At the tail end of sixth grade at St Mary's Catholic School, Father Schwartz walked into Friday's religion class carrying a record album in a brown matte cover. He was very excited and immediately launched into an enthusiastic explanation about why he wanted us to hear this music. As he placed the album on a turntable, Fr Schwartz explained that a way of asking people what was going on was to ask them, "What's the buzz?". We all looked at each other, more than a little confused. He dropped the needle on Side A of album One. I first heard the music from the Original Cast Recording of Jesus Christ Superstar. I was electrified.
It was the first time I heard electric guitars and a symphony orchestra playing together. The music was dynamite, but I was the only one in class who was excited about it. When the class was over, I told Fr Schwartz I liked what I had heard, and he handed me the album telling me to bring it back to him on Monday unharmed.
As soon as I got home, I went directly to the only real stereo record player in the house, put on the headphones, turned the volume up, and spent the next hour and a half listening to those records. I played to the rock opera at least six times before recording it onto cassette before returning the records to Fr Schwartz on Monday. After I returned the album, the only downside was that I no longer had a copy of the libretto to read along with while listening to the music. Later that week, I finally convinced my dad to take me to a music store to buy the sheet music and libretto. The only explanation I ever gave him was that it was an opera, and it was religious. I guess that was good enough.
My relationship with the music of that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice classic became my first musical obsession. But there was so much more. There was, after all, the religious aspect. This music covered the last days of the life of Jesus Christ up to the crucifixion. There was controversy over the music, with many mainstream churches objecting to the story being turned into a rock opera. Not surprisingly, more than one faith banned the piece from being listened to by their parishioners. It was also the time of cult growth, so people were scared of the unapproved. Even though I was introduced to the music by a Catholic priest, it did nothing to convince me that organized religion was the way to go. Due to the objections over the way the story is told in JCS, I had an epiphany that the purest faith existed outside of organized religion rules. For a sixth-grader, this was a pretty bold conclusion.
As I continued to listen to the music on repeat, I memorized all the words and no longer needed the libretto to guide me. The words came from the Bible with few liberties taken here and there to update them without changing the story. Of course, then, just as now, people seem determined to project their meanings into anything anyone else says. Before the movie came out, I recall an argument in eighth-grade shop class between myself and a Baptist minister's son. He asserted that the JCS story implied there was a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary. In the end, I concluded that anyone who wanted to find sexuality in anything could if they look hard enough. Mary and Jesus had a complicated relationship not due to sexuality but due to her faith and who he was. Mary's song I Don't Know How to Love Him
is not about romantic love but her confusion that the only love she understood was something completely different from what she was feeling now.
I was one of four people in the theater on the day the film version premiered at the movie theater in Lawton, Oklahoma. From the minute the theater went dark, and the music started, I was enthralled. For the first time, I could see what the story looked like rather than just playing it out in my mind as I listened to the music. Norman Jewison brought a unique viewpoint to the movie I never imagined. Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, and Yvonne Elliman's performances were captivating and defined those roles for me for the rest of my life. As soon as I could obtain a copy of the movie, it became an annual viewing ritual.
I find it difficult to watch the movie without feeling deep emotion. The emotion is not only because of the film's spiritual nature but also because of when I was introduced to it. Those years are when a person defines a lot of who they become as an adult. Aside from divine guidance, the movie provided me with an escape anytime I found the real-world overwhelming. The music and words were constant no matter what challenge or question I was facing.
The movie version contained two additional songs, one of which was Could We Start Again, Please?
. The piece is a simple request to return to where they started from Peter and Mary that comes after Jesus' arrest. Even though I call the song simple, it is pretty powerful. Those lyrics, especially the second verse, provided me with great comfort during the tumultuous years of adolescence when sometimes I was the one who had gone a bit too far.
As I have aged and the movie has not, I find myself noticing different nuances every time I see the film. Roman guards continually seem to be present and threatening in every scene, just inside the frame. When all Apostles are seated for the Last Supper, the brief freeze of position is an homage to da Vinci's painting. During my last viewing, I noticed the other Apostles' effort to try and keep Judas within their fold as he pulled away and eventually betrayed Christ.
On Good Friday of 2007, I was able to see a performance of JCS life. This was Ted Neeley's farewell tour and included Corey Glover from In Living Colour
as Judas. Unlike the theater when I went to see the movie version back in 1973, this theater was packed and energetic. The performance was amazing.
Recently, John Legend leading a new cast of actors, presented JCS as a live performance on TV. I still haven't seen it, so I can't speak to it, but I'm glad that it was redone for a new generation of viewers. The story is timeless. The music is still good. The rock opera provides unique access to the greatest story ever told the folks who might not have otherwise been aware of it.
The performer side of me always wanted to do this rock opera. Even though the best songs belong to Judas, the role I wanted was Pontius Pilate. As created by Tim Rice, the character changes from a man who didn't want to be bothered with this bit of trouble in the occupied territory he was governor of to one who realizes who he was being called on to condemn. It is a powerful transformation.
If you are not familiar with the music or have not seen the movie or a performance, I would heartily recommend it. It is perfect for the Easter season. Father Schwartz: Thank you for turning me on to Jesus Christ Superstar!