For one week over Christmas 1976, Jesus Christ Superstar was my favourite show of all time. I already had the studio album, bought the film album whilst on holiday in Spain in 1975, but I hadn’t actually seen either the stage or film version until Wednesday 22nd December 1976, when the 16 year old me sat in Seat B18 of the stalls of London’s Palace Theatre and was literally entranced by the show that enfolded before my eyes. I was mesmerised by the late Steve Alder as Jesus (you could almost believe you were watching the real one), horrified by Mike Mulloy as Judas, terrified by Nelson Perry as Caiaphas, I fell in love with Mary (Sharon Campbell) and thought the whole representation of King Herod (Barry James) as the camp host of sex parties absolutely inspired. I flinched at every one of the 39 lashes, and left hoping one day I’d be an apostle. I may have been going through a slightly religious phase at the time, and I think it really hit me in a soft spot, as Kate Bush once said. But then, one week later, I saw A Chorus Line, and Jesus Christ Superstar got relegated to second place in my affections. But 39 years later, and having seen a few productions over the years, it’s still a show that I really love.
But haven’t times changed? The audience at last night’s show was heavily weighted towards the, shall we say, older lady. I saw them all tapping their toes and drumming their fingers on their arms and mouthing the words in time with all the most memorable musical moments of Christ’s last seven days. I remember when I told my great aunt back in 1976 that I had seen Jesus Christ Superstar she was completely shocked. She tutted for ages about blasphemy and “shouldn’t be allowed”. What once was a challenge is now extraordinarily mainstream. Indeed, when it first hit the stage in 1972 it was only four years after the withdrawal of stage censorship and I can’t imagine the Lord Chamberlain would have permitted it, even though sections of the Church praised it for making the story of Christ more accessible.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that it’s an incredible score. Personally I think it’s the best that Rice & Lloyd Webber created. There’s not a dumb note, no longueurs, nowhere you think “they could have cut this”. It’s tight, gripping (after all, it is a very exciting story of love and betrayal), and it’s jam-packed with memorable tunes and wonderful lyrics. I don’t know about you, but I find myself frequently quoting the show. If I have to correct someone (not that it happens very often, you understand), I’ll as like as not say “no you’re wrong, you’re very wrong, no you’re wrong, you’re very wrong” etc. If something goes surprisingly wrong I’ll doubtless offer up a “this was unexpected, what do we do now? Could we start again please?” If I’m trying to discover what the plan is for some event I’ll probably say “what’s the buzz, tell me what’s-a-happening, what’s the buzz, tell me what’s-a-happening” – and if I haven’t had a reply within a few seconds, I’ll probably delve deeper with “when do we ride into Jerusalem, when do we ride into Jerusalem” – not a particularly useful question in Northampton. Wouldn’t it be great if politicians had the freedom to quote from musicals during debates? I can just imagine David Cameron challenging Ed Miliband in the House of Commons with “prove to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool”. I think this has legs.
So what of this production? Well, no question, it’s excellent. Paul Farnsworth’s set is dominated by a series of thick square stone pillars around the stage, delicately tickled by green light, decorated with apparently historic and intricate carvings, just like you might find in some old temple. There’s the traditional walkway above the back of the stage and along the sides, excellent for the High Priests to stare down on the little people below, or by which the treacherous Judas can escape. A grand pair of double doors at the back suggest both the entrance to the temple and to the sealed tomb into which Christ will be carried after the crucifixion, and from which he rather delightfully re-emerges to take his curtain call. The lighting is exciting and dramatic, and creates some extraordinary images at the crucifixion scene, making Christ’s body go grey at his death, and suggesting a heavenly welcome from directly behind the cross. It was actually quite moving to experience. The seven-piece band, under the direction of Bob Broad, traditionally situated in the pit at the front of the stage, make a more brilliant sound than you would think would be decent for so few people. And it’s topped off by a very talented cast, including, for our performance, two understudies in important roles, who absolutely shone.
I reckon there are two ways in which you can play Jesus. There’s the Steve Alder way, where he looked like the classic Jesus from the religious paintings – gaunt, swarthy, distinctly middle-eastern, like El Greco’s Christ as Saviour. Or there’s the Glenn Carter way, imposing and broad, pale with a golden mane, visually the opposite from the rest of the apostles which makes him stand out completely. This is the second time we’ve seen Mr Carter play Jesus; the first was seven or eight years ago at the Birmingham Hippodrome opposite James Fox as Judas. He has a beautiful voice – pure and expressive, capable of softness and power and a distinctive stage presence. Mrs Chrisparkle wasn’t sure about his facial expressions at times – when he reacts with the other apostles when Judas goes off on one it reminded her of what a senior manager looks like when he is rather disappointed with a middle manager. He does have this habit of looking reassuringly at someone with his hand out as if to say I know, doesn’t he go on, don’t worry, let me handle this, after all, I’m in charge. I also felt that, in his white robe and with his golden locks all straggly, he looked like someone who was halfway through a spa treatment. Nevertheless, he still puts in an excellent performance.
Of course the catalyst for all the tension in the show is Judas, commenting critically on the sidelines, disapproving of Jesus’ profligacy and tendency to be with “women of her kind”, believing the other apostles have just got caught up with the X-Factor celebrity status with “too much Heaven on their minds”. You’ve got to believe that Judas is actually a very decent man but flawed with that inability to accept what he perceives to be tripe. Judas has to change from critic to traitor to self-loathing puppet, manipulated by God so that he has to commit suicide – although still blaming God for it – You have murdered me. Neither Mrs C nor I quite believed Tim Rogers’ “journey” as Judas. I felt he started well, with his telling observations in Heaven on their Minds and Strange Thing Mystifying, but as he grew more angst-ridden he seemed to sacrifice musicality for emotion. He seemed to show Judas’ mental torture by howling at some of the lyrics, as if suggesting that he’s so upset that he can’t quite hit the right notes. Now I know the words to this show inside out, but Mrs C doesn’t, and she found a lot of what he sang very hard to follow. I just sense it would have been better if he had emoted a little less and enunciated a little more. Still, you couldn’t fault his passion and commitment, which were absolutely tangible.
Not that he was the only one to confuse Mrs C with a lack of verbal clarity. When Mary sings “Let me try to cool down your face a little”, all Mrs C heard was “coodle down your doodle”, which would surely represent Tim Rice on a Very Bad Lyric Day. However that was the only blip in an otherwise fantastic performance by Jodie Steele, understudying the role of Mary. Her voice is sensationally clear and expressive and hits the notes in the most faultlessly perfect way. She pitched just the right amount of pathos and drama in I Don’t Know How To Love Him, was reassuringly sweet and sexy in Everything’s Alright and very poignant in Could We Start Again Please – my personal favourite song from the show, that was never in the original production but has always been incorporated into subsequent productions following its appearance in the film. The other role played by an understudy was Johnathan Tweedie as Pilate (instead of the usual Rhydian Roberts). Full of precision, power and authority, he was excellent as the confident Pilate but then went whimpering splendidly as the cowardly Pilate as he literally washed his hands of Jesus – I loved the way the water turned blood red, by the way. You’d never know Mr Tweedie wasn’t the regular performer of the role.
The cast is littered with excellent performers that we’ve seen in a number of shows, but particularly standing out were Cavin Cornwall (last seen by us in the wonderful Sister Act) as a most spooky Caiaphas, his deep voice low enough to mine coal; Alistair Lee as his snide, spoilt priest buddy Annas, and Kristopher Harding (a very jolly Rusty in Starlight Express a couple of years ago) as a very zealous Simon Zealotes. Lizzie Ottley and Olive Robinson were also excellent as the two apostle women, both having terrific voices, great presence and, let’s not deny it, lending some much appreciated beauty to the stage; and Tom Gilling’s Herod is a fun and depraved despot, looking like some reject from a seedy Burlesque Show – as indeed he should. I’d also like to give a mention to the children from the Arts 1 School of Performance who Hosanna’d beautifully and withstood Caiaphas’ terrifying tones without crying. I’m sure that’s more than I would have done at that age.
So a very enjoyable production of this old favourite, allowing the words and music to speak for themselves, looking and sounding fantastic, and enabling a new generation to discover this musically stunning very individual look at the last days of Christ. The tour continues to July, visiting Liverpool, Woking, Edinburgh, Manchester, Sheffield, Leeds, Milton Keynes and Bristol. A great show – you’ll be singing it for ages.
Production photos by Pamela Raith