Heaven on their minds: A look back at Jesus Christ Superstar

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By Gerry Partido

The Lenten season always brings back memories of a college professor who first introduced me and my batchmates to Jesus Christ Superstar — the mother of all rock operas.

We were all innocent freshmen then, coming from exclusive Catholic high schools, steeped in the Benedictine philosophy of “ora et labora” (work and prayer) and the famous (some say infamous) “ratio studiorum” of the Jesuits.

Then along comes this bohemian professor who introduces us to a radical re-telling of the greatest story ever told. Perhaps the fact that it was religiously forbidden fruit at the time made it all the more intriguing to our still impressionable young minds.

Jesus Christ Superstar, a collaboration between lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, is based on the gospels’ account of the last week of Christ’s life, beginning with Jesus and his followers arriving in Jerusalem and ending with the Crucifixion.

What makes the musical controversial is that it places the Christ story in a modern context, giving a materialist interpretation of those biblical times, with the disciples portrayed more as political subversives operating against the Romans, and Judas Iscariot treating Jesus more like the first hippie revolutionary.

During its first years of production, Jesus Christ Superstar drew a lot of flak from the church because of its revisionist theme. But through the years, the controversy has died down. The rock opera, after all, was just that – a work of fiction meant to entertain and not pose a challenge to the sacred canons of the church.

Some say the musical even attracted many young people to join the church because it presented Christ in a way they could accept and relate to.

Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber still had Cats and Evita ahead of them when they completed JCS but many believe that Jesus Christ Superstar was their masterpiece.

When it first opened, many doubted that the rock opera would even succeed. The critics said the production wouldn’t fly because everybody already knew about the story of Jesus. Of course, the same was said about Evita … that it wouldn’t succeed because nobody knew about the story of Evita Peron. Both, of course, famously succeeded and went on to become monster hits.

And then there is the music itself. Andrew Lloyd Webber would never again match the melodic greatness, symphonic sweep, and the sheer exuberance and unity of Superstar. Each song is melodically unique, yet effortlessly blends into the next tune, sharing common riffs, refrains and themes the way a truly united work of art should.

You can get your rocks out, too, because this, after all, is a rock opera. You have chunky electric guitar licks and stratospheric guitar solos liberally interspersed with a whole orchestra of classical instruments. I still recall trying to learn the classic six chords of the Superstar overture, which I and my friends all tried to play.

Nowadays, I no longer think about the philosophical metaphysics of Superstar or the old debates about its content. I guess when one grows older, one becomes more spiritual and cares less for such things.

I just enjoy the music now, which was how Jesus Christ Superstar was originally meant to be enjoyed anyway. No heresy, no radical reinterpretation, no slur upon the church. Just the music … and a closer relationship with God.

Let us all take a break from our petty preoccupations this weekend and just reflect on the true meaning of Lent.

Happy Easter everyone!

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