a genius for melody and a unique ability to combine classical, show, and popular music in a way that appeals to a universal audience. His later works in the 1990’s and early twenty-first century enjoyed mixed success, especially in the United States, where, even when they made Broadway, they often met critical reviews and failed financially, owing to the costs or casting problems.

Significance

When Jesus Christ Superstar opened in October, 1971, almost three million double record albums of the music had already been sold. The show’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” was an established hit single. Unauthorized concert productions of the album’s music were being closed by the copyright holders on a weekly basis, while the professional tour sold thousands of tickets at unprecedented prices. Many religious organizations condemned the blasphemy of a rock music version of the Passion of Christ, whereas others praised the musical. No one could foretell the impact that Jesus Christ Superstar was to have on both the art and business of musical theater.

The content and status of rock music had changed rapidly from 1965 to 1970. Bob Dylan had given rock intellectual respectability, and the Beatles had stretched the boundaries of rock recording when they released the first concept album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, in 1967. The Who had released the first rock opera, Tommy (1969), which was performed only in concert because it was not theatrically cohesive. Broadway had its first successful rock musical, Hair (1968), full of hit songs that commented on, but did not develop, the action or characters. It was the logical extension of these events for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice to incorporate such developments in a rock opera for the stage.

When the Broadway theater season began in 1971, Broadway had witnessed a decade of declining ticket sales, the fragmentation of its audience, few openings, and even fewer hits. The traditional Broadway musical had stagnated. Stephen Sondheim Sondheim, Stephen had scored in 1970 with Company, Company (Sondheim and Furth) his first “concept musical,” which the elite theater community had hailed as the dawning of a new era. They were less than optimistic about the arrival of Jesus Christ Superstar, viewing it as nothing more than the opportunistic staging of a hit record album written by a pair of young British rock-and-rollers with no background in the musical theater. When the production opened on October 12, it was generally panned and dismissed, but it did not go away; instead, it ran for 720 performances. As a record, a concert, and again as a Broadway musical, it found a young, fresh audience for an otherwise ailing theater. Its impact would not be acknowledged for another decade.

Recognizing that O’Horgan’s Broadway staging obscured the libretto, the writers worked for continually more restrained productions. When Jesus Christ Superstar moved to London, Jim Sharman directed a scaled-down version that enhanced the score and libretto. Sharman’s production ran for eight years, becoming the longest-running musical in British history and establishing the British reputation of Lloyd Webber and Rice in musical theater. Jesus Christ Superstar went international with professional productions in twenty countries, developing audiences for musical theater everywhere it went.

When Lloyd Webber and Rice returned to Broadway in 1979 with Evita, the New York theater was in much better health. Broadway had discovered a new audience, but it was no longer homogeneous; the new Broadway provided a variety of shows for a fragmented audience. The critics, however, still tried to rule as the arbiters of taste, and they ruled that Evita, even though directed by Hal Prince, had no place on Broadway. Lloyd Webber and Rice had anticipated this by carefully creating a popular demand for the show that again transcended critical response, and Evita enjoyed a four-year run.

As it was generally too expensive and risky to originate a show on Broadway, many other producers followed the pattern of developing a show elsewhere: in regional theaters, universities, and showcases and in Off-Broadway and London productions. Through the 1980’s, Great Britain nourished its contemporary theater and sent its best to Broadway, creating a theatrical “British invasion” much as the Beatles had done in pop music two decades earlier. Almost unbelievably, the British producers shifted the center of musical theater from Broadway to London. It seemed as though every substantial Broadway musical had been preceded by a record album, a successful London run, and an unprecedented advance ticket sales. Among others, Broadway imported Lloyd Webber’s Cats, Starlight Express, and Phantom of the Opera, and Alain Boubil and Claude-Michel Schönberg’s Les Misérables (1987) and Miss Saigon (1991). Even L. Arthur Rose, Douglas Furber, and Noel Gay’s old-fashioned Me and My Girl (1986) was a long-running hit, while no new American musical of the season lasted more than six weeks.

Artistically, Jesus Christ Superstar began the movement toward merging opera and musical theater later exemplified by Phantom of the Opera, Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd (1979), and Boubil and Schönberg’s Les Misérables. Lloyd Webber and Rice legitimated rock as a tool for the contemporary musical theater composer and songwriter, demonstrating the medium to have great versatility for theatrical application. The success of professional revivals of Jesus Christ Superstar in the early twenty-first century demonstrated the work to have retained its excitement and relevance, and the show remained an active part of the worldwide musical theater repertoire. Theater;rock opera Rock opera Musical theater Music;rock opera

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Horn, Miriam, with John Lee. “Broadway’s Age of Wit and Glitter.” U.S. News & World Report, February 1, 1988, 52-54. Compares and contrasts the work and success of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kasha, Al, and Joel Hirschhorn. “Tim Rice.” In Notes on Broadway: Conversations with the Great Songwriters. Chicago: Contemporary Books, 1985. Rice comments on the relationship between theater and rock music on the modern stage, his approach to writing the libretto and lyrics, and his collaboration with Lloyd Webber.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kerr, Walter. Journey to the Center of the Theater. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979. Collection of criticism originally published in The New York Times from 1971 to 1978, the years in which a dying Broadway was resurrected. Review of Jesus Christ Superstar is representative in that it captures both the praise and criticism that followed the Broadway opening.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Polkow, Dennis. “Andrew Lloyd Webber: From Superstar to Requiem.” Christian Century 104 (March 18, 1987): 272-276. An important interview with Lloyd Webber examining the theological and theatrical differences between the earlier and later musical scores. Includes some exclusive information, such as the fact that Jesus Christ Superstar had its origins in Bob Dylan’s “With God on Our Side.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Rice, Tim. Jesus Christ Superstar. In Great Rock Musicals, edited by Stanley Richards. New York: Stein & Day, 1979. The complete book and lyrics for this and seven other rock musicals. Richards’s brief but informative introductions include opening-night credits, background and production history, and excerpts of representative critical response.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Oh, What a Circus: The Autobiography, 1944-1978. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1999. Recounts the author’s ordinary upbringing and highly successful career. Includes original photos.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Snelson, John. Andrew Lloyd Webber. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2004. The author, a music scholar, examines the myriad influences that have informed the controversial composer’s works.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Walsh, Michael. Andrew Lloyd Webber: His Life and Works. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1989. An oversized book featuring an excellent collection of photographs from Lloyd Webber’s life and productions. The text is informative, providing biographical details along with descriptive and critical commentary.

The Wiz Brings African American Talent to Broadway

Joplin’s Treemonisha Is Staged by the Houston Opera

Sondheim Uses Operatic Techniques in Sweeney Todd

Adams’s Nixon in China Premieres

Categories: History Content