We’ll start with the show itself, shift from actual textual material to behind-the-scenes history, sidestep into scholarly critiques/reviews, toss in a couple of memoirs on the side, and close with (at times self-serving) plugs for additional Internet resources.
When JCS is now licensed, what the production receives in script terms is a glorified lyric sheet and zero stage directions, noteworthy only for where the libretto differs from the score, usually in cases where Tim Rice made a substitution in revivals. However, this was not always the case.
Once upon a time, a concrete script (linked to the image above) was included in the licensed materials. The stage directions suggest their origin lay, to some extent, in Tom O’Horgan’s vision for the Broadway premiere (e.g., there’s a sizable role for Judas’ Tormentors, figures that began with O’Horgan and continued to be a JCS trope through the ‘90s; the blocking, generally speaking, resembles many ‘70s productions which had visual elements in common with O’Horgan’s without being a direct copy). Based on the title page inscription, at some point, MTI offered this to potential amateur presenters, but it soon disappeared from circulation; when I applied for perusal materials from them in 2000, all I got was the score and, at least to my knowledge, no one ever received this from R&H, though the score was the same.
(Some of the information mentioned above may be Greek to you. Rest assured that this shorthand will be explained in detail in the “Know the Score” section.)
Also, thanks to the online release of the 1973 film’s production files, you can read three drafts of the screenplay by Melvyn Bragg and Norman Jewison. Brief historical tangent: Although Tim Rice originally submitted a draft script for the 1973 film, there was a question of budget; Universal Pictures didn’t know if JCS was a fad or a masterpiece that would stand the test of time, so they didn’t want to go overboard financially. When Rice was asked to take the first crack at the screenplay, unaware of these practical concerns, he delivered a treatment that would call for just that approach. Per his interview from the 2004 Special Edition DVD release:
“I was asked to do a screenplay. I thought: ‘Great! Fantastic!’ After all, the screenplay already existed in that the lyrics were all there, and the story was there. So, it was a question of: ‘Do I bring the Roman centurions in from the left or the right?’ or ‘How many camels in this scene?’ That was what I felt had to happen. And I wrote a screenplay rather like Ben-Hur, y’know, ‘Jesus addresses 20,000 people,’ or ‘Armies of Romans steam in from the left.’”
Not only did this not please the studio, but Jewison was decidedly not on the same page, per an L.A. Times interview at the time of the film’s release:
“The one thing I knew for sure I didn’t want was a King of Kings job. I’ve seen Pasolini’s The Passion (sic) According to St. Matthew at least eight times; it’s so spare and simple and close to the Bible – and that’s what I had in the back of my mind. [Reacting to the elaborate, overlong treatment he received:] They had this very modern concept for the music but when it came to the visuals they lapsed right back to sheer Hollywood ‘30s.”
Consequently, Tim’s screenplay was instantly ditched in favor of the final product (drafts of which are linked to their title pages below).
Compared to the O’Horgan-influenced libretto above, this emanated from a strong, clear, direct vision of the piece and its characters’ motivations that seem, although designs, specific movements, and emphases may differ, to be reflected – whether or not those involved wish to accord Jewison the credit – in most subsequent productions of JCS.
If you’re a first-time director seeking JCS insight, I’d never advise pillaging the screenplay(s) and the earlier stage version rather than brainstorming original ideas. However, if you’re stuck and in need of inspiration, at least these are helpful sources to which you can refer, which – taken together, in whatever amount of each you use – offer solid suggestions for a dynamic staging.
Behind the Scenes/Show Overview
If you must buy only one book about the show, make it this! (Although out-of-print, it can sometimes be found at this Amazon link.) Dense with information about the planning and machinations of putting this extraordinary musical together from 1969 to ‘73, you get an insider view of the recording industry at the time and their trepidation at backing such a monumental and controversial project; unique access to Rice and Lloyd Webber, with many quotes reflecting their opinions when they were still fresh filling the 242 pages; the frustrations and missteps along the journey from the hit single to the Broadway production (including a detailed scene-by-scene account of that production’s unique staging); and several never-before-seen photographs. This is well worth the read for any JCS fan or “expert.”
(At the time of writing, Nassour’s “spiritual successor” to his first book, Jesus Christ Superstar: Behind the Scenes of the Worldwide Musical Phenomenon, is gearing up for a Christmas 2023 release. I was lucky to serve as a research assistant on the project. Click here to preorder!)
This well-researched article (from the author of Rebels with Applause, Deconstructing Harold Hill, From Assassins to West Side Story, and more) offers background and analysis that, while a little America-centric in its coverage of the show’s impact and (perceived) meaning, is nevertheless incredibly useful for the nuggets of wisdom within.
Shifting from dealing directly with the show to its theological implications, I cannot recommend this critique enough. A self-styled “professional biblical critic” (Google his name for more context on what that means), Price offers a complete line-by-line commentary of the show’s content that puts “Know the Score” to shame, dissecting and examining Rice’s writing at length and comparing it to both biblical sources and the latest scholarly research. I guarantee readers will learn at least one thing they didn’t know before or encounter a new perspective they’ve never considered. Put aside what you might have learned about his Jesus mythicism stance and give it a try; you won’t regret it!
Tim Rice’s and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s autobiographies are of equal value. Their general commentary on the show and its score, and nuggets of related history, make for some fascinating reading. Each offers a very revealing picture of their personalities, as well. (It’s telling that they both cut their respective stories short before things get more complex and less readily successful, personally and professionally, in their lives. These two were made for each other!)
Additional Online Resources
This is the Tumblr blog to which I referred in my introduction, where most of the material in this book still exists in an embryonic version. I plan to continue operating it for the sake of my audience on that platform; I’ll post extracts from the book that have not previously appeared there and address direct questions about anything JCS-related, be it personal opinions, comments on news/rumors, etc. I may also occasionally review further recordings if there is interest.
I couldn’t leave this section without one more plug for my home base! This website (and its social media spaces on Facebook, Reddit, and YouTube) is the home of the largest online community for JCS fans, and I just so happen to have helped start the joint and continue to keep it under control. Here, you can talk and discuss everything about JCS with fans from around the world, read reviews, watch videos, and gain access to all kinds of goodies, such as an extensive database of information on recordings and releases throughout the years and special forums for those who’d like to trade recordings with other fans (if you don’t know how we’ll help you).