A rock-opera take on the greatest story ever told, Jesus Christ Superstar is rapture and it is blasphemy. For fans, it is also an obsession—one that probably began in childhood, with the record, a double LP in a slightly ominous, faux-leather-looking sleeve. "The brown album," as it's known, starts with a lonely, creepy guitar riff and meandering synthesizer moan that give way to an assault of trumpets and an orchestra of strings. A pipe organ breaks through and leads into one glorious instrumental chorus—"Jesus Christ Superstar!"—before fading out. Then comes Judas, the real protagonist of this most conceptual of concept albums, accusing Jesus of selling out: "All the good you've done/Will soon get swept away/You've begun to matter more/Than the things you say."
JCS's score—sprawling, exhausting, by turns joyous and terrifying—was composed by 21-year-old Andrew Lloyd Webber; the lyrics, which draw equally from canonical gospel accounts of Christ's final days and 1960s slang, were penned by 25-year-old Tim Rice. It's hard to believe that Lloyd Webber, the man responsible for musical abominations such as Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and Starlight Express—a musical on roller skates—is also the man responsible for this prog-rock masterpiece.
The original JCS studio recording was released on Decca Records in 1970; initially, Lloyd Webber and Rice couldn't find financial support for a stage production of their controversial work. The album sold 2.5 million copies and hit number one on the Billboard charts in 1971. For the recording, Jesus really was a superstar, as were many members of his supporting cast: The part of Jesus was sung by Ian Gillan, leader singer of Deep Purple, and Judas was belted out by Murray Head, who later had a hit with the song "One Night in Bangkok." (It's worth noting that "One Night in Bangkok" is originally from the musical Chess, scored by Björn Ulvaeus and Benny Andersson of ABBA.) The part of Mary Magdalene was performed by Yvonne Elliman, better known as the woman who gave us the disco hit "If I Can't Have You." (Also worth noting: Mary's big number, a moving admission of vulnerability with a decidedly feminist slant and killer oboe line called "I Don't Know How to Love Him," became a top-10 hit for Helen "I Am Woman" Reddy in 1971.)
After its release in 1973, the Norman Jewison–directed, Oscar-nominated movie version of Superstar reached a wider audience. Filmed on location in Israel, it's a classic 1970s period piece—in the opening scene, a gang of shirtless hippies in tight jeans and gauzy dresses disembark a school bus, apply makeup, brush out their Afros, and rehearse dance moves, readying their great passion play in the desert. Jewison stayed true to the original Superstar form; just like the album, the actors sing all the dialogue. Judas was immortalized by the late, great Carl Anderson, a dark-skinned black man and controversial choice for the role. A generation of girls was ushered into puberty watching Ted Neeley—all cheekbones, steely blue eyes, and stoic expressions—portray the hottest, most tortured Jesus imaginable.
Subsequent productions of Superstar the musical starred a surprising range of rock stars. Skid Row's Sebastian Bach and Extreme's Gary Cherone have both played Jesus, and the album Jesus Christ Superstar: A Resurrection featuring, of all people, the Indigo Girls (Amy Ray as Jesus, Emily Saliers as Mary Magdalene) was released in 1994. When the latest touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar rolls through Seattle, it will feature as Judas Corey Glover, former frontman of Living Colour. "The Ted Neeley Farewell Tour" stars the original hot Jesus, who, while now well into his 50s, is still as delicious and holy as ever. Glover is a natural fit for the role of Judas; with Living Colour, he made some of the smartest politically charged music of the 1980s. He can also definitely rock the fuck out.
"There are two or three events that changed my life forever," Glover says from the JCS tour bus in Alberta, Canada. "One was seeing Jesus Christ Superstar as a kid." (The other was seeing James Brown live at the Apollo.) For Glover, it all began with watching Jesus Christ Superstar the movie. Then came the purchase and intense listening sessions of "the brown album." "Superstar humanized the story I spent time learning in Sunday school, but didn't really get," he says. "I felt all this sympathy for Judas, played by a black man singing rock music. It informed my whole thing." Also responsible for Glover's love affair with JCS: "Hot rock songs."
I owe my own JCS obsession to my older brother Pete, a classically trained musician who took a job as a rehearsal pianist for a production of Superstar in college. He'd never played piano for a musical before; he has since gone on to play in over 40 different productions. Pete has a hard time pinpointing a single reason why he loves the album. Talking about the music—visceral, multitonal, multilayered, with complicated rhythms—he notes, "The musical complexity parallels what's going on in the plot." He concludes by echoing a line sung by the High Priest Caiaphas as he plots Jesus's death: "Jesus is cool."
I was an awkward Catholic middle schooler when Pete introduced me to Superstar (an awkward Catholic middle schooler who often wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo for Living Colour's first album, Vivid, it must be said.) Superstar made religion accessible, it made Jesus and Judas—characters in the Bible I had spent years in Catholic school hearing about—seem like real people. Judas, especially, was alright by me.
From the first words of Judas's first song, "Heaven on Their Minds," it's clear that he's self-aware and struggling internally. Rather than portraying him as a one-dimensional villain, Superstar validates his betrayal. Judas is the outsider, but he's the smartest of Jesus's followers. He loves Jesus, but is disillusioned by his growing celebrity and claims of divinity. Judas believes Jesus is just a man.
And in JCS, Jesus is just a man. In "Gethsemane," Jesus asks God to show him that his death will not be in vain. He's filled with doubt. He doesn't want to die. Like Judas, he sings his way through his own nervous breakdown, finally concluding "God, thy will is hard/But you hold every card/Bleed me, beat me, kill me, take me now/Before I change my mind!" On the album, Head's voice cracks as he calls Jesus a "sedated, faded, jaded mandarin." Right down to the recording, everything in JCS is flawed. Perfection is not part of this world.
Which is what makes Jesus Christ Superstar the ultimate Jesus story. If you're born to be the world's savior, collecting acolytes is easy; as Glover says, referring to Living Colour's first hit, "Christianity is the ultimate 'cult of personality.'" But within this guitar-wailing, soul-singing, Broadway-baiting opera, Jesus the rock star becomes a real human being. He achieves immortality by fulfilling the words he croons to his legions of adoring fans: "To conquer death, you only have to die."