Elaine Paige on Jesus Christ Superstar: ‘It never fails to wow’

Elaine Paige
Tuesday, February 13, 2024

As Jesus Christ Superstar tours the UK, Elaine Paige looks at how Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s biblical smash brought rock concert energy to Musical Theatre

Elaine Paige (photo: Nicky Johnston)
Elaine Paige (photo: Nicky Johnston)

‘Idea: a rock album inspired by a retelling of Jesus’s last days on Earth, seen through the eyes of Judas Iscariot.’

It’s mind-blowing to think that that’s essentially what Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber said to each other, at the ages of 25 and 22 respectively.

That’s how Jesus Christ Superstar (JCS) was born. The nearly 90-minute concept album had to come first, because as Andrew has said since – no producer wanted to put ‘the worst idea in history’ onstage!

Back then, it may not have set the UK alight, but the daring rock opera record by two virtually unknown guys was a really powerful listening experience, with its full orchestra and gospel choir. Our friends across the pond were captivated. It got to number one in the United States, selling 2.5 million copies.

The explosive original London production lasted more than eight years, becoming the longest-running musical in West End history at the time

That surprise success led to the green light for a stage adaptation. JCS opened a year later on Broadway, in October 1971 – a hectic, psychedelic extravaganza that turned the story of Christ’s crucifixion into a spectacle. It ended New York’s monopoly on Musical Theatre, spawning a British invasion that ultimately paved the way for mega-musicals like Les Mis and Phantom.

Reviews of JCS were mixed, but a year later it transferred to London’s Palace Theatre, having risen above the bristling controversy surrounding some of its themes. It had achieved cult status.

The show’s London advent was when I first met Andrew. I was in Rock Carmen, so couldn’t audition for the original cast, but later my pal Diane Langton called me to say she wanted to leave. So I got my chance and, as part of an early recast, I won the role of one of the three Hosanna Angels.

It was the summer of 1972, and the queue for tickets for JCS snaked all the way down Shaftesbury Avenue. There was such a buzz.

Those heady days when we were all starting out were some of the happiest of my life – and that’s why JCS will forever be one of my favourites of Andrew’s shows. Nothing like it had ever been heard before in Musical Theatre. It’s all there, right from the off, with that single electric guitar pattern as the epic Overture builds, and those discordant chords and unusual rhythms. The second act includes that masterpiece ‘Gethsemane’, featuring an unforgettable anguished falsetto wail.

Mary Magdalene’s ode to Jesus, ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ and the showstopper ‘Superstar’ boast some of Andrew’s greatest melodies. He really was at his most free and wild. A rock oratorio was so him. Tim’s lyrics were so witty and innovative: ‘Prove to me that you’re divine / change my water into wine’. And Tim wasn’t afraid of painting Jesus, Judas, Mary, Pilate, Herod and more as three-dimensional human beings.

The explosive original London production lasted more than eight years, becoming the longest-running musical in West End history at the time. Some three years later I recorded ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ for my ‘Stages’ album – coming full circle.

I’ve seen many incarnations of JCS over the years. It never fails to wow.

The Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre production in 2016 made an especially big impression on me. It had a wild rock concert energy that took me right back to the excitement of the original London production, when the whole thing felt so fresh and raw.

I’m delighted that Timothy Sheader’s nuanced and moving revival is now on tour. My Palladium panto pal Julian Clary has been playing King Herod at certain performances. I can’t wait to see it in Wimbledon.

JCS is the musical master of morphing and updating to fit with the times. And it can only do so because the original material is rock solid and everlasting.

The show’s influence is hard to exaggerate. It led to technical advancements, including the miniaturisation of rock concert equipment for the theatre, and mic adaptations that allowed singers to be heard over electric instruments. And it proved you could turn a show that critics didn’t particularly like into a hit. But more than that, it pioneered the rock musical genre.

Over half a century later, Jesus Christ Superstar still feels thrillingly vivid and alive. It was a privilege to be part of it from its earliest days and it will always have a special place in my affections. After all, we always love the music that we associate with our youth, don’t we? Oh, ‘Could We Start Again Please’?!

For more details about the current touring production, visit uktour.jesuschristsuperstar.com; ‘Elaine Paige on Sunday’ is on BBC Radio 2 at 1pm; follow her on X @elaine_paige

This article originally appeared in the December 2023 / January 2024 issue of Musicals magazine. Never miss an issue – subscribe today