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Frank Loesser, of GUYS AND DOLLS and HOW TO SUCCEED fame, once asked “What are you doing New Year’s Eve?”

Instead, I’ll ask “What are you doing on Tuesday, March 19 at 7:30 p.m.?”

If you’re in town, do drop by the Drama Book Shop to hear me interview Ellis Nassour, the esteemed author of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR: Behind the Scenes of the Worldwide Musical Phenomenon.

And, oh, are we going to have a lot to talk about …

Nassour’s 306 pages of salient information started me thinking about JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR LIVE IN CONCERT. John Legend played Jesus, Brandon Victor Dixon of HAMILTON fame portrayed Judas, and Sara Bareilles – the pop star who’s become a musical theater force – was Mary Magdalene.

All three received Emmy nominations while the program itself won an Emmy as Best Variety Special (Live). Having Norm Lewis as Caiaphas and Alice Cooper as King Herod must have helped.

The Emmy win happened some months after the special was broadcast on April 1, 2018. Some voters may have also heard the Masterworks Broadway recording that reminded them of the cast’s powerful vocals.

But here’s the thing: April 1 that year was Easter Sunday. When many first heard the announcement that the rock opera would air that holy day in the Christian calendar, they may have suspected that it was an April Fool’s joke.

Then they may have been sure of it when they heard it would be broadcast on NBC and not a cable station.

There would have been a time when Nassour would have thought so, too. As he wrote in his “Author’s Note,” in 1969 he was director of artists relations with MCA Music. He became acquainted with composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice “from their first visits to the US to the debut of the single ‘Superstar’ and the firestorm of controversy that erupted, and the launch of their rock opera JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR with yet another firestorm.”

There was a firestorm on the music charts, too, for the album debuted in the Number Four slot and eventually sold over 12 million copies.

Nassour points out that by the time sales in the United States had reached three million, British buyers had purchased “only” 300,000 copies. Was the BBC’s banning that two-disc recording responsible? What an irony, for two of England’s own had written it.

On the other hand, the stage version of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR that lasted 21 months on Broadway was easily bested by the nearly eight-year run that it enjoyed in London.

But, as Nassour points out, it was hardly the same production.

Broadway came first, with an October 12th, 1971, opening that was both a hot ticket and a hot-button issue. Before the official debut, Dr. Gerald Strober, a Presbyterian lay minister, wrote a seven-page damnation that a Jewish committee sent to the reviewers before they set out for the Mark Hellinger Theatre.

(But, as Nassour points out, none of the critics paid the missive much mind.)

The night of the world premiere, reporters came to West 51st Street to get comments from the many sign-carrying protesters. Among the dozens upon dozens of pictures in the Nassour’s book, we see a woman holding a “Jesus is Lord” placard while broadly smiling for the camera.

We can’t see who’s holding the sign that says, “Mary said ‘He Is My Lord,’ not ‘He Is My Lover.’” Although the sign painter didn’t establish that the Mary in question was Magdalene, we can infer that’s the Mary he meant. 

Even after the performance had started, many journalists stayed around to see and hear what first-nighters would say, either when they came out for a smoke (when people smoked) or came out to call a cab to flee the premises.

To quote a later Tim Rice lyric, “Oh, what a circus!” Michael Maurice said, “I am greatly offended” because Jesus “is played as a really effeminate man, the leader of gay crowds.”

What’s surprising is that Maurice was a college student majoring in drama.

Dennis Miller, a student minister complained about all involved: “These aren’t men of faith, and their statements only serve to undermine the scriptures.”

When asked if he’d planned to see the production, he said “My wife and I are trying to get tickets.”

Note: “trying.” At a time when a front-row orchestra seat cost $15, scalpers were asking $75.

Broadway knew in advance that the production itself would be controversial because Tom O’Horgan – most notably the auteur behind HAIR – had staged it. Rice rather approved of what he saw that night, but Lloyd Webber loathed it. One wonders if, while he was watching, he sang to himself “Could We Start Again, Please?” a song that he and Rice added to the production.

Excesses were in evidence. King Herod was dressed more like a queen. As Nassour reports, he wore “a foot-and-a-half tall ornamental tiara, a dress, bracelets of dangling fine lace, earrings of long, dangling pearls, necklace and four-inch platform shoes.”

However, Nassour reports, that producer “Robert Stigwood was pleased.” Some weeks before the premiere, he had been told that O’Horgan was smitten with a dinosaur bone he’d seen in the village. Stigwood bought it for him as an opening night present.

Cost: $12,000.

That’s $91,000 in today’s money.

Stigwood also spent $25,000 – $190,000 today – for the opening night party at Tavern on the Green. And what guests! We’re not just talking about the in-crowd of Paul Newman, Tennessee Williams and Maria Callas. Time magazine said many audience members resembled “an army of extras from a Fellini movie.” Nassour remembers “a barefoot, bearded fellow in a colorful jumpsuit opened to his pubic area.” When one woman was asked for her invitation for admittance, she lifted her blouse and showed something(s) else entirely. Alas, she was still denied.

Some reviews weren’t good. “Tasteless,” opined the NBC critic, while the one from ABC said, “I found the use of (hand-held) microphones quite distracting.” Little did he know what was in his theatrical future …

(Notice that there were critics on local TV then. A shame we still don’t have them.)

As for the newspapers, Douglas Watt of the Daily News thought it “stunningly effective” and “in short, a triumph.” But Clive Barnes of the Times felt it was “of minimal artistic value” with music that was “pleasant though unmemorable.”

Really? This was a full year after the album’s release, and plenty of people had memorized the music, which would suggest it was memorable. Mary Magdalene’s two solos – “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Everything’s Alright” – were popular and esteemed then and are still extraordinarily well-regarded. Judas’ “Heaven on Their Minds” remains one of the greatest solo openings of any musical.

Rice, Nassour says, wasn’t all that ruffled with the Times review. For some time after, Rice answered his phone calls by saying “Clive Barnes Fan Club.” As he told reporters, “The audience gave the show a standing ovation – something I’m told that’s rare on an opening night.”

(Yes, times have changed in the last half-century …)

Jeff Fenholt played Jesus in his only Broadway appearance. Perhaps he soured on musical theater because the role was too demanding offstage as well as on. At a post-performance photo shoot, he said he was in pain because he’d been on the cross too long.

Fenholt also hated that some theatergoers waited at the stage door and related to him as if he really were Jesus Christ. As Nassour quotes him, “One woman came and fell on her face in front of me and said, ‘Bring my husband back.’”

Ben Vereen made Judas his breakout role. Many demanded that he break out of the show; indeed, he received quite a bit of hate mail. One letter-writer predicted “You will rot in hell with Judas!”

What’s impressive about Nassour’s chronicling is that he simply offers both pro and con points-of-view without any rancor or editorializing. He just lays out the history and allows readers to react for themselves if JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR was an abomination or a blessing both in disguise and costume.

What I’ve chronicled here reflects only 35 pages of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR: Behind the Scenes of the Worldwide Musical Phenomenon. On the other 271 pages, Nassour has given plenty of additional information that’s just as galvanizing. Or, as Mary Magdalene would put it, everything’s alright.

Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on His new book – BRAINTEASERS FOR BROADWAY GENIUSES – is now available on Amazon and at The Drama Book Shop.