JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR – THE BACK STORY
On the release of the filmed 2012 Arena production of his seminal rock musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber tells the back story to the show’s creation with his friend, lyricist Tim Rice.
I remember the first review well.
The gist was, life would be hard for Jesus Christ Superstar. Caught between the crossfire of the young who would find the subject uncool and the old who would find it offensive, the fact that it had some good songs would not save it. In short the critic, whilst admiring the courage of writing it, feared it would be a stiff.
In fact the album, expensively decked in a sleeve that opened up to form a star but which unfortunately cut your fingers in the process, got some nice if slightly condescending reviews but no airplay to speak of. Jesus Christ Superstar looked like it was destined to be an oddball footnote to British pop history.
How all this changed is part of rock legend.
It all started back in 1965. I was still at school but already dabbling in musicals. I had staged three school shows, written a score that went the rounds of West End producers and got myself an agent, Desmond Elliot, who was also a book publisher. Someone had pitched an idea to him for a history of the pop charts. Desmond didn’t fancy it, but the would-be author told him that he also wrote lyrics and was looking for a composer. His name was Tim Rice.
So a few weeks before I left school I met Tim for the first time.
I well remember my first impression of him. I opened the door to my parents’ flat. To be accurate it was the flat my grandmother rented next door to London’s South Kensington Tube station. Standing there was this tall, skinny, good-looking blond guy, the very opposite to me. I was still 16 and Tim was 21. The age difference then seemed huge! Little did I guess that he would soon rent one of Granny’s rooms thus creating a menagerie that included my piano-teaching Mum, organist Dad plus mega electronic organ, my cellist brother Julian, concert pianist John Lill, Tim and myself. No wonder the neighbours got a notice served on our landlords to get us out of there.
"Tim was really intent on being a pop star himself
Tim was really intent on being a pop star himself and had written a nice song called That's My Story which I thought could be a hit. But we didn’t do much writing together until Desmond came up with an idea for a musical.
Desmond represented the author Leslie Thomas who was having a big hit with a novel The Virgin Soldiers. Leslie was a Barnardo boy. What better, thought Desmond, in those post Oliver! days (every Brit writer was trying to follow Oliver! up) than a musical based on the life of Dr Thomas Barnardo. So Tim was co-opted and with Leslie as bookwriter we started on our first musical, The Likes Of Us. Mercifully, it failed to hit the West End. So in the autumn of 1965 I went up to Oxford to read history but really I just wanted to get into the university theatre scene, find collaborators there and put a show on.
It didn't take me long to realise that nobody at Oxford could write lyrics remotely like Tim, who had now got an internship at EMI Records. I was scared I might lose him, so I took the biggest decision of my life so far. I left Oxford at 17 to continue to write with him. Frankly no one was much taken with our offerings but one day I got a call from Alan Doggett, head of music at Colet Court, St Paul's Junior School who had taught Julian, my brother. Would I write something for the kids’ end of term concert? It had to involve all the school and be a story everyone knew. I called Tim.
The first public performance of anything we had written would be on a Friday afternoon to an audience of bored parents, but after swallowing our pride, we agreed. At first we toyed with a James Bond story but decided that 007 might be a passing fad, so we thought about a bible tale. I had an excellent picture book called The Wonder Book Of Bible Stories. We chose the story of Joseph and his coat of many colours. It’s always easier to get stories for musicals from a picture book.
Here comes the piece of advice that I tell every aspiring musical writer. Get your work performed somewhere, somehow. For that afternoon a representative of Novello music publishing offered to take Joseph as an educational piece for schools. Not only that, he paid Ł100 for it!
Then my father arranged for Joseph to be done again at the Central Hall, Westminster where he was Musical Director. It formed the second half of a concert that featured the pianist John Lill and my brother, and was attended by many parents of St Paul’s school pupils.
Little did we know that the pop music critic of the Sunday Times had a boy at the school and was there. Next Sunday a staggered Lloyd Webber and Rice woke up to our first review and it was a rave. Thus, a by now expanded Joseph got recorded.
It was released to actually rather good reviews but didn't do anything and Joseph looked like being a school's piece for ever. But we did another performance in St
Paul's Cathedral. Afterwards the Dean, a wonderful chap who once abseiled down his august pile, suggested that we write the story of Jesus Christ.
In the meantime I had made contact with Sefton Myers, a property developer who wanted to invest in entertainment. I sent him the Joseph album but I really wanted finance to set up a pop memorabilia museum. He wrote back that he had never heard a worse idea but his partner, David Land loved Joseph. He offered me a five year writing contract that guaranteed me Ł2,000 a year in return for 25% of my earnings. It was a small fortune in those days. Not only that, could I persuade Tim to leave his EMI job and sign a similar deal? It must have been a tricky choice for Tim but he did.
The first piece we did was not our finest, in fact it was a stinker. Called Come Back Richard Your Country Needs You, it was an attempt to follow up Joseph with another school piece based on Richard the Lionheart. It had one memorable tune called Saladin Days containing a very Rice couplet ‘Hand me down my scimitar, show me where the Christians are.’ That tune became King Herod's song in Superstar.
The show was abandoned and our financial backers were getting twitchy, especially when Tim started thinking about the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis as an idea for a musical. (Someone, some day, should do it.)
But once again, because of Joseph, people kept on about us adapting another biblical story. Moses was thought about and rejected (what would later become the tune of Superstar was to start it and I think the words were, ‘Samuel, Samuel, This is the first book of Samuel’ … another example of keeping a melody for a rainy day).
"through the eyes of Judas Iscariot"
Tim then had a breakthrough. What if we told the story of Jesus' last seven days through the eyes of Judas Iscariot?
We knew that we would never get a musical like this commissioned let alone produced, but we persuaded MCA Records to let us make a single. And it was an expensive one with a symphony orchestra, rock band and choir. We used a singer Tim knew well, Murray Head, and we got two members of Joe Cocker’s Grease Band to play for us.
The single was released as Superstar from the Rock Opera Jesus Christ. The rest of the so-called opera of course didn't exist. The only person who championed it was David Frost who invited Murray on to his TV show. Sir David has remained a firm friend ever since.
It was released to resounding silence in the UK but it was a very big hit in places like Brazil and Holland, and MCA offered to record the whole rock opera if Tim and I finished it. So in December 1969 we took off to a hotel in Herefordshire called Stoke Edith House (my love of food and wine was well developed by then) and in between trips to local record shops in a vain attempt to hype our single, we wrote the complete outline to what we called our Jesus musical. In a very short time we were to be ready to go.
One small snag: I was falling in love. I had met a delightful 16-year-old girl called Sarah Hugill at a party in Oxford. Her father was said to have been Ian Fleming's inspiration for James Bond. Sarah was still at school and right through the recording of Superstar she would play truant and come round to my basement flat in London’s Earls Court which I’d managed to get on a mortgage thanks to the Sefton Myers deal. Then I would have to drive her home in time to meet her 8.30pm curfew. (Strange footnote, unbeknown to me my next door neighbour was Maria Bjornson who would later design The Phantom Of The Opera!)
"a rock arena event"
Sarah was by my side right through the early days of Superstar. We married in 1971 on her 18th birthday and it was she who helped me through the dark days of a hideous version staged on Broadway later that year. But this story is about how I showed America why Superstar was, is and still defines a rock arena event. And if you have bought tickets for this autumn’s tour, be prepared! No sanitised semi-West End hybrid is about to hit your local arena.
Work started on the album of JCS in early 1970. Murray Head would be our Judas but who would play Jesus and Mary? Tim and I were total unknowns so we couldn't do more than punt for names. Tim was better connected than me via his days at EMI, but a chance encounter with Jon Lord of Deep Purple at the first performance of Jon’s rock symphony Fusion, led me to meet the band’s new lead singer Ian Gillan, one of the greatest true rock tenors in musical history.
Everyone thinks of me as a romantic because of shows like The Phantom of the Opera but I had then, as I always will, another side. I loved Led Zeppelin as much as I adored Rodgers and Hammerstein. (Jim Steinman, the man behind Meatloaf, described Phantom as ‘high romance rock masquerading as opera’).
Anyway, Ian became our Jesus, and the role was defined. Tim’s friend Mike D'Abo, Manfred Mann's new lead singer, was to play King Herod, but that was just one song and the real tricky role was Mary Magdalene.
Her song, I Don't Know How To Love Him always stood out if I played it to someone on the piano. We tried it with a couple of famous actresses singing it, but I could never make it work in the studio.
The other role we struggled with was Pontius Pilate. I went for Barry Dennen, who had played the wonderfully sinister rather camp MC in the London production of Cabaret, directed by Hal Prince, which I’d seen five times.
Earlier I had been to the then very hip Pheasantry club in London’s King’s Road to hear a jazz singer as a possible Pilate. I decided he was quite wrong for the part, but his warm-up act - a gorgeous 17-year-old Hawaiian girl called Yvonne Elliman accompanying herself on guitar – was extraordinary. Everything I had wanted for Mary Magdalene, was there in front of me.
I phoned Tim and asked him to get round ASAP. He did and agreed we had found our Mary. She would become the only artist on the original album to play the first arena tour, Broadway and the film.
Eventually the album was finished. There were a few classic cock ups. We accidentally erased a bit of Barry Dennen as Pilate after he had gone home to America, so Murray Head impersonated him on a key line. Tim and I excelled ourselves creating the animal noises in the temple, still a highlight of the album in our view.
There was one scene in which Jesus shrivelled a fig tree on his way to Jerusalem. The lyric was vintage Tim ‘I hope your leaves go brown/may a vandal chop you down’ but it was more Joseph than Superstar territory, so we dropped it.
"a media frenzy"
But things were beginning to happen. In November 1970, when I was hoping for at least the chance of an afternoon alone with Sarah, the message came, ‘Tim and Andrew get on a plane to the USA NOW!’ The Superstar album had been released there, interest in it was growing, and we were needed to promote it. We arrived in New York to what was about to become a media frenzy.
A publicist showed us a completely repackaged Superstar in a boxed set with the now famous logo on the front, a far cry from our original UK finger-endangering opening
star. Then he said Time Magazine, New York Times, Rolling Stone wanted to interview us. But when we got to our hotel, it was the messages that freaked me. One incessant caller was promoter Robert Stigwood, and the longer I waited before returning his calls, the longer were the limos he sent to pick me up.
Stigwood was a thrice bankrupt Australian who on the back of his discovery of the Bee Gees had climbed his way into respectability. Other producers were feting Tim and me, but Robert wined and dined us regally. While all this was going on, we learned that Sefton Myers, who had taken such a gamble in our early days, and to whom we were still signed up, was dying of cancer. So, for complicated tax reasons to do with looming death duties, Sefton swapped his stake in us for shares in Stigwood’s publicly quoted company. By the time we flew back to London from New York, Lloyd Webber and Rice had been sold to Stigwood. I was to later realise that he was the greatest showman I would ever meet.
Back home, there was an urgent telegram for me which for some reason had gone to my dad via a wrong address. When I saw the message, I went ashen.
It read: I am the producer of West Side Story, Fiddler On The Roof and Cabaret. I would like to offer to produce and direct Jesus Christ Superstar. Hal Prince.
But it was too late: we already had a producer – Stigwood.
The missed telegram meant that one of the greatest names on Broadway, my then total hero, never got to direct Superstar there. To this day I wonder how differently some people on Broadway would have regarded me if only this true man of the theatre had directed Jesus Christ Superstar.
But here's where Robert Stigwood came into his inimitable own. Superstar was turning into a rock phenomenon. Promoters were putting on pirate concerts of our show all over America and Robert concluded the only way to beat these cowboys was to mount our own official version. That's how the biggest live event that the USA had seen up to that time was born, the rock arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar. At one time, we had three separate tours playing at once.
"one of the greatest nights of my life"
The opening performance in Pittsburgh's Civic Arena on July 12 1971 was one of the greatest nights of my life. I was missing Sarah hugely. But here was I, just 23, and in charge of the music of the biggest event of its sort staged to date. I had to find a new American rock band, a new American cast (although Yvonne Elliman could still play Mary because she was a US citizen, thus satisfying U.S, immigration and actors’ union rules), a choir and a symphony orchestra and put the whole thing together for shows in front of 10,000.
On that opening night Robert sat with me at the sound console which I wasn't allowed to operate because I wasn't American. For some reason Tim wasn't at the opening (it was the cricket season after all). My nerves were not of steel.
The audience was quiet at first and at the interval I was sure we were in trouble. But Robert said, ‘just wait for Herod's Song.’ He was right, the audience erupted. At the end of the show there was uproar and I was brought on stage. I truly don't think I’ve ever experienced a reaction like that since.
Robert gave me a bottle of Chateau Latour 1961 to mark that sensational night. And if the audiences react in the same way to the 2012 arena tour of Superstar, I might just possibly uncork it.
© Andrew Lloyd Webber
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Andrew Lloyd Webber