Tuesday, October 24, 2006

On Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice

In 1969, The Who released Tommy, which many rock critics of the time labelled as the first rock opera. They were wrong. In 1967, a band called The Pretty Things released S.F. Sorrow, a cycle of lyrically and musically connected rock songs that told a story. That album, though, didn't sell very well, while Tommy was a critical and commercial guitar smash.

Two years after Tommy mesmerized listeners with its wicked ensemble playing and messianic narrative, Andrew Lloyd Webber put together a team of singers and musicians to record Jesus Christ Superstar, a rock opera he had written with lyricist Tim Rice, which told the story of events leading up to and including the crucifixtion of Jesus Christ (there is no resurecttion in this version of the passion of the Christ).

The listener gets much of the story from the point of view of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would eventually betray Christ and sell him out to the Jewish authorities. Judas is potrayed as a political revolutionary who becomes disillusioned when he realizes that Christ has no plans to lead an overthrow of the occupying Romans (an argument also made by several Bibilical scholars). When the opera begins, we hear Judas lamenting all the recent talk about God and Messiahs. Christ's followers have "too much heaven on their minds." The arrangement builds from a single, chunky rhythm guitar to full-blown rock and roll hysterics, as Judas reminds his leader: "We are occupied! Have you forgotten how put down we are?"

The remaining eleven disciples aren't quite as clued into things as Judas. Speaking with a singular, choir voice, they beg Christ to let them in on his increasingly mysterious plans. "What's the buzz?" they ask, Rice shamelessly employing the post-hippie venacular of his own period, "Tell me what's a-happenin!"

Jesus is angered by their thickheadedness but part of the reason is that he himself isn't too sure what's-a-happenin. Ian Gillian, who sang lead with heavy metal pioneers Deep Purple, sings the part of Christ, a figure struggling to reconcile his dual identity as both a man and God, uncertain about the deadly path his father in heaven has set him out on. On "Gethsemane (I Only Want To Say)", Gillian's showcase piece, Webber's dramatic melody and powerful orchestral arrangement perfectly compliment Rice's lyrics that explore Christ's inner torment. "Take this cup away from me," Gillian belts, "for I don't want to taste its poison. Feel it burn me. I have changed. I'm not as sure as when we started." Gillian's ability to reach very high notes allowed Webber to write in many high-pitched screams for the role, and no one else I've heard singing the part sings them as well as the man whose most famous vocal performance is "Smoke on the Water."

Yvonne Elliman, as Mary Magdalene, is no slouch in the vocal chord department, either. Like Christ, she suffers in isolation, wondering how to cope with the powerful feelings she has for someone she says is "just a man," especially since she's "had so many men before."

When Jesus rides into Bethlehem, greeted by crowds of people chanting "Hosanna!", the Pharisees, the Jewish political authority, worry about a revolution in their midst. These scribes and pharisees, presented without reservation as cowardly and self-interested politicians, discuss what to do about the "Jesusmania" erupting outside their chamber doors. The Jews reason that if the Romans get a whiff of political dissidence, they will be crushed. And so, they decide, Jesus must die. The part of Caiaphias, the leader of the Pharisees, is written for a booming bass, while Annas, his right-hand man, sings in a whiny, grating high tenor, and this balancing effect is both terrifying and amusing.

Pontius Pilate is portrayed more sympathetically as the Roman governon reluctant to setence this seemingly innocent fool to death. Here, the opera reaches its climax, with "The Trial Before Pilate." Pilate, in an attempt to appease the angry mob, orders Christ to be lashed thirty-nine times as the music shifts to a funky, syncopated groove that builds in intensity until the final whip comes down on Christ's back. Finally, with the bloodthirsty crowds shouting "Crucify Him!" Crucify him!", Pilate, gives in, declaring in a hoarse yell,: "Don't let me stop your great self-destruction. Die if you want to you misguied martyr. I wash my hands of your demolition. Die if you want to you! You innocent puppet!"

Webber uses the language of psychedelic sixties rock, with its busy bass lines (inspired by the free fingers of legendary Motown session man James Jamerson), reverb-soaked guitars and jazz-inspired drumming to tell the musical side of this story, and his arrangements are carefully constructed to sound spontaneous and dramatic. For the final, enormous verse of "Gethesemane," Webber slows the orchestra down to a crawling tempo, allowing Gillian to really belt it out. As the opera reaches its second half, many of the same melodies from the first half reappear, with altered lyrics, tempos, and arrangements, and while some have criticized Webber for this tactic, I believe it only further strengthens the cohesiveness of the record.

I haven't heard anything quite like Jesus Christ Superstar, a record that combines the storytelling and characterization of Broadway with the visceral punch of rock and roll. The Who, after all, sing all of the vocal parts on Tommy (and on their second rock opera Quadrophenia) themsevles, which makes their already convoluted stories even harder to follow. On the other hand, "rock" musicals like Godspell, or even the Broadway version of Tommy, are too tied up in Broadway aethestics to really rock. Original cast recordings of Jesus Christ Superstar are overpopulated with professionally-trained singers for my tastes, and rob the music and story of its raw edge. This is a one of a kind.


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