Excerpt from Superstar ~ Jesus Christ Superstar:Landmark Rock Opera to Worldwide Phenomenon
By: Ellis Nassour
Part Two = Into the Fire (and Brimstone)
November 2, 2020: As things got down to business between new writing partners Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, billing negotiations ensued. Lloyd Webber decided the partnership would be Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Not so fast, said Rice. He suggested Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber had a better ring. It was a stalemate. Lloyd Webber, far from pleased, caved.
Thus, began the collaboration of the U.K.’s Oscar Hammerstein II and Richard Rodgers .. Two years passed. Hope of seeing their names in lights on the West End dimmed with each month… He and Rice deemed their sung-through innovation worked well. Rice: “It showed our abilities complimented each other.”
[Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice reunited in 2005 to present and record The Likes of Us at the composer’s estate with a cast of 20, including Rice in the role of, among others, the auctioneer. Lloyd Webber used motifs from it in other works.]
Forays into pop tunes, even a couple with a classical bent, brought little attention. To sustain himself, Rice took a trainee position at EMI Records, the U.K.’s preeminent label. He soon became assistant to hit-making producer Norrie Paramor and was producing minor acts. He attempted unsuccessfully to get Lloyd Webber work as an arranger …
When Paramor formed his own label, he asked Rice to be his personal assistant. It’d be a step up, with a salary increase… As Rice became more involved, Lloyd Webber became concerned. Things had changed, but the team wasn’t dissolved – it was just that nothing gelled.
Unfulfilled at Oxford, at the end of the 1966 summer term, Lloyd Webber stunned his family and Rice by dropping out of Oxford … [He eventually] attended the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama, taking courses in orchestration and arranging…
Alan Doggett, St. Paul’s Cathedral’s prep school/ Hammersmith headmaster, approached them to write an end-of-term cantata for his choir and musicians. Rice wasn’t enthused about writing for kids until Lloyd Webber came upon the Old Testament/Genesis story of Joseph – the 11th son of Jacob and first born of second wife Rachel, who grew to have great character, become his father’s favorite, and possess a coveted coat of many colors. It was a favorite’s of the lyricist.
What transpired wasn’t a solemn pageant, but irreverent and fun. According to Rice, “The best way to a child’s heart was through laughter.” He had trouble convincing Lloyd Webber his use of outlandish rhymes and puns would work. The result was How to Succeed in Egypt without Trying; then, Pal Joseph; and, finally, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Lloyd Webber attempted in vain to get Rice to change “Technicolor” to “many-colored.”
The sung-through cantata ran under a half hour and boasted 22 tunes – with each one, according to Rice ”coming off the Andrew Lloyd Webber conveyor belt sounding like a winner.” It garnered media coverage as a prominent columnist’s son was in the cast.
As lively as the cannily inventive rock songs with their cryptic phrases were, the ballads stood out. The most poignant, “Close Every Door,” sung by Joseph, is a cross between a torch ballad and something a cantor would sing in temple. It was the first example of Rice’s depth as an innovative lyricist and Lloyd Webber’s ability to fit it to a rapturous melody. Oddly, it’s not one of Rice’s favorites.
The other standout is “Any Dream Will Do,” a complex take on Joseph’s ability to interpret dreams. Rice asserts it is one of the five best tunes the duo has written.
Joseph garnered vast appeal. Numerous encores and regional concerts followed. It was expanded for commercial productions. The process was a learning experience for the boys and not always easy-going on the business end [at one point, Lloyd Webber felt Paramor was blackmailing him.]…
The problem with being in the spotlight is that when it fades, you’re left in a deep vacuum… The partners pondered new projects… Lloyd Webber met with real estate mogul/talent manager Sefton Myers and his partner, attorney David Land, for sponsorship. When the team offered a contract, with a weekly stipend and an office to brainstorm ideas, Rice vacillated. Though enjoying a modicum of success, he admitted he wasn’t very good in the stick-to-it department — the sole exception was his work with Lloyd Webber. For four years, even if it wasn’t always smooth, they’d been consistent.
When Lloyd Webber gave an ultimatum, Rice, still racked with doubt, reluctantly signed. He gave an exemplary reason: other than their friendship, it was his trust in Andrew and the red-hot certainty that he had the talent to make it… Ideas came, very little came of them…
In 1969, as Lloyd Webber conversed with Father Ken Hewett and pondered over what to do next, the priest prompted, “You have a success with a Bible story. Why not do a musical on Christ’s life? Not the standard fare, but a composition that modern youth can identify with.” Lloyd Webber laughed, stating, “What a terrible idea! It’ll never sell.”
When he broached the idea with Rice, he wasn’t enthusiastic. Both thought the project would be too controversial; and to many, quite offensive. They pursued other ideas to no avail. It wasn’t lost on them that a Biblical story was their bread and butter. What once might have been too controversial a year ago might not be now. A musical about Jesus would be explosive and really put them on the map – for better or worse.
In the wake of the British rock invasion in the States, U.S. labels searched the Isles for the next power group… Rice’s arranger/ producer friend Mike Leander became A&R of chief of MCA Music’s British subsidiary. He invited Rice to drop by to listen to a recording of Joseph‘s “Any Dream Will Do” As they chatted, Leander inquired, “What about that musical you and Andrew were working on – the one that would present Jesus as a flesh-and-blood man.” Rice was flummoxed. He had no recollection of mentioning it.
Father Hewett and the meeting with Leander began the chain of events that turned everything around for Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, that totally changed their lives, and that would soon change the perception and parameters of what music could do – rock music.
Much time was spent mulling over their approach, which Rice said should be different, bold, interesting, yet delicate. It couldn’t be the type of story recounted in films such as King of Kings or The Greatest Story Ever Told; and it couldn’t be a typical rock concept… In fact, could it be rock at all?
“Because of my background,” recalls Rice, “we considered rock; and with Andrew’s knowledge o the classics, opera. Then, we had the idea, ‘Why not combine them?’ The Who caused quite a stir calling their Tommy a rock opera. That’s how it all came about.’’
They felt out friends, colleagues, and family. Comments ranged from “It’s a foolish idea” and “Religion isn’t a commercial subject” to “British youth, nor adults, are going to be interested.” So, of course, they decided to tempt fate…
Speaking to the press, the composer described their work as “a serious attempt to stimulate discussion about Jesus Christ.” It wasn’t lost on the duo that they were entering uncharted, sensitive territory. Even thought they were not setting out to offend anyone, any religion, or be spokesmen for their generation. “Our goal is merely to create a serious but entertaining record. We want to make Christ more real, bring him down from the stained glass windows. We based the story on what’s known of His last seven days. We haven’t altered the evidence, but we’ve interpreted it in our own way.”
Lloyd Webber predicted that undertaking even the most devout approach would be controversial, “However, if a bit of controversy created a chart-busting hit, so be it.” Their rock opera took place against the backdrop of Christ’s last seven, leading to His passion and crucifixion – from shouts of hosanna to betrayal… /
The duo’s aim was to humanize Jesus since they found His portrayal in the Bible as God unrealistic. They chose not to frame the story around Jesus’ divinity. Rather, Rice posited, quite offensively to many, that Jesus felt human emotions – such as frustration, impatience, resentment, and was confused and unaware of who He is.
Lloyd Webber and Rice were not high up on the Anglican Church’s list of religious scholars, but certainly had bold opinions.
“Christ, in fact, never said He was God,” asserted Lloyd Webber. “He always said He was the son of man.” Rice interjected, “Or [claimed] God was His father, which anybody can say. We approached the arc of the rock opera from the point of Christ the man, without wishing to destroy anyone’s belief in Christ as God. It’s a great story because Christ is a fascinating man – because Judas is a fascinating man. I have the right, everybody does, to my ideas.”
The verdict was yet to come. They quickly found out how the British record labels felt.
Myers shopped the project. Labels had no desire to be embroiled in religious controversy. Reminded by Rice of his conversation with Leander, Myers went to MCA. He found Leader beyond enthused…Money for the rock opera/album. An estimated £20,000, would come from the U.S. MCA liked the idea of a rock opera because of their success with The Who’s Tommy. Still, an album from two virtual unknowns with Jesus Christ in its title would be a risk…
To test the waters, they opted for a preview: a couple of tracks on 45 RPM (single). The boys had progressed with enough material. Leander and label president Brian Brolly chose something they thought would be radically different, radically exciting. It was and certainly wasn’t delicate. They went for the jugular: “Jesus Christ” was a powerful and scorching protest tune, then sung by Everyman.
The root music came from a half-composed tune from the duo’s abandoned King David. Lloyd Webber was happy Rice’s new lyrics perfectly fit the purloined music: “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ/Who are You? What have you sacrificed” replaced “Samuel, Samuel/This is the first book of Samuel.”
The duo went to work full throttle. Told of the strict budget, Lloyd Webber informed Brolly he didn’t want “anything fancy” – just a symphony orchestra [56 musicians – some recruited from the London Philharmonic, with more than half in the string section], a rock band with top musicians, an organ, a gospel choir, and soul singers.
The budget grew to a whopping £10, 000. Lloyd Webber decided he was the logical choice to do orchestrations and arrangements. No one disagreed. It took six weeks. The duo decided they, not Leander, would produce…
Rice recommended Murray Head, whom he’d produced at EMI, for Everyman. Head, a 23-year-old Scottish white-collar worker with a light tenor voice, had been in the music business since his teens. He had an off-beat reputation as a songwriter/guitarist, and as one the cast members in Tom O’Horgan’s West End Hair who stripped nude briefly. On hearing the tune, Head was reluctant to say yes. With his recording career in decline, he was looking for movies. He had been called back after an audition for director John Schlesinger for a lead role in Sunday, Bloody, Sunday, a romantic triangle involving him, Peter Finch, and Glenda Jackson [he got the part].
Waiting for shooting to start, and highly dubious of any success for the record, Head signed on. For the composers, his gesture was more evidence that they were creating something – whether loved or loathed, appreciated or misunderstood – that would be hard to ignore.
The sessions began in September at Olympic Studios. Many in the industry referred to the project as “Brian’s Folly.”
The single became “I Only Want to Know.” Rice worried that his oft-repeated chorus of “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ” was boring and a word was needed to describe Jesus. He noted that most every pop star was being called a superstar, and who better than Jesus Christ should have that title. That sparked a title rechristening to “Superstar”…
Rice was determined to stick close to Biblical text, While acquainting himself with the passion of Christ in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, he became drawn to the apostle Judas Iscariot. He also pondered if Jesus came into the contemporary world He be accorded divine status. Furthermore, how would Judas be perceived?
He was drawn to Bob Dylan’s 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changing and the last verse of “God on Our Side,” about the morality of wars Dylan sings he’s been thinking about Jesus being betrayed by a kiss and that the listener will have to decide if Judas had God on his side.
Rice found Judas to be a sympathetic character who, “early on, was waving Jesus ‘flag, very much on His’ side regarding corruption and the principles of good and evil.” The wordsmith wanted to present him as an Everyman. Lloyd Webber agreed.
Lloyd Webber seemed to have done his share of deep research when he claimed, “Judas was the most intelligent of the outfit, the others were not particularly bright.”
To Rice’s way of thinking, there’d be no Christianity without Judas, because the apostle’s betrayal, forgetting prophecy and the doctrine of predestination, beget Jesus’ “martyrdom” – thereby “giving the world a tragic hero around whom a whole religion would coalesce.”
Judas’ origins in the New Testament are so vague that it allowed Rice to create what he termed a flesh-and-blood character – even hypothesize psychological reasons that lead him to forsake Jesus. He gives Judas a clear motive to do with he does – the betrayal; and to feel he’s doing the right thing to save Jesus’ message if not the messenger.
Rice writes that Judas’ post betrayal remorse and suicide ring “truer to life than the dispassionate scriptural text which just reports he repented and hung himself.
The more he researched, the more he saw that Judas was presented as a cardboard cut-out figure of evil without a back story to explain how he came to betray Jesus. His and Rice’s take was an attempt to explain “what Judas did, and also why Christ went so meekly to His death. Jesus is fallible, human, never sure of Himself, whether or not He is God. He decides he must die to attract more attention to His movement, which has gone as far as it can”…
They often stated this was the thesis they were laying out and listeners could take it from there.
Suddenly, Judas, not Jesus, became the rock opera’s central character; and would now sing “Superstar.”
The finished tune was a blistering tirade against Jesus by and a chorus of soul singers. An innovation for the time, Lloyd Webber’s orchestration was a mash-up of rock, symphony orchestra, and soul that grew in power as the chorus shouted “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ!”
Rice described the October sessions with a tinge of poignancy: “Murray sang beautifully, with great strength and passion … with the pop vocalists echoing his anguished cries of ‘Don’t you get me wrong’ and ‘I only want to know,’ the classical orchestral lineup adding all kinds of color and mystery … The power of the music now easily matched that of the lyric, and all concerned knew we had created something out of the ordinary.”
MCA U.K shipped the record, 3,500 of them, November 21, 1969. At home, MCA released on the 23rd, though many stations, especially FM, had already received the single with most ignoring it. Both mounted huge promotional campaigns, but before they could worry about outraging Christian and Jews, there had to be airplay. There was little. Radio stations were scared of offending listeners; then, came vicious outcries from the evangelical front…
Apart from two favorable trade reviews, response was muted. The media, noted Rice, “didn’t see anything of particular interest in our effort.”
Record Retailer did take notice, but not the desired kind desired. It called “Superstar” “possibly the most controversial record ever released … a direct attack on the teachings and beliefs of Jesus Christ.” MCA-U.K. lost a valuable asset when BBC banned the record. Stations, networks elsewhere followed suit.
In late January, 1970, Brolly pushed to green light Jesus Christ on the premise that such a controversial project would find an audience. Even though there were grave doubts, one thing for certain: MCA was in industry news, which was great for the British startup division. Finally, all agreed it was a great opportunity to be taken seriously as a competitor, to create something extraordinary, hopefully, to be on top for a change and not at the bottom of the chart roster.
The label wanted the album for Fall release, which meant haste makes waste.
With so much money on the line, the big worry was if Lloyd Webber could stay on budget. No one imagined he could. But a sea change was about to happen and the new label president was a stickler for sticking to the bottom line. Needless to say, there were clashes.
END OF PART TWO
Tune in Friday for Part Three. Even with less-than-enthused reception to the “Superstar single,” the album goes forward. Follow Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber selectively cast the rock opera and through the hectic recording sessions right to the launch in New York at The Last Supper.