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The controversial musical phenomenon turns 50

(RNS) — On March 25, 1971, in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a small, non-public Lutheran faculty held an unlawful efficiency of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera “Jesus Christ Celebrity.” The stripped-down, oratorio-style present was a completely student-led endeavor that includes a physics main as music director and school members donning doctoral robes enjoying excessive monks.   

“I can’t learn music, and I’m not a musician,” mentioned Larry Recla, the seminary intern who produced and directed the Gettysburg School manufacturing. “This factor exploded and took on a lifetime of its personal.”

Weeks into rehearsal, the corporate acquired phrase of a courtroom order prohibiting beginner corporations from performing the present for copyright causes. Undeterred, the group determined to not print ads and to name the efficiency a costume rehearsal in an effort to keep away from a lawsuit. Regardless of the dearth of printed publicity, the efficiency attracted greater than 1,200 viewers members, a few of whom sat on windowsills or stood outdoors to catch the sound of drums and electrical organ.

“It was explosively wonderful,” mentioned Recla. “Individuals couldn’t sit nonetheless; they had been up yelling and screaming. The applause after every of the reveals lasted 10-Quarter-hour.”

Months later, on October 12, 1971, a glitzy, over-the-top efficiency of “Jesus Christ Celebrity” opened on Broadway. The critics weren’t thrilled — some called it brash, and Webber himself called it vulgar — however because of a $1,000,000 advance sale and the eye of spiritual protesters, the present was already a phenomenon. This month, the present celebrates its 50th anniversary.

Initially, Rice and Webber’s thought for a rock opera ardour play didn’t take off — one investor called it the “worst thought in historical past,” and the 1970 idea album was banned by BBC radio for being sacrilegious. The album met a distinct destiny within the U.S., the place it grew to become the bestselling document of 1971.

“For lots of people, it was the visceral pleasure of the music,” mentioned Devin McKinney, archivist at Gettysburg School and creator of “Jesusmania!: The Bootleg Celebrity of Gettysburg School.” “It obtained your physique transferring and thoughts pondering and linked it with this spiritual impulse that plenty of children felt or wished to really feel.”

The unique album, with numbers together with “I Don’t Know Learn how to Love Him” and “Celebrity,” employed rock-infused Broadway tunes to relate the week main as much as Jesus’ crucifixion, all informed from the betraying disciple Judas’ perspective. The hit album impressed a slew of beginner performances of the present that preceded the Broadway manufacturing.

FILE – On this Oct. 8, 1972 file picture, producer-director Norman Jewison, left, demonstrates how he desires an actor to scrub the ft of Jesus, portrayed by Ted Neeley, throughout filming of the film model of the rock musical, “Jesus Christ Celebrity,” in Bethlehem, Israel. (AP Photograph, File)

The album arrived simply as Christian rock was starting to emerge within the U.S. — Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit within the Sky” was a chart-topper in 1970, and the Jesus Individuals’s Motion was mixing the electrical sounds of Sixties-counterculture with evangelicalism. “Jesus Christ Celebrity” hit the candy spot: “This was actually the primary time a totally Christian message was coming via rock-and-roll music, the dominant cultural medium for younger individuals on the time,” mentioned McKinney.

The Broadway manufacturing wasn’t as instantly profitable because the album. Critics loathed the gaudy manufacturing, and Christians bristled on the present’s depiction of romance between Jesus and Mary Magdalene, its alternative of Judas as narrator and its lack of resurrection. Billy Graham said the present “bordered on blasphemy,” and in a 2021 interview, Ted Neeley, the unique understudy for the Jesus position on Broadway, mentioned,Each single efficiency was protested by individuals calling it sacrilegious. They might attempt to preserve us from going within the stage door.”

Even at this time, the present’s biblical blunders have proved too huge for some Christians to abdomen.


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“I primarily find it irresistible, however I find it irresistible regardless of myself,” mentioned Mark Goodacre, professor of spiritual research at Duke College. “As a New Testomony scholar, I’ve all types of issues with it. However I so love the music. And I additionally assume that plenty of Tim Rice’s reasonably tacky lyrics sometimes hit that second of genius.”

One sticking level is Rice and Webber’s depiction of a human Christ who’s overwhelmed by his followers, exhausted from his ministry and uncertain what the crucifixion is for. “Present me there’s a cause in your wanting me to die, You’re far too eager on the place and the way, however not so sizzling on why,” he sings in “Gethsemane.”

Jesus’ human nature is additional explored in his relationship with Mary Magdalene. Within the authentic Broadway manufacturing, the 2 “fondle and kiss one another,” in response to a 1971 New York Instances review. Subsequent interpretations have taken a extra refined strategy, however nonetheless, Mary Magdalene’s character is basically lowered to her battle with romantic emotions for Jesus.

“It’s one of the crucial disappointing issues concerning the present in some ways, that it merely buys into the once-popular cliché however full fallacy that Mary Magdalene is a intercourse employee,” mentioned Goodacre, who famous the methods Rice and Webber conflated Mary Magdalene with different biblical figures similar to Mary of Bethany, the girl who anointed Jesus’ ft in Luke 7, and the girl caught in adultery in John 8.

In 1971, Gettysburg college put on an illegal production of "Jesus Christ Superstar.” Although they called it a “dress rehearsal” and didn’t advertise the final show to avoid attention, more than 1,200 people attended the performance. Courtesy of Special Collections/Musselman Library, Gettysburg College

In 1971, Gettysburg School placed on an unlawful manufacturing of “Jesus Christ Celebrity.” Though they known as it a “costume rehearsal” and didn’t print ads, greater than 1,200 individuals attended the efficiency. Courtesy of Particular Collections/Musselman Library, Gettysburg School

Rice and Weber additionally made the daring transfer to finish the present with the crucifixion. Nonetheless, Goodacre mentioned, administrators should determine find out how to painting Jesus in the course of the curtain name — if he returns in “wonderful arrayments” reasonably than crucifixion garb, the end result might be “a type of resurrection.”

Whereas Christians protested over the godlessness of the present, Jewish teams criticized the present’s depiction of Jewish excessive monks, who, within the authentic manufacturing, had been dressed as gargoyles. “It’s only a few years earlier that the Vatican council lastly mentioned explicitly that Jews usually are not collectively chargeable for the demise of Jesus,” mentioned Henry Bial, chair of the theatre and dance division on the College of Kansas. “To have this high-profile second the place the excessive monks of Israel are conspiring in opposition to Jesus, and so they come off fairly craven, you could possibly see why individuals would get uncomfortable about it.”

In interviews, Rice and Webber — each raised Anglican — mentioned they had been by no means attempting to make a theological level about Judaism or Christianity. Their objective had been to craft a compelling present.

“Individuals have learn a lot extra into this than we ever supposed,” mentioned Rice in a 1971 New York Instances interview. “We had been merely attempting to specific our emotions about Christ on the time, attempting to inform His story and make options for the gaps. We weren’t attempting to make a remark. Who’re we to make a remark?”

Finally, the present is extra about asking questions than answering them. “Who’re you? What have you ever sacrificed?” Judas asks within the tune “Celebrity.” “Do you assume you’re what they are saying you’re?”


RELATED: Christians, Jews and the dubious history of the Passion play


Fifty years later, the present’s influence is troublesome to magnify. It’s been resurrected for area excursions, movie, worldwide theatre productions and most lately, the 2018 Dwell NBC manufacturing that includes John Legend and Sarah Bareilles.

Maybe the present’s most lasting legacy is the music itself. “It’s given us an entire bunch of extraordinarily memorable songs,” mentioned Goodacre. “After I learn the New Testomony ardour, I very often find yourself buzzing tunes from ‘Jesus Christ Celebrity.’”   

Goodacre mentioned the music created a motion that opened up the Christian story to a era that wouldn’t have in any other case gone close to it. “It’s explicitly non-confessional. It isn’t supplying you with a Christian tackle the story, it’s intentionally not reverential. I believe that makes it very palatable to a broader viewers,” he mentioned. “They don’t really feel that they’re having the gospel rammed down their throats.”

In 1971, Gettysburg college put on an illegal production of "Jesus Christ Superstar.” This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Broadway show’s debut. For Gettysburg College’s early show, people packed into the building in any way possible, sitting, standing in the back or sitting on window sills. Courtesy of Special Collections/Musselman Library, Gettysburg College

In 1971, Gettysburg School placed on an unlawful manufacturing of “Jesus Christ Celebrity.” This month marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Broadway present’s debut. For Gettysburg School’s early present, individuals packed into the constructing in any method attainable, sitting, standing within the again or sitting on window sills. Courtesy of Particular Collections/Musselman Library, Gettysburg School

Bial mentioned the present helped pioneer the rock musical style and that, whereas it is available in an extended line of makes an attempt to stage the Bible, “it’s far and away essentially the most commercially profitable adaptation of the Bible that we are able to discover actually in theatre historical past.” In line with Bial, the present additionally led to technical developments, together with the miniaturization of rock live performance gear for theatre and mic variations that allowed singers to be heard over electrical devices.

“It proved that you could possibly make some huge cash on a present that critics don’t significantly like,” added Bial, who mentioned “Celebrity” was one of many first reveals to make use of phrase of mouth and advance gross sales to advertise the present earlier than it opened. In line with Bial, these ways created sufficient momentum to launch “Celebrity” as one of many first mega musicals — “it grew to become virtually a model in and of itself,” he mentioned.

Surprisingly, Recla, the seminarian who staged the bootleg model of “Celebrity” at Gettysburg School, isn’t a fan of the musical. “I haven’t seen any of the opposite productions, as a result of it’s not the identical,” he mentioned. As an alternative, he’s a devotee to the occasion that came about 50 years in the past in Gettysburg. That iteration, which preceded the Broadway manufacturing by seven months, used a completely totally different strategy, Recla mentioned, that prioritized music over pageantry and staged a resurrection on the present’s conclusion.  

For Recla, the most important miracle concerned was the present itself. “Being a part of the present demonstrated what can occur when individuals of quite a lot of variations are of 1 thoughts with a mission,” mentioned Recla. “It meant that I might, for the remainder of my life, imagine in miracles.”

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