It has been 47 years since Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice released their concept rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. Director Timothy Sheader of the current season’s version, feels that it is the music that is the secret of its long-standing appeal. This ‘concept’ has played centrestage ever since, including the current season which opened at the Barbican in London on July 4.
Jesus or Judas? Hero or villain? Who gets the crowd going? Both are equally powerful roles, demanding not just acting prowess but singing capabilities too. And, in modern productions, the ability to play the guitar, dance and improvise. Sheader’s Jesus Christ Superstar had this and more, with a gut-wrenching, hair-raising, innovation-driven show that evoked thunderous applause after every song and scene. Australian actor Roberto Tripolino (as Jesus), Irish-Sierra Leonean artiste Sallay Garnet (Mary) and Ricardo Afonso of Portuguese descent (Judas) conveyed every nuance and emotion that went with the lyrical magic of Rice’s songs.
Way back in 1968, Webber and Rice were engaged by producer David Land, given a £20 weekly wage and encouraged to write anything at all, with a dictum — steer clear of the Bible ! The irony of it all was that JCS was born out of that, causing outrage and controversy immediately. JCS was first conceived as a stage show but debuted in the world of music as a double record album. When the 1971 production hit Broadway, ‘concept’ became a key word in the world of rock opera. In 1972, after JCS opened at the Palace Theatre in West End, London, the rock opera became the longest running show — 3,358 performances grossing £7 million at the box office — when it closed in 1980.
Did Sheader consider religion an industrial movement? Steel building girders formed a three-storied backdrop on which musicians performed and actors negotiated their way in and out of scenes and acts. Minimal lighting and maximal music conveyed the energy that Webber and Rice had intended for their project, transformed and innovated over the years, across the globe. For this edition, Sheader says he preferred The Barbican because, “We wanted to keep it niche, to keep it off centre and cooler, with a limited run, rather than sitting in a West End theatre where it would lose its edge.”
After two earlier sold out seasons at Regent’s Park, Sheader says he knew there were still people wanting to see JCS . Moving it from their Open Air Theatre to inside, brought along its own challenges but also some benefits, including more glitter. Hence the 2019 production with an almost new set of actors.
Besides Roberto, Ricardo and Sallay, the cast included Matt Cardle as Pilate, Samuel Buttery as Herod and Cavin Cornwall as Caiaphas. Choreographer Drew McOnie and the musical director Ed Bussey formed the foundation for the cast to sing, play and dance through 13 songs in Act 1 and 11 songs in Act 2 with the most popular being ‘What’s the Buzz’, ‘Hosanna’, ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’, ‘Gethsemane’ and ‘Superstar’.
JCS in India
In 1974, Bombay’s theatre personality Alyque Padamsee produced an extravagant version of JCS starring Madhukar Chandra Dhas as Jesus opposite Nandhu Bhende as Judas. Years later in 2004, Jeffrey Vardon directed JCS in Chennai with singer Arjun Thomas as Jesus and Madhukar’s brother Dheena Chandra Dhas as Judas. Director Michael Muthu did JCS with David Pascal as Jesus in 1991. He also staged the show in 1995, 1999 and 2010.
But perhaps the most memorable version was in 1971, when Madras Christian College had produced a version in which Arjun Thomas’s father Revi Thomas played Jesus and Rajeevan David portrayed Judas. This, reportedly, kicked up quite a storm because it came from a traditional Christian institution. Recalls Revi, “Our principal, Chandran Devanesan had seen the original Broadway production and immediately procured the rights to stage it here. We only had the album and a few photographs as reference material and thanks to many talented people, including an American exchange faculty in our department of dramatics, we managed to put up an over-sold show at The Music Academy.”