‘What’s the Buzz?’ Jesus Christ Superstar – controversial or legendary?

‘What’s the Buzz?’ refers to one of the song titles on the legendary 1971 Album ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. The Rock Opera, with a score from Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics from Sir Tim Rice, in 2012 embarked on a huge arena tour just over 4 decades since the album’s initial release. Purely in terms of longevity, one can argue it is legendary. However, when it first emerged onto the scene, it was not unanimously well-received. Just like any other new musical, it had it’s critics but compared to other musicals, the controversy went further. Once when interviewed, Rice described the bibleĀ as a ‘…rattling good tale.’ Whilst Webber and Rice claimed to have no particular religious affiliations and sought to create a rock opera based around a ‘good tale’, to others it was extremely controversial and wrong. Nevertheless, it went on to have international and critical success and can be argued to be one of the most popular universal productions.

Despite bagging the number one spot in the US charts upon it’s release, the success in England for this rock opera was not immediate. A year later in 1972 Jesus Christ Superstar reached number 6 in the UK charts. From reading about the protests and objections there were to the music, the title seemed to cause offence through the use of the word ‘superstar’. During an interview with Thames Television in 1971, Tim Rice explains the use of the term ‘superstar’ as equating the follower’s and disciples of Jesus to the followers and fans of rock stars in the present day. However, this ‘oversimplification’ of the situation as Rice puts it, was not always understood. Protests by the National Secular Society outside the theatre where Jesus Christ Superstar was on, had signs such as ‘Supersham’ (The Times, August 10th, 1972). From their perspective, it can be argued that they found the term ‘superstar’ offensive as it put Jesus in a religiously privileged position. A year prior to that, November 9th 1971 , under the title ‘Superstar Picketed’, nuns were protesting. ‘I am a bride of Christ – not Mrs Superstar’ their signs read.

Whilst researching for this blog post, I stumbled across a title in the Daily Mail Archive which caught my attention, ‘To the sound of music the convert is found’ (Tuesday 8th of March 1972). This was the second installment of a 3 part story on the upsurge of religion among the younger generation, but it focused on the negative side of communes and the Children of God sect. The Jesus Christ Superstar album was named as an influence in these radical religious views and behaviour. The author of the article is in agreement with myself that this is all a little far fetched. Having seen Jesus Christ Superstar myself 4 times I can confirm that the story the music tells and the stage production itself does not promote any radical ideas about Jesus. Whilst Jesus is presented to have a very strong, loyal and adoring group of followers and disciples, this is not something which diverts from popular notions of Jesus in his position as the son of God. This is further argued by Anthea Disney’s review in the Daily Mail (August 10th 1972) when she says that this rock opera ‘brings traditional religion out of moth balls and makes it interesting.’ However, the suggestion that the album did have an influence on radical youth communes and sects perfectly shows how the album was perceived by some as controversial.

Nonetheless, one can argue that you cannot ignore the musical masterpiece that is this 1971 album. Through one album a huge, complex story is told through the expert lyrics accompanied by an exciting score. One could even argue that Webber and Rice were the perfect pair with the right amount of courage and conviction to take on such a task, one which Lloyd Webber himself was worried would only attract a niche audience. What is also worthy of noting is the age of both creators when they produced this legendary rock opera album. Webber was only 20 and Rice was only 25, which makes their courage and talent seem even more impressive. Coming to an end of the discussion over whether it was controversial or legendary, one of the pivotal songs on the album ‘Gethsemane (I only want to say’) deserves a mention. The famous octave change in the middle of the song attests to the album’s legendary status as it is flawlessly executed and among the musical world today, one could argue is one of the hardest vocal tests.

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