Broadway Musical Theatre 101

Music Theatre 101: Jesus Christ Superstar’s “Heaven on Their Minds”

For some poor, unfortunate individuals, musical theatre is the audible equivalent of fingernails upon a blackboard. They perceive it as a trite, pointless art form. The goal of this regular feature is to introduce readers to worthy, quality contributions to the musical theatre genre in the hopes of increasing the art form’s appreciation.

It’s easy to mock Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. On fact, it’s practically a requirement to calling one’s self a music theatre aficionado. His musicals—The Phantom of the Opera, Starlight Express, Cats (shudder)—they’re spectacle without substance. I don’t have much in the way of evidence to counter such an argument, but I think the generalization paints Webber’s musicals with too broad a brushstroke.

"I'm sorry. I can't hear you over the sound of my money pouring in."
“I’m sorry. I can’t hear you over the sound of my money pouring in.”

Some of his musicals, however, are sharper than they appear at first glance. For example, let’s look at the first musical that put Webber and lyricist Tim Rice on the map: Jesus Christ Superstar.

"I didn't get my crashing chandelier."
“I didn’t get my crashing chandelier.”

Initially released as a concept album in 1971, Jesus Christ Superstar recounts the final days of Jesus’s life through the eyes of Judas, his eventual betrayer. It’s no surprise how the show ends (although it drew the ire of Christian groups everywhere for not including a resurrection for our titular lead, not to mention the implied relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene and the presentation of a sympathetic Judas. Actually, the show kinda seems practically designed to annoy conservative Christians). What makes the show interesting is the way it tells Jesus’s story.

Jesus Christ Superstar is ultimately a story about individuals who feel they can see the future and understand how the world will play out their lives if events remain unchanged. Jesus recognizes his end is fast approaching and fears what will become of Jerusalem when his time is over. The high priests, who view Jesus and his followers as a threat, imagine a time when Jesus’s ascending status will mean the end of their power. Pilate dreams that Jesus’s trial will lead to his ruination as a political power, and finally we have Judas, the isolated, disillusioned apostle who loves Jesus, but resents what his following has become and fears what the individuals in power will do to them. Judas exists as a man who lives in constant fear that Jesus’s clout will only lead to destruction and anger that that same clout is not being used to help and heal as many people as possible. Here, in the show’s first sung number, Judas expresses his fear and anger towards the leader he both loves and hates:

And here’s an audio version from the current UK tour, featuring comedian Tim Minchin as Judas (my current favorite version of this song):

First, the fact that a show ostensible about Jesus opens with a song from Judas’s perspective is a bold, daring move. It paints Jesus in a quasi-negative light, as our first real discussion of him as a character is told through the eyes of a bitter, cynical, worried admirer.

And Jesus probably shouldn't have made him eat so far away from the rest of the apostles.
And Jesus probably shouldn’t have made him eat so far away from the rest of the apostles.

This is Judas’s story. Jesus just happens to be a part of that. Webber’s melody feels angry and blunt, and Rice’s lyrics make that frustration and fear at the forefront of Judas’s character. Judas has shifted from a man who once admired Jesus, but now feels that he “should have stayed a great unknown.” After all, not only is no one’s life really improved and all they seem to be doing is earning the ire of the established power. As far as Judas is concerned, the perception of Jesus as the Son of God is getting in the way of Jesus, the good man trying to make the world better. Jesus Christ Superstar is not a show about Jesus’s divinity (in fact, the show makes no claim as to whether or not Jesus is truly divine), but Jesus’s humanity.

JCS often has the problem that our Messiah is overshadowed by the man who sends him to his death, a problem most versions of Jesus’s life do not have.

Yep, this image pretty much sums it up.
Yep, this image pretty much sums it up.

As the show unfolds, we see Jesus as a more human individual—a man who fears his own destruction, lashes out at the sick and destitute who seem to seek him out only to help themselves, and often seems as uncertain about the world as everyone else. Here, though, all we see is a man making superficial, societal changes, and the bitter admirer who wished for far more from a man he thought could change everything, but instead changes very little.

There are multiple recording of Jesus Christ Superstar available on CD or digital downloads and three versions available to purchase on DVD: the interesting, if dated 1970s film version (which features the amazing Carl Anderson as Judas), a dreadful 2001 version, and the recent O2 release, featuring Tim Minchin as Judas (my pick for best recording).

So, what do you think guys? Are you a fan? Do you just hate Andrew Lloyd Webber too much to like any of his musicals? Let us know in the comments!

 

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2 comments

  1. Wow am I late to the party. No one will probably even see this but I wanted to add my 2 cents if I may. First, great post. I love JCS and you really illustrated to everyone the essence of this amazing musical. As far as Heaven On Their Minds, a few comments you can feel free to completely disregard. I too love Mr. Minchin’s voice and performance of this song, but perhaps in a case of you are always loyal to your first love, I grew up on and will always be in love with the concept album and Murray Head’s portrayal of Judas ( I have what I think is a kind of funny and completely true antidote about how Ian Gillian and how that album led me on the career as a singer/ music teacher if you’re ever interested). After him, I think we’ve gotten recordings of some other special Judas’. Ben Vareen’s recording is very 70’s to me, but still some great work, the aforementioned Tim Menchin and I know I’m in the incredible minority here but, while perhaps not the best technical singer, I found Jerome Pradon’s emotion and passion enough to keep me listening. And now I’d even add Brandon Dixon to this list. I quite enjoyed his live performance.

    Overall, it’s just a really great musical from a very young Lloyd Webber with some great (what else would you expect) lyrics and turn of phrase from Tim Rice. My overall Lloyd Webber opinion is that his early shows (JCS, Evita, even Joseph before that) are really musical theater masterpieces. While I appreciate it’s become cool to hate on ALW, I feel like his shows during the “mega musical” era while perhaps focusing too much on style and less on substance suffered mostly from working with inferior lyricists. Or in the case of Cats, basically no lyricist ( is it any wonder the only real hit is from a tune with actual lyrics). But if you listen to some of those melodies, and the grand orchestrations, there is still plenty of value in those shows, even if they aren’t on regular rotation in my iTunes library. Thanks for (maybe) taking the time to read.

    1. Thanks for the compliment! Carl Anderson in the film was the first Judas I ever heard, and I do still think of him as a kind of gold standard. I also really like Zubin Varla. There’s just something about Tim Minchin’s performance that really clicked with me. JCS is probably my favorite Andrew Lloyd Webber show, and this is one of his best songs. Glad you like the article!

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