Official Releases

Original Motion Picture (1973)

Fifty years ago, at the time of writing, Norman Jewison was shooting Fiddler on the Roof in Yugoslavia when one of his cast, Barry Dennen, slipped him a copy of an unusual album he’d just participated in. Jewison recounts in his autobiography that he immediately paid attention when he heard that “the BBC banned the […] album. They had found it offensive. Sacrilegious. I was intrigued…” Upon listening to the record, it struck a chord with the director. He was impressed that the story stood on its own without any spoken dialogue, and rapidly got in touch with Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, their agent David Land, and Lew Wasserman, the CEO of Universal (parent company of the record label), to tell them that if they ever made a movie, he called “dibs.” Barely two years later, he collaborated with Melvyn Bragg on a screenplay (after a rejected first attempt by Rice) about a troupe of young actors staging JCS in the desert and began scouting locations in Israel.

In August 1973, the fruits of his efforts – and those of a talented company of actors, singers, and dancers – burst onto the big screen, where they were nominated for two Oscars and six Golden Globes and won a BAFTA. The film has only grown more popular with time, still winning plaudits. (As recently as 2012, it won a Huffington Post competition for “Best Jesus Movie.”) For many of the show’s fans, this film is the benchmark by which all other versions of JCS are measured, especially the performances of the four leads, Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson, Yvonne Elliman, and Barry Dennen. Despite the dated hippie costumes of the ensemble, the characters are realistic, relatable, and recognizable; the musical direction is strong, more or less retaining Lloyd Webber’s original orchestrations (with a helping hand from André Previn and the uncredited Angela Morley); the natural scenery of the Holy Land lends plausibility to the proceedings.

(Note: the 2017 region-free Blu-ray release by French distributor Elephant Films, while only available as an import and likely in limited quantities by the time this book is published, is the ideal means of viewing this film. Restored from a pristine original print, the sound and visuals are out of this world compared to previous releases, and there’s even an instrumental-only “karaoke” track for fans looking for a different way to experience the music and the visuals. Also, if you want to learn more about the making of the film, I highly recommend purchasing, streaming, or otherwise viewing the extended version of SUPERSTARS: The Documentary, a 90-minute feature with both retrospective and on-set interviews with the cast and director and previously unseen behind-the-scenes footage.)

New Stage Production (2000)

TL;DR: “Jesus meets GQ.” This direct-to-video release was the inevitable afterbirth of Andrew Lloyd Webber establishing an arm of his Really Useful production company, Really Useful Films, whose objective was to create film versions of his catalog. To date, they’d filmed straight-to-home-viewing versions of his Cats and Joseph… (which added the camera’s ability to pick up facial expressions and nuances of gesture to otherwise stock renderings of the standard-issue productions of each); now, he had decided that his then-current touring JCS revival, directed by Gale Edwards, was to be immortalized on film for a mass audience, introducing his ideal production (at the time) to millions of living rooms in countries that had yet to experience it on stage, establishing once and for all the definitive vision of the piece.

Though it’s now regarded as somewhat of an “old shame,” neither mentioned nor advertised in the show’s official general marketing today, there are things to like. For example, though I think it works best on stage, I dig the industrial, postmodern, pseudo-Gotham City atmosphere of the set (something between a colonnaded courtyard and an underground train station, with a graffiti-covered back wall and a prominent horizontal architectural element in the form of a bridge or scaffolding, upon which the cast climb up and down). The mixed-bag, almost “comic book” costume design, although not the most unified approach ever seen, is never not entertaining – Jesus and the apostles are “straight outta Rent,” the Roman guards look like an army of Darth Vader clones with nightsticks substituting for lightsabers, the priests have seemingly walked on from The Matrix, Pilate’s M. Bison from Street Fighter for some reason, Herod (and his showgirls and chorus boys) escaped from a fourth-rate Vegas lounge on the darkest off-Strip side street, the Temple is full of ethnic stereotypes and a mish-mosh of dime-store criminals, and who can forget that strange mob with a nagging resemblance to The Addams Family who keep showing up when things get dark? And yet all of these disparate elements are adorned in pricey attire, beautifully lit, buff and moisturized, uniformly attractive, and as spotless and artificial as Details Magazine or Abercrombie ads.

Comparing this to the 1973 film is truly an apples-and-oranges exercise whether one likes the 2000 film or not. For better or worse, this is an ultra-contemporary JCS for a post-MTV generation. The religious and political context is more or less gone, and the performances are sometimes a bit “try-hard” and veer into the melodramatic; still, the production values and concept execution are solid. It didn’t win an International Emmy and sell 1.1 million copies for nothing, though this does raise questions of taste.

Live Arena Tour (2012)

Twelve years later, Andrew Lloyd Webber decided that the reason so many fully staged theatrical productions weren’t working was that the show had lost its rock edge, so he opted to return to its rush-release-to-the-touring-market-to-beat-bootleg-presentations roots by launching a new concert version that would play arenas, starring comedian/musician Tim Minchin as Judas, former Spice Girl Mel C as Mary, British DJ Chris Moyles as Herod, and reality show winner Ben Forster in the title role. In terms of direction, it’s more or less “the 2000 film rides again,” except live, on a much broader scale, and with a more focused design approach, casting Jesus and his followers as Occupy-era activists and their opposition in rich/conservative power roles – a timely, possibly worthwhile choice, even though nitpickers argued it raised more story questions than it answered. Most of my thoughts on the talent are reflected under “Listening.” As for the overall package, this might resonate with millennials and a specific subset of Gen Z, and for that alone, I suppose it’s worth taking a look, especially for the parallel political context that some other versions ignore.

NBC Live in Concert (2018)

As before, most of my thoughts on talent are reflected in “Listening”; it’s time to consider it as a whole. If you’re looking for direction emphasizing storytelling, perish the thought; despite the designs, which pull equally from the 1973 and 2000 films and the then-current Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production, this is unquestionably a concert. The acting is minimal, as the leads’ strengths lie primarily in music. But the atmosphere is high-energy, the story is timeless as always, the performers play to the audience, and both have fun with the piece and, to quote Eric Kunze (who has played Jesus on several occasions), “Even if there’s a bad production [which is not to say this is; opinion, after all, is in the eye of the beholder] of it, you can still get some good out of it.” And anything that won five Emmy Awards can’t be that terrible.

Pro-Shots/Archival Footage

NOTE: Apart from a few list items, this footage usually favors “staged concerts” over “fully realized theatrical productions.” This is for reasons explained in part in the “My Two Cents” blurb below.

“The Von Eckstein Tapes”

Musical director Anthony Von Eckstein lends his name to the playlist capturing events with which he was involved. A capsule history: Von Eckstein worked with Michael Krische, booking local bands at a rock club in San Francisco called The Lipps Underground. In 1986, he and local singer Pearl Hart (Kosmic Blues Band, with Sam Andrews and Snooky Flowers of Big Brother and the Holding Company) teamed up to work on shows for the Millbrae Theatre, with Hart serving as director, Von Eckstein as musical director, and Krische as tech director. One of the first productions on their plate for Millbrae was JCS. Von Eckstein, raised on the Brown Album, wanted singers who met that formidable, almost unrealistic standard; until he found these singers, the show could not go on. Come the summer of ‘88, booking acts at the Underground and with The Last Temptation of Christ months from release (thereby enhancing the financial viability of their production), Von Eckstein found singers that would put the “rock” back in “rock opera,” and he booked a pre-opening “dress rehearsal” at the DNA Lounge, to test these voices (and the band) performing the score on a standard rock audience. Three months into pre-production, the investors dropped out, but “The Superstar Band,” as they dubbed themselves, decided to continue with the pre-booked DNA Lounge gig. Their smashing success kicked off an informal tour of Bay Area clubs and concert halls in the summer of 1989, bringing the sound and story of JCS to audiences all over California. In December 1990, they played the first of a series of “final shows” at the On Broadway Theater and closed with another DNA Lounge gig. This playlist is a collection by Von Eckstein of many performances (including rehearsal footage) from 1988-1992, assembled for a documentary currently in the works.

Boston Rock Opera (1991-2000)

Switching to the opposite coast of the U.S., we turn to T Max, editor of the Boston music fanzine The Noise, for the source of this entertainment. Acting on several influences and looking for something special for a Noise party he was hosting, he convinced a ragtag group of local musicians and scene fixtures to put on JCS in the tiny upstairs room at the Middle East Restaurant and Nightclub, a legendary rock venue. With that was born Boston Rock Opera, which still presents theatrical stagings of rock operas, album/artist tributes, and works by Boston-based musicians today. Over time, what started as a nightclub event grew into a full-blown theatrical production, but it’s easy to see from the examples on this playlist (of full productions and partial clips alike, in chronological order) the high-energy rock, goofiness, and raw emotion that made BRO’s JCS a success, along with their early grasp of Internet marketing at the height of the dot-com bubble and decent celebrity casting (Extreme’s Gary Cherone, among others). Specifically, the 1994 production is highly recommended as a helpful resource and example, in terms of tone, quality, ideas, etc., of what a lightly staged concert of JCS could be like – a faithful rendering of the score with a punky, irreverent edge that doesn’t create too Christian an environment.

Australian Revival Cast (1992)

Harry M. Miller, who produced the original Australian run of JCS in the early Seventies and went on to more success with hits like The Rocky Horror Show, was getting ready to return to show-biz after ten years’ retirement. As JCS had once been his good luck charm, he elected to reinvent the piece in its initial form (i.e., a concert event, ostensibly to celebrate the Australian opening’s 20th anniversary), pack it with stars, and rake in the big bucks. And he pulled it off – the production was concert/arena fare with enough laser effects to fill a venue themselves (albeit devoid of sandals), the cast was a who’s who of Australian entertainment legends, and one million+ people flocked to the show over 84 nights, producing grosses of $40 million (Australian) in just 16 weeks. (Indeed, the day the box office opened, tickets reportedly sold at a rate of 400 per minute, with extra performances being added wherever possible.) As with the NBC concert, don’t come looking for acting but for fresh orchestrations, fantastic voices, and some neat gimmicks with which to experiment. Also, note their alternate placement of “Could We Start Again Please?” as it will reappear in the song-by-song analysis.

“Resurrection” (Indigo Girls et al.) at SXSW ‘95

Anyone following JCS over the years knows that the album, show, and film have never really gone out of style; they’ve just been appreciated differently. At the end of the 20th century and into the 21st, this began to manifest in audio form in a series of tributes. Among the earliest was a double album, JCS: A Resurrection, recorded by an all-star gathering of Atlanta alt-rock notables largely culled from the Daemon Records roster, including The Indigo Girls, Big Fish Ensemble, 5-8, Opal Foxx Quartet, Kelly Hogan, Gerard McHugh, Social Insanity, and The Feed and Seed Marching Abominable. To celebrate the CD’s release, several of those involved threw together a ragtag production at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta, which then hit the road, making appearances at SXSW in Austin, Texas, Summer Nights at the Pier in Seattle, Washington, and Camp Hope in San Jose, California, among others. The SXSW performance, in particular, which was a benefit for Texans Against Gun Violence that had only two days of rehearsals (neither of which ran smoothly) but went off without a hitch on the night, was simulcast by Austin radio station KLBJ-FM and available on video for a time from Daemon Records (the cover art is pictured above); when Monsterbit Media, the video’s Austin-based distributor, online sponsor of music events, and host of many indie band sites, went bust, the master disappeared along with it. Consequently, Daemon has since, to date, ignored digital transfers of the footage from fans who bought the video, such as the one you can find linked above. Lightly staged, colorfully costumed, passionately performed, and a barrel of fun.

Amstetten (2005)

This is essentially a standard-issue European production of JCS in terms of design and direction, but with a great orchestra and fabulous talent, notably Steven Seale as Jesus and Drew Sarich as Judas. Sarich improvises a fair amount, and not always in the ways one might expect, which is either jarring or a breath of fresh air, depending on your view. Either way, he and the score have an astounding rock vibe in this performance, and the production is quite fun.

Tábor Superstar Band (2007-09)

TSB was founded by several established musicians from other bands in the Tábor area in 2004, specifically to present a concert version of highlights from JCS, which continues to play periodically today. They use the Czech libretto as heard on the 1994 studio and 1995 live recordings of the Spirála production. This playlist collects some of their performances on YouTube in roughly chronological order.

Broadway Revival (2012)

Possibly the best-acted production of the show ever to tread the boards of the Great White Way, and not too shabby on a musical front either (the memorable pre-show announcement included the line “If you have any loud crinkly snack you need to open, do so whenever you’d like; the score will drown you out”). This Des McAnuff-directed revival was one of only a few productions of JCS ever to receive across-the-board raves from critics out of town, first at Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival and then at the La Jolla Playhouse in California. It did less well on Broadway, closing earlier than planned, but this video shows why Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber caught the show in Canada and decided it should transfer without a second thought. The attention to detail in the acting, especially the relationship between Jesus, Judas, and Mary, cannot be understated; the second act consequently feels much more tragic than usual and helps distinguish the show as its own story.

Horningsea Reduced Theatre Company (2012/13)

Led by Essex’s own Tom Canning, this group of mad lads and lasses have performed JCS with a cast numbering as small as three, plus the audience getting lyric sheets to sing along. (If you think that’s crazy, I’ve got a DVD somewhere of the time they attempted Les Mis with six, which can also be found on YouTube…) The JCS playlist includes highlights from the smallest-cast performance and a full video of the fullest-cast performance.

The Petty Thefts and Friends (2012)

The Petty Thefts, now known after a lineup change as The Bar Sinister, is a Berlin-based indie rock band with sounds ranging from Britpop to baroque, known for their diverse, energetic, theatrical performances and quirky costumes. One magic night at Cabaret Club Eden in Ulm, they threw up a highly individual rendition of JCS, complete with the rarely heard “Then We Are Decided” and a show-closing performance of The Band’s “The Last Waltz” rather than the wet blanket of an agonizing crucifixion and a string instrumental. It’s not the first JCS to close a little differently among its other unique quirks and oddities.

Swedish Arena Tour (2014)

In 2008, Ola Salo created a fresh Swedish translation of JCS and was promptly the center of several revivals that used the fruits of his labor, most notably this one. This production is a bit dreary and dystopian-looking (white shirt for Jesus, mainly black for the other leads, gray for the priests and ensemble), but most noteworthy for a) being fully staged, b) offering a Mary in Gunilla Backman that proves older women can do the part justice, and c) exploring the Jesus/Judas/Mary triangle in-depth, with loving, gentle chemistry that makes what happens to them feel all the more personal. The acting is so clear and direct that the language barrier should be no issue, and the singing is impressive.

David Tessier’s All-Star Stars (2018)

David J. Tessier has been active and critically acclaimed in the Rhode Island arts community for three decades as an actor, composer, and recording artist, and additionally serves as the musical director for noted New England attraction King Richard’s Faire. He’s also the founder, guitarist, and leader of The All-Star Stars, a super-group collecting musicians from the best local bands that perform pieces and works ranging from JCS to The Monkees. This video is of a spring 2018 production, though the band has performed it frequently. Tessier’s take is largely concertized, very actor/musician, but raw and fun like a good rock opera should be.

Castaway Productions (2019)

Similarly to the above, this one is a lightly staged concert with a kick-ass rock orchestra that veers into actor/musician territory, uniformly strong voices that color inside the lines of the score without being married to it, and energy lacking in many newer productions. The Mary particularly blew me away, in a part that I can usually take or leave as long as the performer doesn’t sound like they’re in the wrong show. The female Herod also milked the moment for all it was worth and walked away with well-deserved applause and laughter.

My Two Cents

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