One of the most memorable musical theater achievements of the 20th century did not begin as a a theatrical experience. Instead, this revolution began on turntables in homes and churches and dorm rooms, with a few dollars spent on the double-LP set at the record store.
Webber and Rice were only in their 20s when their first hit show began life as a concept album, released in 1970. Called a “rock opera,” Jesus Christ Superstar featured no additional spoken dialogue and a legitimate rock sound driven by a killer rhythm section. Rice’s colloquial lyrics made the characters imminently relatable, especially the anguished central character of Judas. The album used the familiar story of the last seven days of Christ to riff on ideas of fame, control, politics, and power in ways that have only become more profound over the years. By positing Jesus as a “superstar” in pop culture terms, it also envisions how fame leads to infamy, and how fandom leads to mania.
Opera excels at telling stories of fame, self-sacrifice, corruption, and power, and thematically Superstar finds a place in the opera house next to Carmen, Madama Butterfly, Don Carlo, and the Ring Cycle. Similarly, the vocal music of Superstar creates the same thrilling sound that we love from our opera singers when they are singing at the extremes of their vocal ranges, performing the most intense emotions and experiences on our behalf.
The production presented at Lyric was first performed at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London, where it won the 2016 Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival. Directed by Timothy Sheader, this Superstar production reflects a desire to return to the concept album roots by imagining the staging as a kind of concert. Scenery by Tom Scutt is striking, spare, and industrial, in contrast to his costumes, which are soft, draped, and fluid. Artists surge onto the stage, dance together, then step out of the group and sing songs directly to the audience. Choreography by Drew McOnie is athletic and intricate. We are called together to witness this communal performance as fellow members of the tribe. Created in an extraordinary convergence of time, sound, story, and audience, Superstar remains an important touchstone in the history of popular and theatrical music. And whether it is performed in an opera house, a theater, a school, or someone’s living room, the show feels as electrifying and urgent as when it first took a spin on the turntable.