10 Things You Might Not Know About Jesus Christ Superstar

In the 1970s, an opera about Jesus of Nazareth helped blaze the trail between rock ‘n roll and musical theater. Though Jesus Christ Superstar's radical songs divided religious groups, they conquered the Billboard charts. The show also ushered in Broadway’s “British invasion” of the 1970s and 1980s, setting the stage for such mega-hits as Cats and Les Miserables. In 2018, a live version starring John Legend as Jesus and Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene aired on NBC. Here’s everything you need to know about the show.

1. IT BEGAN AS A CONCEPT ALBUM BECAUSE NO PRODUCER WANTED TO PUT IT ON STAGE.

Lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who met in 1965 when they were 20 and 17, respectively, enjoyed their first taste of shared success with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat in 1968. Next, the duo focused on another Biblical figure: Jesus of Nazareth. The pair envisioned a daring new rock musical that would retell—from Judas’s perspective—the story of Christ’s betrayal and execution. But Lloyd Webber and Rice couldn’t find anyone who was willing to produce the project as a stage show—Lloyd Webber recalled that they were told it was "the worst idea in history." So they transformed it into an 87-minute, two-disc concept album instead; it was released in 1970.

The apparent setback may have been a blessing in disguise. Both men have argued that, by writing Superstar as an album at the onset, they were able to streamline the score more effectively than they otherwise could have. “Doing it on record,” Rice said, “made it shorter, cut out the book, made it more contemporary, made it more rock, gave it more energy, and identified it more with a younger audience. All those things the record gave us. We didn’t really appreciate that at the time because, largely thanks to Andrew, we were trying to write for the theatre, not for records. But doing it that way around worked so well, because in addition to making the work itself better, it promoted the work so well, so when it finally hit the stage, everybody knew the entire score.” The show made its Broadway debut in 1971.

2. A BOB DYLAN LYRIC INSPIRED THE MUSICAL’S DEPICTION OF JUDAS.

That lyric was “Did Judas Iscariot have God at his side?” from the 1964 song “With God on Our Side.” Lloyd Webber later said the line was "Tim's starting point for the text ... clearly Iscariot was not an unintelligent man, and how much was the whole thing in the end an accident of what was necessary given the politics of the day?”

Rice has described the Bible’s characterization of Iscariot as a “cardboard cut-out figure of evil,” and he set out to humanize Judas in Superstar.

3. ANDREW LLOYD WEBBER WROTE PART OF THE TITULAR SONG ON A NAPKIN.

In a 2015 interview, the composer said he couldn't recall exactly when the now-iconic melody first came to him: “What I do remember though, is that I forgot it.” Then, one day in 1969, he was walking down London’s Fulham Road when the tune popped back into his head. "I was passing a restaurant ... called Carlo's Place, and I knew the owner a little bit ... I went into the restaurant and said 'Can you give me a piece of paper?'" He recalled. "I was so frightened I'd lose it." But instead of getting a piece of paper, Lloyd Webber was handed a napkin—and he quickly jotted down the main theme of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” arguably the show’s most recognizable anthem, on it.

4. THE MELODY OF “I DON’T KNOW HOW TO LOVE HIM” WAS TAKEN FROM AN UNRELATED SONG CALLED “KANSAS MORNING.”

“Kansas Morning,” an ode to the Sunflower State, was co-written by Rice and Lloyd Webber and published in 1967. ("I love the Kansas morning," the song went. "Kansas mist at my window.") Later, while composing Superstar, the musicians refitted their old ballad with new lyrics, and Mary’s Act I solo was born.

Webber has admitted that the melody does sound like a theme from Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor (1845). "Probably because of my family background," the composer said. "I just absorbed that."

5. YVONNE ELLIMAN WAS CAST AS THE ORIGINAL MARY MAGDALENE AFTER LLOYD WEBBER HEARD HER SINGING AT A NIGHTCLUB.

While rounding up vocalists for the concept album, Lloyd Webber visited the historic Pheasantry Club in Chelsea to see if a jazz singer performing there would be a good fit for Pontius Pilate. “I decided he was quite wrong for the part,” Lloyd Webber told The Daily Mail in 2012, “but his warm-up act—a gorgeous 17-year-old Hawaiian girl called Yvonne Elliman accompanying herself on the guitar—was extraordinary. Everything I had wanted for Mary Magdalene was there in front of me.” He called Rice, who “agreed that we had found our Mary.” Elliman would become the album’s only singer to reprise her role on Broadway, with the 1971 arena tour of the show, and in Jesus Christ Superstar’s 1973 film adaptation.

6. LLOYD WEBBER HATED THE ORIGINAL BROADWAY PRODUCTION.

The original, two-disc concept Superstar album was released in September 1970, and by February 1971, it hit number one on the Billboard charts. Soon, American fans began staging unauthorized live performances in churches and theaters around the country—so producer Robert Stigwood proposed putting on an official Jesus Christ Superstar concert tour. The first performance took place at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena on July 12, 1971.

The next logical step was to take the show to Broadway, and Superstar opened there in October. The production, directed by Tom O’Horgan, was panned by many critics—including The New York Times’s Clive Barnes, who wrote, “I must ... confess to experiencing some disappointment … It all rather resembled one’s first sight of the Empire State Building. Not at all uninteresting, but somewhat unsurprising and of minimal artistic value.”

Lloyd Webber himself absolutely despised it. “Never in my opinion was so wrong a production mounted of my work,” he later said, calling the show a “brash and vulgar interpretation.”

Still, despite his misgivings, Superstar ran for more than 700 shows and got nominated for five Tony Awards (though it failed to win any).

7. IT OFFENDED RELIGIOUS GROUPS.

"In terms of controversy ... Jesus Christ Superstar is Christina Aguilera flubbing the national anthem before the Super Bowl," entertainment journalist Tim Cain once wrote. "Controversy ... swirled around it when it was released."

The show was protested by the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. American evangelist Billy Graham also wasn't a fan: He accused the musical of bordering “on blasphemy and sacrilege" and said he objected “to the fact that it leaves out the Resurrection. If there is no Resurrection, there is no Christianity.” (Though he did acknowledge that "if the production ... causes young people to search their Bibles, to that extent it may be beneficial.") Elsewhere, South Africa’s Publications Control Board temporarily banned Superstar in that country, lest it “offend the religious convictions or feelings of certain sections of the population.” The show also managed to irritate the British National Secular Society, which picketed Superstar’s opening night on the West End.

But a few organizations did rise to its defense. For example, in 1971, the Vatican’s radio station aired the concept album in its entirety, along with some remarks from Lloyd Webber, Rice, and various religious figures. “Nothing like this has ever been broadcast on [Vatican Radio] until now,” announced one papal spokesman, “but we feel that this is a work of considerable importance.”

8. POPE PAUL VI WAS TREATED TO A PRIVATE, ADVANCE SCREENING OF THE 1973 MOVIE VERSION.

Jesus Christ Superstar has twice been adapted to film: The first movie came out in 1973, and a straight-to-video remake was released in 2000. The former was directed by Academy Award nominee Norman Jewison (who also directed 1987's Moonstruck). He arranged a special screening for Pope Paul VI, who gave the flick a nice review: According to Ted Neeley, who played Jesus in the picture, the pope said, “Mr. Jewison, not only do I appreciate your beautiful rock opera film, I believe it will bring more people around the world to Christianity, than anything ever has before.'”

9. IT PROMPTED RICHARD O’BRIEN TO START WRITING THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW.

Following a stint with Hair’s touring cast, Richard O’Brien joined the London production of Superstar in 1972. “I was contracted to play in the chorus for three months and then take over the role of Herod,” he told Pink News. But O’Brien's Herod was a vain Elvis impersonator, and the powers that be were not impressed. “When push came to shove they decided they didn’t want me as Herod. They gave me three hundred quid and let me go,” O’Brien said. “I went home and started writing Rocky on my guitar. I was pissed off because they had the nerve to call Superstar a rock opera. There are some nice songs in there, but rock and roll it isn’t. Writing Rocky was a pleasure because my love of real rock and roll drove the songs.”

10. ONE PRODUCTION’S SEARCH FOR A LEADING MAN TURNED INTO A REALITY TV SHOW.

In 2012, Britain’s ITV launched Superstar, a televised contest in the vein of The Voice. At the time, a new Jesus Christ Superstar concert tour was being organized in the UK, and the series—produced by Lloyd Webber—allowed dozens of contestants to vie for the role of Jesus. In the end, Sunderland native Ben Forester was the winner; he appeared in the tour alongside former Spice Girl Mel C (who also served as a judge on the show).

Ira Aldridge: The Black Shakespearean Actor Who Broke Theater's Color Barrier

Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Ira Aldridge as Othello circa 1830
Henry Perronet Briggs, Wikimedia // Public Domain

It's easy to forget that before the dawn of film, stage actors were power players; many of them carried just as much clout as modern Hollywood stars. In 1880, Sarah Bernhardt earned $46,000 for a month of performances on her first New York tour alone (which would be well over $1 million today). In 1895, English actor Henry Irving made enough of a name for himself to become the first actor in history to receive a British knighthood. And way back in 1849, two rival Shakespearean actors, William Macready and Edwin Forrest, caused such a stir with their competing productions of Macbeth that their fans ended up rioting in the streets of Manhattan.

But before all of them, there was Ira Aldridge. Born in New York in 1807, Aldridge made such a name for himself in the theaters of the mid-19th century that he went on to be awarded high cultural honors, and is today one of just 33 people honored with a bronze plaque on a chair at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. But what makes Aldridge’s achievements all the more extraordinary is that, at a time of widespread intolerance and racial discrimination in the U.S., he was black.

Young, Gifted, and Black

The son of a minister and his wife, Aldridge attended New York’s African Free School, which had been established by the New York Manumission Society to educate the city's black community. His first taste of the theater was probably at Manhattan’s now-defunct Park Theatre, and before long he was hooked. While still a student, Aldridge made his stage debut—at the African Grove Theatre, which had been established by free black New Yorkers around 1821—in a performance of Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s adaptation of Pizarro. According to some accounts, his Shakespearean debut followed not long after, when he took on the title role in the African Grove Theatre's production of Romeo & Juliet.

These early performances were successes, as was the African Grove Theatre, which quickly proved the most renowned of the few theaters in New York staffed mainly by black actors and attended mostly by black audiences. But despite these early triumphs, both Aldridge and the Grove had their fair share of hardships.

Shortly after its opening, the Grove was forced to close by city officials, supposedly over noise complaints. The project was relocated to Bleecker Street, but this move took the theater away from its core black audience in central Manhattan and planted it closer to several larger, more upmarket theaters, with which it now had to compete. Smaller audiences, coupled with resentment and competition from its predominantly white-attended neighbors, soon led to financial difficulties. And all of these problems were compounded by near-constant harassment from the police, city officials, and intolerant local residents.

Eventually, the situation proved unsustainable: The Grove closed just two years later (and was reportedly burned to the ground in mysterious circumstances in 1826). As for Aldridge, having both witnessed and endured racist abuse and discrimination in America, he decided he'd had enough. In 1824, he left the U.S. for England.

The African Tragedian

Ira Aldridge in the role of Othello, 1854
Ira Aldridge as Othello in 1854
Houghton Library, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

By this time, the British Empire had already abolished its slave trade, and an emancipation movement was growing. Aldridge realized that Britain was a much more welcoming prospect for a young, determined black actor like himself—but what he didn’t know was that his transatlantic crossing would prove just as important as his decision to emigrate.

To cover the costs of his travel, Aldridge worked as a steward aboard the ship that took him to Britain, but during the journey he made the acquaintance of British actor and producer James Wallack. The pair had met months earlier in New York, and when they happened to meet again en route to Europe, Wallack offered Aldridge the opportunity to become his personal attendant. On their arrival in Liverpool, Aldridge quit his stewardship, entered into Wallack’s employ, and through him began to cultivate numerous useful contacts in the world of theater. In May 1825 Aldridge made his London debut, becoming the first black actor in Britain ever to play Othello

The critics—although somewhat unsure how to take a "gentleman of colour lately arrived from America"—were won over by Aldridge’s debut performance in a production of Othello at the Royalty Theatre. They praised his "fine natural feeling" and remarked that "his death was certainly one of the finest physical representations of bodily anguish we ever witnessed." Astonishingly, Aldridge was still just 17 years old.

From his London debut at the Royalty, Aldridge slowly worked his way up the city’s playbill, playing ever-more-upmarket theaters across London. His Othello transferred to the Royal Coburg Theatre later in 1825. A lead role in a stage adaptation of Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko followed, as did an acclaimed supporting turn in Titus Andronicus. To prove his versatility, he took on a well-received comedic role as a bumbling butler in an 18th-century comedy, The Padlock. Aldridge’s reputation grew steadily, and before long he was receiving top billing as the “African Roscius” (a reference to the famed Ancient Roman actor Quintus Roscius Gallus) or the renowned “African Tragedian”—the first African-American actor to establish himself outside of America.

Even in the more-accepting society of abolitionist Britain, however, Aldridge still had mountains to climb. When his portrayal of Othello later moved to Covent Garden in 1833, some reviewers thought a black actor treading the boards on one of London’s most hallowed stages was simply a step too far. The critics soured, their reviews became more scathing—and the racism behind them became ever more apparent.

Campaigns were launched to have Aldridge removed from the London stage, with the local Figaro newspaper among his vilest opponents. Shortly after his Covent Garden debut, the paper openly campaigned to cause “such a chastisement as must drive [Aldridge] from the stage … and force him to find [work] in the capacity of footman or street-sweeper, that level for which his colour appears to have rendered him peculiarly qualified.” Fortunately, they weren’t successful—but the affair temporarily ruined the London stage for Aldridge.

"The Greatest of All Actors"

Portrait of Ira Aldridge by Taras Shevchenko in 1858
Portrait of Ira Aldridge in 1858
Taras Shevchenko, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Instead of accepting defeat, Aldridge took both Othello and The Padlock on a tour of Britain’s provincial theaters. The move proved to be an immense success.

During his national tour, Aldridge amassed a great many new fans, and even became manager of the Coventry Theatre in 1828, making him the first black manager of a British theater. He also earned a name for himself by passing the time between performances lecturing on the evils of slavery, and lending his increasingly weighty support to the abolitionist movement.

Next, he took his tour to Ireland, and on his arrival in Dublin became a near-instant star. With the island still locked in a tense relationship with Britain at the time, he was welcomed with open arms when Irish theatergoers heard how badly he had been treated in London. (In one flattering address in Dublin, Aldridge told the audience: “Here the sable African was free / From every bond, save those which kindness threw / Around his heart, and bound it fast to you.”)

By the 1830s, Aldridge was touring Britain and Ireland with a one-man show of his own design, mixing impeccable dramatic monologues and Shakespearean recitals with songs, tales from his life, and lectures on abolitionism. As an antidote to the blackface minstrel shows that were popular at the time, he also began donning “whiteface” to portray roles as diverse as Shylock, Macbeth, Richard III, and King Lear. When the notorious Thomas Rice arrived in England with his racist “Jump Jim Crow” minstrel routine, Aldridge skillfully and bravely weaved one of Rice’s own skits into his show: By parodying the parody, he robbed Rice’s performance of its crass impact—while simultaneously showing himself to be an expert performer in the process.

Such was his popularity that Aldridge could easily have seen out his days in England, playing to packed theaters every night for the rest of career. But by the 1850s, word of his skill as an actor had spread far. Never one to shy away from a challenge, in 1852 he assembled a troupe of actors and headed out on a tour of the continent.

Within a matter of months, Aldridge had become perhaps the most lauded actor in all Europe. Critics raved about his performances, with one German writer even suggesting that he may well be “the greatest of all actors.” A Polish reviewer noted, "Though the majority of spectators did not speak English, they did, however, understand the feelings portrayed on the artist's face, eyes, lips, in the tones of his voice, in the entire body." Celebrity fans were quick to assemble, including the Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, and the renowned French poet Théophile Gautier, who was impressed by Aldridge's portrayal of King Lear in Paris. Royalty soon followed, with Friedrich-Wilhelm IV, the King of Prussia, awarding Aldridge the Prussian Gold Medal for Art and Science. In Saxe-Meiningen (now a part of Germany), he was given the title of Chevalier Baron of Saxony in 1858.

Aldridge continued his European tours for another decade, using the money he earned to buy two properties in London (including one, suitably enough, on Hamlet Road). But by then, the Civil War was over and America beckoned. Now in his late fifties—but no less eager for a challenge—Aldridge planned one last venture: a 100-date tour of the post-emancipation United States. Contracts and venues were hammered out, and the buzz for Aldridge’s eagerly-awaited homecoming tour began to circulate.

Alas, it was not meant to be. Just weeks before his planned departure, Aldridge fell ill with a lung condition while on tour in Poland. He died in Łódź in 1867, at the age of 60, and was buried in the city’s Evangelical Cemetery.

After his death, several theaters and troupes of black actors—including Philadelphia's famed Ira Aldridge Troupe—were established in Aldridge’s name, and countless black playwrights, performers, and directors since have long considered him an influence on their work and writing.

In August 2017, on the 150th anniversary of Aldridge's death, Coventry, England unveiled a blue heritage plaque in the heart of the city, commemorating Aldridge's theater there. Even this long after his death, the extraordinary life of Ira Aldridge has yet to be forgotten.

8 Enlightening Facts About Dr. Ruth Westheimer

Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu
Rachel Murray, Getty Images for Hulu

For decades, sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer has used television, radio, the written word, and the internet to speak frankly on topics relating to human sexuality, turning what were once controversial topics into healthy, everyday conversations.

At age 90, Westheimer shows no signs of slowing down. As a new documentary, Ask Dr. Ruth, gears up for release on Hulu this spring, we thought we’d take a look at Westheimer’s colorful history as an advisor, author, and resistance sniper.

1. The Nazis devastated her childhood.

Dr. Ruth was born Karola Ruth Siegel on June 4, 1928 in Wiesenfeld, Germany, the only child of Julius and Irma Siegel. When Ruth was just five years old, the advancing Nazi party terrorized her neighborhood and seized her father in 1938, presumably to shuttle him to a concentration camp. One year later, Karola—who eventually began using her middle name and took on the last name Westheimer with her second marriage in 1961—was sent to a school in Switzerland for her own protection. She later learned that her parents had both been killed during the Holocaust, possibly at Auschwitz.

2. She shocked classmates with her knowledge of taboo topics.

Westheimer has never been bashful about the workings of human sexuality. While working as a maid at an all-girls school in Switzerland, she made classmates and teachers gasp with her frank talk about menstruation and other topics that were rarely spoken of in casual terms.

3. She trained as a sniper for Jewish resistance fighters in Palestine.

Following the end of World War II, Westheimer left Switzerland for Israel, and later Palestine. She became a Zionist and joined the Haganah, an underground network of Jewish resistance fighters. Westheimer carried a weapon and trained as both a scout and sniper, learning how to throw hand grenades and shoot firearms. Though she never saw direct action, the tension and skirmishes could lapse into violence, and in 1948, Westheimer suffered a serious injury to her foot owing to a bomb blast. The injury convinced her to move into the comparatively less dangerous field of academia.

4. A lecture ignited her career.

 Dr. Ruth Westheimer participates in the annual Charity Day hosted by Cantor Fitzgerald and BGC at Cantor Fitzgerald on September 11, 2015 in New York City.
Robin Marchant, Getty Images for Cantor Fitzgerald

In 1950, Westheimer married an Israeli soldier and the two relocated to Paris, where she studied psychology at the Sorbonne. Though the couple divorced in 1955, Westheimer's education continued into 1959, when she graduated with a master’s degree in sociology from the New School in New York City. (She received a doctorate in education from Columbia University in 1970.) After meeting and marrying Manfred Westheimer, a Jewish refugee, in 1961, Westheimer became an American citizen.

By the late 1960s, she was working at Planned Parenthood, where she excelled at having honest conversations about uncomfortable topics. Eventually, Westheimer found herself giving a lecture to New York-area broadcasters about airing programming with information about safe sex. Radio station WYNY offered her a show, Sexually Speaking, that soon blossomed into a hit, going from 15 minutes to two hours weekly. By 1983, 250,000 people were listening to Westheimer talk about contraception and intimacy.

5. People told her to lose her accent.

Westheimer’s distinctive accent has led some to declare her “Grandma Freud.” But early on, she was given advice to take speech lessons and make an effort to lose her accent. Westheimer declined, and considers herself fortunate to have done so. “It helped me greatly, because when people turned on the radio, they knew it was me,” she told the Harvard Business Review in 2016.

6. She’s not concerned about her height, either.

In addition to her voice, Westheimer became easily recognizable due to her diminutive stature. (She’s four feet, seven inches tall.) When she was younger, Westheimer worried her height might not be appealing. Later, she realized it was an asset. “On the contrary, I was lucky to be so small, because when I was studying at the Sorbonne, there was very little space in the auditoriums and I could always find a good-looking guy to put me up on a windowsill,” she told the HBR.

7. She advises people not to take huge penises seriously.

Westheimer doesn’t frown upon pornography; in 2018, she told the Times of Israel that viewers can “learn something from it.” But she does note the importance of separating fantasy from reality. “People have to use their own judgment in knowing that in any of the sexually explicit movies, the genitalia that is shown—how should I say this? No regular person is endowed like that.”

8. She lectures on cruise ships.

Westheimer uses every available medium—radio, television, the internet, and even graphic novels—to share her thoughts and advice about human sexuality. Sometimes, that means going out to sea. The therapist books cruise ship appearances where she offers presentations to guests on how best to manage their sex lives. Westheimer often insists the crew participate and will regularly request that the captain read some of the questions.

“The last time, the captain was British, very tall, and had to say ‘orgasm’ and ‘erection,’” she told The New York Times in 2018. “Never did they think they would hear the captain talk about the things we were talking about.” Of course, that’s long been Westheimer’s objective—to make the taboo seem tame.

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