Click or tap the album cover below to be directed to a streaming version of each recording.
This is where it all began 50 years ago. Unique to most musicals, JCS was not first conceived as something that would be acted out but purely as an aural experience. It has imperfect notes, rough moments, slightly primitive, raw orchestrations lacking in the acrylic slickness and polish of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s later work (especially JCS revivals), and not all of the added material that expanded and further deepened the piece is present. But it has passion and drama, in spades, to say nothing of some of the best rock vocals (the singers are terrific) and instrumentation (the rhythm section, largely Joe Cocker’s Grease Band, is incredible, especially the synth elements that most later recordings omit) on any classic album of the era. This perfect mix of Brit-rock and symphonic instrumentation set the standard and quite a high one at that. In his memoir, Tim Rice wrote of JCS that he’d ultimately concluded: “…sometimes technique is less important than a visceral approach.” Given the strength of this inaugural edition rests on such a take, I can’t help but agree.
A bit of a mixed bag. Among its pluses are some enjoyable jazzy inflections from the rhythm section. Ben Vereen gives us a strong Judas, Jeff Fenholt a well-sung Jesus, the three cast members who graduated to the film (Yvonne Elliman, Barry Dennen, and Bob Bingham, the first two of whom also appear on the concept album) sound as good as they ever did, and the symphonic element of the orchestra (with a likely augmented string section – 24 violins in the liner notes!) shines through on tracks like “Superstar.” The minuses: around half the show is cut to fit onto a single disc; the sound quality is not the best (for example, the bass guitar, typically the most solid sound on an album, is lacking in thickness); the tempi are rushed, leaving songs sounding either a little or a lot faster than necessary; and there are stylistic oddities in some of the vocals (e.g., the supporting priests’ unusual cartoonish voices in “This Jesus Must Die,” the crowd rhythmically struggling at one point in “Trial by Pilate,” etc.) that must lack visual context. This one’s odd but not bad for the second-ever official recording.
The musicians and arrangements are fantastic, but the singers are something else again. Vinyl Vulture once said this recording “could well be the politest version of JCS out there, with what sounds like a Julie Andrews impersonator in the role of Mary adding an almost laughably prim edge to the otherwise funky ‘…Buzz’” and goes on to note that “Judas is doing a bit of an Elvis impersonation as well.” Still, even a somewhat silly version of JCS is worth hearing, if only for the “don’t let this happen to you” factor. (Note: As its JCS Zone Discography page attests, we have positively identified at least 13 alternate covers for this album. If you think you don’t own it, think again.)
Brilliant string sounds in “Simon Zealotes” and an electrifying combination of orchestration and performance in “Judas’ Death.” My choosing to highlight that, however, is not to diminish the talented cast, including Anne-Marie David (Mary), that year’s Eurovision Song Contest winner, and Daniel Berretta (Jesus), who would later graduate to the role of the similarly unkillable Terminator as the French voice of Arnold Schwarzenegger in his films.
Strap in because this ride rivals the biggest roller-coasters you’ve ever experienced. Unlike other productions at the time or later revivals, it doesn’t just stick to the score with little room for variation; far from it. There are some brilliant arrangements – witness the faster beginning to “This Jesus Must Die,” the soulful Clapton “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door”-reminiscent organ on “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” one of the most ear-shredding takes of the guitar solo that opens “Damned for All Time” in existence, the individual treatment of each chorus from the apostles during “The Last Supper,” the string-heavy but surprisingly effective “Peter’s Denial,” an arrangement of “Could We Start Again Please?” that treats the ‘new song’ like a highlight of the evening and not the unfortunate afterthought it reportedly appeared to be in the original Broadway run, what may be the definitive performance of “Judas’ Death,” and a “Crucifixion” that stands by itself in all ways. The cast is excellent, with exceptional attention not only warranted but demanded to Trevor White (Jesus); the all-around superstar of this recording, Jon English (Judas); Marcia Hines, the first black Mary in the show’s history; and the immortal Reg Livermore, whose King Herod turns a minor comic relief song-and-dance number into a seven-minute Marie Antoinette showstopper. The energy level matches (at times exceeds, in the opinion of none other than Andrew Lloyd Webber) the concept album beat for beat, and the only regrets I have are that a) the recording took so long to see the light of day, and b) we haven’t heard more like it.
(Minor housekeeping note: the track tags are slightly off for Disc 1 [tracks 1-12, if you’re streaming]. “Simon Zealotes” and “Poor Jerusalem” are actually separate tracks [7 and 8], making “Pilate’s Dream” 9, “The Temple” 10, and the combined “Everything’s Alright (Reprise)” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” 11. If one is anal like the author and possesses a ripped copy rather than simply streaming, they can adjust this for themselves using a program like Mp3tag.)
By now, (in some cases, variations of) the new lyrics in “The Temple” and “Trial by Pilate” are present, as are songs like “Then We Are Decided” and “Could We Start Again Please?” The rhythm tracks from the concept album are mostly retained, while the “classical” supplement is far more developed owing to Hollywood resources. The casting (which many OG fans consider ultimate) is incredible, especially the amazing Ted Neeley as Jesus, the fantastic Carl Anderson as Judas, and the unmatchable Bob Bingham as Caiaphas. This justly celebrated recording of the score is let down only by the mixing issues that have plagued the album since its release and by a very campy rendition of “Herod’s Song,” which suffers without the visuals.
I could live without some of the ever-present synths, though a few are cool. Camilo Sesto’s Jesus, among other vocal performances, is astounding. As one of the first foreign translations, this is pretty great.
Legendary, if only on the strength of its three leads. The context: Jack Nakano’s California Youth Theatre, formerly an enterprise local to Santa Barbara, launched its larger statewide incarnation with a series of benefit performances of JCS in the outdoor Santa Barbara County Bowl, led by the original film’s stars, Neeley and Anderson. For the show’s final weekend, they were joined by Elliman, and a sound engineer caught it all on tape as a gift for the otherwise unknown cast. As the only live recording of the film’s stars performing together in their signature roles during their heyday, it’s a landmark, and the leads brim with energy. The supporting cast is good. Bonus points, as far as I’m concerned, for being one of the few stage productions to include “Then We Are Decided.”
It’s… okay. It kind of rocks in a slick ‘90s sort of way (though the mixing and mastering are rather “polite” – one has to crank the volume to get a decent sound), but the singers, while good, leave a lot to be desired. Among the highlights in the cast, Paul Nicholas (Jesus) delivers a mature, believable performance that, though it lacks the high notes, is especially haunting in quieter, gloomy segments like “Poor Jerusalem” and the crucifixion sequence. Apart from Ted Neeley’s later performances, Nicholas arguably conveys the “sad and tired” side of Jesus better here than most who have essayed the role elsewhere. Keith Burns (Judas) is not up there with the greats, and the range isn’t always comfortable for him, but he hits all the notes, and there’s passion in the acting. Claire Moore gives a solid Mary as well. But it’s the “villains” who shine here: Jeff Shankley delivers an inspired singing and acting performance as Pilate, Victor Spinetti gives us a surprisingly non-campy Herod, Gary Martin & Bogdan Kominowski are a delicious pair in the roles of Caiaphas and Annas, and Christopher Howard performs what some consider the ultimate rendition of “Simon Zealotes.” (If he and Keith Burns had switched roles, this recording would be so much more interesting, just sayin’.) The bonus track “Could We Start Again Please?” will appear later in the book, so take notice!
Australia comes in clutch with another set of memorable performances, this time from the highly successful concert version. The vocals are unforgettable, sometimes groundbreaking. While John Farnham’s Jesus lacks the iconic scream, he makes up for it with a powerful and emotional voice; Jon Stevens imbues his top-notch Judas with passion; Kate Ceberano’s Mary is beautiful. The orchestrations, though true to the original compositions, are completely overhauled stylistically, usually for the better. Overall, this is a very refreshing change of pace compared to more conventional versions. (Examples include “Herod’s Song.” I’ve never heard a grander version arrangement-wise. The only deficit is Angry Anderson, who over-eggs the pudding with his performance.)
This recording offers a captivating, if unpolished, performance that seems to have been a fun passion project for all involved. I’ll say more about this when I get to “Viewing.”
This was sort of a “concept album 2.0,” Andrew Lloyd Webber reclaiming his score (through a lavish West End revival) after decades under the control of the original producer, Robert Stigwood. Probably the best recording of the refined JCS Lloyd Webber and Rice created with the benefit of age and added experience; whether either factor added much value is a subject of debate among fans. A competent reading of the score, if lacking in the energy of the original and somewhat clinical in production, with decent instrumentation, pure, powerful vocals from Steve Balsamo (Jesus), a throaty, emotional, passionate performance from Zubin Varla (Judas), a commanding, well-acted Pilate from David Burt, an intimidating, sinister Caiaphas from Peter Gallagher, and a stellar turn from guest artist Alice Cooper as Herod. If you’re a musical theater person rather than a classic rock fan, this is one of the two albums that will probably resonate best with you.
Everybody who knows me knows my thoughts on the film itself, which lives in infamy with most fans, but, as promised in the introduction, I’m keeping my personal opinions to myself as much as possible. Suffice it to say that adding my two cents would be like adding a cherry to the world’s most enormous banana split where dismissive reactions to this film are concerned. As for the album, the singing is sometimes decent: Renee Castle is an excellent Mary, the priests make a hell of a group, and Cavin Cornwall (Peter) and Tony Vincent (Simon) fit their roles like a glove. On the other side of the coin, Glenn Carter has grasped that Jesus is supposed to be angry, but his sound is far too rooted in “Broadway,” which makes the emotion sound forced and artificial. Jérôme Pradon’s Judas is in an equally unfortunate position as a baritone in one of the highest tenor roles ever written; as he racks up voice cracks, you find yourself rooting for him to hit the notes, and indeed, he hits more than you might expect, albeit not always pleasantly. (This album lets the poor guy down so much, as his performance on film makes the best of surface-level direction with inspired acting. He is ultimately only failed by being cast in a role that’s well out of his range with zero transpositions to accommodate him, which frankly seems ridiculous when Madonna got every key altered for her in Evita just four years before.) The orchestra, for that matter, never rises above the level of competence – every song has been slowed to a crawl (the opposite problem of one of the other highlight recordings on our list, the original Broadway cast); consequently, the show loses lots of momentum. Not a very appealing listen, but if you’re a fan of the 2000 film, you’ll know what you’re in for, and you won’t mind.
This is quite possibly one of the finest non-English casts, with an incredibly mind-blowing Jesus from Szomor György, whose scream and vocals are phenomenal and his acting skills brilliant.
Each is an excellent showcase for genuine rock sound and the amazing Drew Sarich.
(Technically, this is an audio rip from the concert film, but I’ll let it slide, as I’m only dealing with the sound right now.) The band sounds as good as it ever gets in a post-1996 revival with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s stamp of approval. Tim Minchin as Judas and the supporting cast give passionate, emotional performances that serve the show well. The only audible letdowns are Mel C’s Mary (her voice lacks softness), Ben Forster’s Jesus (he tries to do the same thing as Ian Gillan, but it just sounds whiny), and the downright offensive amount of AutoTune applied in post-production (live bootlegs of these singers’ performances attest they had strong enough voices and were usually accurate in hitting the notes; slapping such an artificial sound on top kills the show’s authenticity and makes for a challenging listen).
This is not the most remarkable recording, but a good start for newcomers. Brandon Victor Dixon’s Judas is the stand-out performance here. It’s also fun to hear the theater world learn in real time that they have claimed Sara Bareilles as one of their own rather than merely a pop star who wrote one musical. I like Norm Lewis’ take on Caiaphas, and though his cameo lacks some of the edges from the 1996 album, it’s great to see Alice Cooper back as Herod. Though John Legend’s performance in the title role – a slightly different spin on Jesus – divided the fan community, the soundtrack shines a light on his singing, where he is most comfortable. The band sounds good, and the rest of the cast sounds at least decent. In my experience, along with the 1996 London cast, this album will probably resonate best with you if you are a musical theater person. (My evidence: I saw this presentation rekindle a mainstream interest in JCS that hadn’t been evident for some time, and, outside the mainstream, many musical theater people who generally dislike Andrew Lloyd Webber’s work got really into JCS directly because of this version. People who’d never seen or heard it before texted me after the broadcast, knowing I’m a self-proclaimed expert and a fan of the original, asking how it compared to the Brown Album or the ’73 movie. When I said those were better, the response was almost unanimously, “Well, shit, if this was good, then those must be incredible.” Anything that inspires people to learn more about JCS makes me a happy camper.)