Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar might be the grandest expression of pop-culture values that pop culture has ever produced. In the late ‘60s, rock music – visceral, unpretentious old rock ‘n’ roll – began grappling with the forms and narrative ambitions of opera: a clinical pop-culture moment of boundary erasure. Folk art aimed high. High art went slumming. Everyone got all mixed up.
Jesus Christ Superstar was not the first rock opera; Tommy preceded it, of, course, and there are other claimants as well. But it is the first rock opera to come at it from the musical theater side, the opera side. Webber studied at the Royal College of Music, not at the duckwalking feet of Chuck Berry with Mick and Keith.
At the same time, the revelations of comparative mythology and Jungian symbolism were finally reaching popular consciousness, providing us plain folk with some heroic alternatives to the familial and sexual micro-focus of Freudian self-understanding. Freud had been in the drinking water for so long that we were all unwitting Freudians – even those who couldn’t tell Sigmund from a sea monster. But here, in the mind-blowing psychedelic age, that Joseph Campbell idea – that all-stories-are-one-story-and-it’s-your-story – exposed all myths, even the most active and sacred ones, to free culture play and the applications of personal psychology. Don’t tell me about your mother; tell me about this sea monster that you mentioned.
And again, Webber and Rice weren’t first; they were biggest. To liken the life and struggle of Christianity’s namesake to the living myth of the modern superstar – well, that was a pure pop-culture ejaculation if ever there was one. Webber and Rice, they weren’t timid. They could have moved from Joseph’s Dreamcoat to another myth with a distinctly modern, celebrity-culture resonance. Orpheus comes to mind. But no; they went right for the big JC. It was risky, but in the aftermath of Vatican II, not that risky.
Jesus and superstars enjoy an implicit simpatico. They are both illumined, super-sexy beings who might not actually be from Earth. But love has pitched his mansion in the place of excrement. They straddle the worlds and struggle to reconcile their quotidian humanity and their divinity. In 1970, the same year that Jesus Christ Superstar came out on vinyl, one of our most tortured superstars – the one who had declared himself “bigger than Jesus” – had famously sung, “Who in the world do you think you are? A superstar? Well, right you are!”
So superstars are Everyman, but an Everyman who has gone to a place mortals probably shouldn’t go, and from which there is no easy return or revocation. In the opera, Jesus has his eloquent “Why me?” and “I want out” moment in the Garden of Gethsemane, but the savior/superstar bargain – kinda like the Devil’s – has no out clause.
Webber and Rice’s Judas implores Jesus to accept his purpose as political, historical and revolutionary, not as divine. Don’t believe the hype, he says, in so many words. You are Guevara, not God. And like Guevara, Jesus is bound for tee-shirts and bumper stickers and general commodification. Thus enters another late-stage counterculture theme: revolutionary co-optation, a pop culture process by which the genuinely transgressive becomes product. Superstars and Jesus can try all they want to stay true to their original, radical impulses; the market will have its way anyway.
These pop-culture cocktails always sound great on paper, but how about on speakers? In their previous collaboration, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Webber and Rice took a few awkward swings at rock: some of the least-rocking rock ever rocked. That show, however, featured a handful of truly lovely showtunes; Webber had those chops. In Jesus Christ Superstar, they really commit to the rock – a bargain that required Webber to forsake some of the musical delicacy of which he was capable. In fact, in all of Superstar only two songs smack strongly of his musical theater antecedents: the torchy “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” (a huge hit) and the popular music-hall rag of King Herod’s song.
And even still, it’s not quite rock. It’s rock as it has always occurred to the ears of musical theater folk: badass fuzzed riffage and big square beats and, most of all, screams! An orgy of rock screams! The first one comes halfway through the preamble of the first song, Judas’ wonderful “Heaven on Their Minds,” and the first word screamed in this opera of ecstatic screaming is “Jesus!” Game on.
This Saturday and Sunday, in a benefit for the Woodstock Day School, Paul Green, founder of School of Rock, presents “The Music of Jesus Christ Superstar,” a rock-concert-style presentation of the original cast recording, performed by some well-known rock musicians, many of whom call the region home: Tracy Bonham, Gail Ann Dorsey, Aaron Freeman (Gene Ween), Gary Miller (Dr. Know of Bad Brains) and more, including some native-soil chosen ones past and present in Joey Eppard (of the prog band 3) and Conor Kennedy. Ah, celebrities: We don’t know how to love them.
“The Music of Jesus Christ Superstar,” Saturday, February 9, 9 p.m., Sunday, February 10, 4 p.m., $65/$45/$35/$20, Bearsville Theater, 291 Tinker Street, Woodstock; (845) 679-4406, https://radiowoodstock.com. Mentalist Lucas Handwerker will open for both shows.