Putting aside the theological questions for a moment, let me first say that I think the original record album of Jesus Christ Superstar is a stunning musical achievement. Andrew Lloyd Webber was only 22 years old when he composed the work with lyricist Tim Rice, who was equally young at age 26. The 1970 rock opera was a ground breaker in the way it seamlessly blended such disparate genres as rock, pop, folk, Broadway and classical into a pastiche that transformed musical theatre for years to come. And for maximum impact, the composers chose as their subject matter nothing less than the Greatest Story Ever Told.
I devote a few pages to Jesus Christ Superstar in my new book, From Mountains High, in which I acknowledge the rock opera as part of the “perfect storm” in the early 1970s that had an impact on the Catholic liturgical music that emerged in that seminal decade. Other influences included Jesus rock (“My Sweet Lord,” “Put Your Hand in the Hand,” and other secular radio hits), the Charismatic Renewal, and the Jesus movement championed by earnest young Christians who were sometimes known as “Jesus Freaks.” You can read more about this in my book when it’s released this summer. It helps give a cultural perspective that I feel is helpful to understand the emotional impact that Jesus Christ Superstar Live TV Concert had on my generation when it was broadcast on the evening of Easter Sunday 2018.
Jesus Christ Superstar is very definitely a work of its times. Emerging at the crossroads between the protesting social consciousness of the 1960s and the Me Decade focus of the 1970s, the opera managed to somehow make a connection between the excessive popularity of rock music and the celebrity status that Jesus endured, as portrayed in all four Gospels. In the Seventies, the music industry devoured itself with records that went platinum before they were even released (c.f., Elton John’s 1975 album, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy), and bestowed godlike status on emerging artists who had yet to prove themselves (c.f., Bruce Springsteen’s simultaneous TIME and Newsweek covers in October 1975). How different was that from the trajectory of an itinerant miracle-working preacher in first century Palestine who eventually got himself killed at the height of his popularity? There is a reason why the composers attached “Superstar” to the revered name of Jesus Christ.
The young singers and dancers who starred in the NBC television special performed excellently and injected new life into the 48-year-old musical. They also most likely have no idea of the controversy that Superstar generated upon its first release. I was a Catholic high school senior at the time and I remember the priests and nuns who chastised me when I confessed how much I enjoyed the recording. Charges of blasphemy were commonplace, and the weekly Catholic newspaper of my archdiocese ran a series of apologetic articles that outlined the biblical errors of the rock opera, line by line.
Christian leaders of all denominations lambasted Superstar for its sympathetic treatment of Judas, and the irreverent way it portrayed Jesus as an insecure leader of rabble rousing revolutionaries. Most insidious of all was the fact that the rock opera has no Resurrection scene! (Never mind that the Stations of the Cross devotion also does not end with the Resurrection.)
These criticisms missed the point. Webber and Rice merely wanted to pose the question of the place of Jesus Christ in 1970s society. They succeeded. Young people were talking about Jesus like never before. How well I remember the deep discussions on Jesus with friends and classmates. Is he God? Is he just a man? Is he both? I went to Charismatic prayer meetings, prayed in tongues, and witnessed faith healings. I listened to and performed Jesus rock. I eventually studied liberation theology and considered ways that Jesus’ message could change the world.
All this is probably lost on today’s young people who enjoyed the Easter Sunday telecast and respect Superstar as a venerable and proven theatre piece. I have to wonder if they asked themselves the questions that Judas posed in his signature song:
Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ Superstar,
Do you think you're who they say you are?
I can only answer those questions for myself and pray that my witness might inspire others.
Who is Jesus Christ? For me, he is the Son of God. As I slowly but surely advance into old age, I am more convinced of that than ever before. Jesus is my Lord and Savior who gives meaning to my life.
What has he sacrificed? Jesus gave his very life on the Cross, in obedience to his Father’s will. He restored the intimate relationship between God and humanity that was destroyed by sin. Through Jesus’ sacrifice, I look forward to joining him in eternal life when my time on Earth is through.
As for the final question of the song, I do not think it matters to Jesus what HE thinks other people say of him. As he did with his apostles in Mark 8:29, he prefers to turn the question around to the person asking.
“Who do YOU say that I am?”
From Mountains High: Contemporary Catholic Music 1970 -1985 by Ken Canedo will be released in Summer 2018 by Pastoral Press. It will be available on www.ocp.org and on Amazon.