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Why "Jesus Christ Superstar" Matters in Rock History

by Roger Wink, VVN Music

Tonight (April 1), NBC presents a live concert edition of the Andrew Lloyd Webber & Tim Rice rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar" with John Legend, Sara Bareilles and, as King Herod, Alice Cooper.

The musical has been done in hundreds of different editions since it's debut in 1970 as a concept album with Deep Purple's Ian Gillan singing the role of Jesus.  It was a hit on Broadway and London's West End, released as a film directed by Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof) and in thousands of high schools and, even, churches around the world.

While a few of the lyrics are now dated ("What's the Buzz, Tell me what's a-happenin'") Webber and Rice wrote their first major hit 47 years ago in a form that had, to that date, not really been heard in rock music.

Of course, there had been concept albums and "rock operas" that came before, most notably the Pretty Things' S.F. Sorrow and the Who's Tommy, but they did not contain some of the main elements of traditional opera.

Most important, those "operas" contained little to no interaction between characters in sung dialog. Different tracks were sung from different people's points of view but they were used to advance the piece in a more story telling way than actual dramatic interaction.

In Jesus Christ Superstar, Webber and Rice often have numerous characters talking in a much more theatrical way on tracks like "Strange Things Mystifying", "Hosanna" and "Pilate and Christ". On only a few occasions is a song performed by only one character and, usually, it is still an inner dialog that advances the story ("Pilate's Dream", "Gethsemane").

Webber and Rice also managed to intertwine numerous pieces of music throughout the opera that gave the piece, as a whole, a more cohesive sound as a single work rather than a series of songs.  The guitar part that opens "Heaven on Their Minds" at the beginning of the opera returns during the 39 Lashes sequence of "Trial Before Pilot" as do other short musical sequences.

In the end, Jesus Christ Superstar, not S.F. Sorrow or Tommy, is more likely the owner of the title of "first rock opera" if you consider it's form and execution as a piece of theater and not a series of tracks.

Here is John Legend singing one of the highlights of the show, "Gethsemane":