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PREVIEW: Jesus Christ (Superstar) Returns (Orpheum/Hennepin Theatre Trust)

James Delisco Beeks and the company of the North American Tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, which plays at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis from January 21-26. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

In 1969, a pair of little-known musical theatre writers named Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to try and enter the Eurovision Song Contest. The two had written just two projects together – one called The Likes of Us, which would go unproduced for forty years, and a “pop cantata” called Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Joseph, then only 15 minutes long, was performed at a London school in 1968 and at the church where Lloyd Webber’s father worked. Some fortuitous newspaper coverage sent an expanded 35-minute version to St. Paul’s Cathedral.

In 1969, the runaway success of the concept album Tommy by The Who inspired many others, including Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, to test the waters for prospective musicals by releasing studio-recorded concept albums. If a concept album did well commercially, it might be followed by a concert performance in advance of developing a full-length musical. In Jesus Christ Superstar, this history carries over into the current production’s staging. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

With Joseph starting to get traction (the show would not become a full-fledged West End musical until 1972), Rice and Lloyd Webber decided to try their hands at Eurovision, Europe’s most prestigious popular music contest. Their song entry was not selected, but became the nucleus of “King Herod’s Song” in what became their next project: a concept album called Jesus Christ Superstar.

Nowadays, Rice and Lloyd Webber are well-known superstars of the musical theatre world, with works as varied as The Lion King and Phantom of the Opera to their respective credits. When Jesus Christ Superstar made it to Broadway in 1971, however, they were sufficiently unknown that one of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s takeaways was a “Most Promising Composer” award. The rest, as they say, is history.

Aaron LaVigne and the company of the North American Tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

Many labels have been applied to Jesus Christ Superstar over the years, but the one that has stuck the best is “rock opera”. That genre was broadly established by the 1969 release of The Who’s Tommy, a studio album whose dramatic sweep and arc stretched far beyond that of a traditional LP. (Tommy itself, made its way to Broadway as a musical in 1993). The story is somewhat loosely based on the last days of the Gospel narrative: Jesus’s entrance into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, and his crucifixion.

New York City theatre in 1971 was a very different animal than today’s commercial theatre. With the city’s economy cratering, the cost new theatre experiments was comparatively low, and many producers were willing to take a chance on something new and trendy. Five months before Jesus Christ Superstar opened on Broadway in October 1971, an offbeat rock musical following a vaguely New Testament Gospel outline called Godspell opened Off-Broadway. Hippies and offbeat treatments of religious subjects were in vogue, and the time, as they say, was right. Jesus Christ Superstar ran for a then-extraordinary 711 performances on Broadway, with a film adaptation shot in the Middle East reaching theatres just a year after the show closed. The rest is history.

Jenna Rubaii in the North American Tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. Photo by Matthew Murphy.

The National Tour of Jesus Christ Superstar plays at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, MN from January 21-26.

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