Ben Vereen, Jeff Fenholdt, and Yvonne Elliman, stars of Jesus Christ, Superstar, October 1971.

14 October 1971: With more tickets pre-sold than for any other musical in history, the religious rock opera premieres in New York

For 2,000 years Jesus Christ has been just a humble messiah. No more, on Tuesday Jesus Christ Superstar opened at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on Broadway – not without protests from picket lines of freaks who still believe in Jesus as the Saviour rather than as a showbiz commodity – with more tickets pre-sold than for any other musical in history.

In fact, Jesus Christ is such a big property that Robert Stigwood the producer took the unprecedented step of flying the British press over and installing them an the 19-storey French chateau known as the Plaza on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Central Park. The cream of New York society was at the opening, from David Frost to Kenneth Tynan, and at Stigwood’s exclusive party for 2,000 people afterwards the wait for the New York Times review held none of the usual terrors: the word was that whichever way Clive Barnes jumped he would not be able to dent this cast-iron success (in the event, his qualified thumbs down took the line that this Jesus Christ was something less than super).

The rock opera is the work of two young Englishmen from an original story by God. Tim Rice, aged 26, wrote the lyrics and Andrew Lloyd Webber, a 23-year-old who wrote his first opera at the age of nine, the music. The two-record album on which the show is based bombed in London but has sold 2½m copies in the US. A concert version that has been touring the country has made 35 million dollars in three months. Advance sales for the Broadway production comes to a cool million dollars. Robert Stigwood has already cornered Jerusalem as the location for the movie version. The Stigwood group of companies handle The Cream, Tin Tin, Georgie Fame, The Bee Gees, and Frankie Howerd, but financially speaking none of them look as promising as the new Stigwood JC line.

Artistically it is a different story. Webber, Rice, and the director, Tom O’Horgan, are a formidable enough trinity (O’Horgan directed the Broadway version of Hair and the current hit about Lenny Bruce, Lenny) but for all the money, time, talent, and effort invested in Jesus Christ Superstar, there is no disguising the gospel truth that the show staggers from vulgarity to schmalz and back. Paul Ainsley’s camped-up male whore Herod stops the show with his Twenties ragtime number (“Prove to me you’re no fool/Get up and walk on my swimming pool”) and the other triumph was Mary Magdalene who was singing in the Pheasantry Club on the Kings Road in Chelsea under the name of Yvonne Elliman when Webber happened along one evening and picked her to sing on the album. She sang a torch song to Jesus (“I don’t know how to love Him”) sexily enough to bring them to their feet in the gods.

Musically the show is a bit like Hair but less memorable; visually (in the designs of Robin Wagner and lighting by Jules Fisher) it swings between Fifth Avenue window dressing and some extraordinarily potent Herionymus Bosch-like nightmarish effects. Rice and Webber intended to make Superstar a head-on confrontation with the Bible story; in fact there are no fresh insights at all; the feeling, rather, of a couple of talented and trendy young men skirting the problem with slight unease. Still, the psychedelic crucifixion makes all those pre-Renaissance arguments about whether Christ should be depicted fastened to the cross with three nails or four look pretty small time.

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