In which I dive down the rabbit-hole I warned you about way back when
Holy Week is one of my favorite times of year, ostensibly because it’s the high point of the Church calendar and all that, but really because it grants me total immunity to have Jesus Christ Superstar—the original 1970 concept album—on an endless loop. I’m judged less for it now than during other seasons.
(1970? It’s fifty years old this year???)
I’ve been more or less under its spell since my formal introduction about ten years ago, although I’d been a fan of the early collaboration of Sirs Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice since doing a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat five years before that. I maintain that these two shows are the highlights of both their repertoires (Phantom fans don’t @ me), and that their later works less successfully recycle the themes explored in these two (e.g. Rice’s libretto for Aïda, which he wrote with Elton John and which I also love in its own way, so again don’t @ me).
Beyond their corpus of work, I maintain that Superstar is a pinnacle of the musical/theatrical canon. It certainly changed the rules of the game when it was recorded and subsequently given a platform on Broadway and the West End. It opened people’s minds to hearing the latest forms of popular music in the context of a staged show. It upset a bunch of conservative religious groups. And, like all art of substance, it was initially banned by the BBC.
There would be no Hamilton without it: its influence is all over, the flamboyant king being only one example. It broke barriers for dramatic expression and broke ground for musical expression. (On a personal note, it may or may not have talked me back into Catholicism as a bored teenager. But that’s another story.)
Many fans I know do not merely like it—they are devoted to it, they can sing it by heart. As you might have guessed, I am no exception. This year, with extenuating circumstances keeping me holed up all by my lonesome, I took my appreciation one step further and arranged the score, in its entirety, for ukulele. And in doing so I experienced some new and wonderful revelations about the craft of this gem (not to mention realized just how damn dense it is). To think I ever thought I had it all figured out!
(I have it all figured out now. It was an exhaustive, but more importantly exhausting, venture.)
So, without any more ado, a few thoughts on the genesis, structure, and impact of one of my all-time favorite shows.
- This is not a musical. No, sir. It is an opera in the purest sense of the word. I feel like I hear the term ‘rock opera’ bandied about these days more than is accurate; but this was one of the originals, and it truly embodies the form. It is sung through; there are arias, recitatives, and choruses; each principal character is represented by at least one theme. Conventions of the musical theatre as established by, say, the songwriters of Tin Pan Alley are largely absent here—its composition owes more to Verdi than to Van Heusen.
- Speaking of themes, it’s a fascinating study to trace them as they pass between characters. For example, Jesus introduces a theme in the section called “Poor Jerusalem,” which is immediately reprised by Pilate in his dream sequence. This marks the only time Jesus and Pilate are united musically—in the same frame of mind, as it were—because by the time they meet in person Jesus has all but stopped speaking and famously refuses to engage with Pilate. For another example, Judas’s “Strange Thing Mystifying” theme is later taken up by Peter in his denial of Jesus. The two people who let Jesus down, sharing a musical idea? What could it mean?? Similarly, the tritone-riddled theme first associated with the chief priests (tritone = diabolus in musica, historically, so as devilish as it gets), the primary antagonists, is echoed by Pilate at the beginning of the trial scene. Which strikes me as an unfair lumping-in, since Pilate really isn’t a villain—in fact he’s Jesus’ last recourse, and he goes above and beyond to try to help him. But I’ve always had tremendous sympathy and fondness for Pilate as a historical figure. I digress. The point is I could go on about themes all day.
- That tritone theme goes hand in hand with a poetic device. This is something I just worked out in this year’s listen. I’m not sure which materialized first on this section, music or libretto, but the lines are arranged in rhyming couplets of iambic pentameter. As I mentioned, only three characters sing this melody. And given that those characters are Annas (“Good Caiaphas, the council waits for you / The Pharisees and priests are here for you”), Caiaphas (“Ah, gentlemen, you know why we are here / We’ve not much time, and quite a problem here”), and Pilate (“And so the king is once again my guest / And why is this? Was Herod unimpressed?”), we could be meant to link this measured, syllabic speech to their education and positions of power. Their class is symbolized by the meter of their dialogue! Dramatic characterization of the highest order.
- Judas’s theme. I can’t. It’s honestly phenomenal to ponder that this show has two protagonists and that the one for whom the show is named is secondary. I can’t think of any other staged story where this is the case. Aside from its indelible introduction in “Heaven On Their Minds”—a number I’ve praised before and will continue to until I’m blue in the face—it follows Judas to his own death (spoiler?) and then to the sequence in which Jesus is scourged. (Almost like the memory of his betrayer is haunting him, the betrayal felt anew with every lash???) Only three notes, and the most evocative sense of dread since “Gimme Shelter.” Which was less than a year prior, but still.
- Every principal gets either an aria or a memorable musical segment. I’m not talking about themes here necessarily, although some do overlap. In addition to Judas’s aforementioned highlight (a thrill to hear at the top of the show, but also a bit disappointing that it’s over so soon), there’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” for Mary Magdalene, “Gethsemane” for Jesus, and “Superstar” again for Judas, who first sings the melody in his altercation with Jesus at the Last Supper. Judas also gets the arcing melody quoted by the choir in the overture and by the orchestra in the coda, which is only ever set to lyrics at the instant he informs on Jesus at the end of Act I. (Are you listening to this? To the Judas go the spoils!) The Apostles get their “drinking song” at three points throughout the Last Supper. Then there’s the great melodic idea given to Caiaphas and Annas in “This Jesus Must Die,” which they bring back in their two encounters with Judas. There’s no spoken dialogue because there’s no need for any: the personalities are what they sing.
- There’s something else about Mary. While “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” could be the show’s most famous number—probably the most performed out of context—her earlier number “Everything’s Alright” is more crucial to our picture of her place in this cast. The tune’s most distinctive feature is its time signature: 5/4, not too common in either popular or theatrical music. (Think Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five.” End of thinking.) This score is full of unconventional or just plain difficult time signatures—hello, 7/4 temple scene—but the fact that this one is attributed to Mary alone demonstrates from the start that she is not a traditional love interest. Hell, her big star turn describes not knowing how to be one. She’s a bit out of step, a bit apart. It’s almost as if old Andrew knew what he was doing.
- DMITRI SHOSTAKOVICH LOVED THIS SHOW. Toward the end of his life (he died in 1975), the composer saw the 1972 London production and commended in particular the melding of a rock-&-roll band with a full symphonic orchestra. He only wished he could have written something like that, he said. Look it up! Man, if that happened to me, I wouldn’t have to write another note.
- The sound of this score, particularly on the original album, owes a giant debt to The Beatles. Especially late-era, 1967-onward. I can point to specific tracks that lay the groundwork for the aggressive guitar effects (“Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Reprise),” “Hey Bulldog,” or the more heavy-metal influence of “I’ve Got a Feeling”), the melodic union of guitar and bass (“Birthday”), the chaotic choral pieces (“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey”) and combined band jams (“The End”). Even, to an extent, the lyrical structures and ideas (“Baby You’re a Rich Man,” “The Ballad of John and Yoko”). Hey John, tell us more about how you’re more popular than Jesus!
- So. Much. Dissonance. No wonder Shosti dug it.
Phew. I’m quick to start pregaming with this soundtrack; assuming that “Heaven On Their Minds” and the subsequent action takes place a day or two before Palm Sunday, I’m knee-deep in the oeuvre for at least a week and a half each year. To say I’ll have to forcibly extricate myself as Easter season 2020 gets underway would be an understatement.
I DON’T KNOW HIM!
Image: the original cover for ‘the Brown Album’ (that’s what it’s called!!!)