ROCK OPERA :
THE CREATION OF JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR
From Record Album to Broadway Show and Motion Picture
by ELLIS NASSOUR
© 1973 Hawthorne Books; Copyright Renewed
by Putnam Books;
All Rights Reserved; Used by Permission
For information on
and Ellis Nassour Arts & Entertainment Collection
the University of Mississippi
After a troubled rehearsal and preview period,
Jesus Christ Superstar exploded on
an enormous golden prop descended from the flies and opened into a fan as the cast came
out for their curtain call. The audience was on its feet, yelling and applauding. Clive
Barnes, the [New York] Times critic, exited up
the aisle just before the auditorium became a solid mass of screaming fans. The cast did
an encore of "Superstar" and then left the stage. They did not come back, even
though the applause continued.The cast quickly ran through the backstage area, put away
their props, threw off their robes to wardrobe, and dashed scantily dressed, to the
upstairs dressing rooms. The atmosphere was anything but religious -- there was joyous
shouting, much slapping on the back, popping of corks, and an abundance of colorful
language. Vereen was still perspiring, Fenholt looked totally exhausted, while Miss
Elliman proudly exhibited several bouquets of roses.
"Did you hear them out there?" she asked. "I
thought they would never stop clapping. I thought they were going crazy!" Rice
and Webber went through the rooms congratulating everyone, followed by Stigwood and
O'Horgan. Soon there was an overflow crowd of well-wishers and gapers clogging the
hallways and the stage area below. The crusty old stage doorman who had seen the
shows come and go over the years had a comment for the evening: "The theater is sure
changing. Anything goes. And I still hate opening nights!" Just as the marquee
lights went out, O'Horgan and Pressel, walking along Fifty-first toward Broadway on a
sidewalk littered with protest leaflets, stopped in front of the theater to chat with
"Nice going, Tom," said one young man as he passed.
O'Horgan turned, gave a wave, and said, "Thanks, man. Thanks!" Then as he turned
to his friends he uttered, "I'm glad it's over!" The
next evening on the six o'clock news the ABC affliliate in New York (WABC-TV) showed
several first-nighters being interviewed. "What did you think of the show?"
quizzed the announcer. "Fantastic," said one lady.
"Really lousy!" offered another bystander.
"Simply great," sighed Andy Warhol.
"It's not like No, No,
Nanette," answered one young woman. Then Kevin Sanders gave his
critique of the rock opera -- a repeat from the late night news show of October 12 -- and
narrated footage of the opening night party. "This was one of the biggest and most
colorful parties in Broadway history. They came in tails, felt, jeans, braless, in chic
gowns, barefoot, even topless. The revelers at the party looked as if they had not undergone a religious experience." Closing
the segment, Sanders noted the Jesus Christ
Superstar was "drawing bigger houses than any church in town, and they're
supposed to be telling the same story." He then turned the program back to Roger
Grimsby, the anchorman, who gasped wryly, "I just can't get over their last
supper!" The post-premiere gala at the austere Tavern-On-The-Green was one of
the most expensive parties ever held. And one of the wildest. And one of the most talked
about. Usually following a premier, a producer gives a "watch" party at
Sardi's or another restaurant or nightclub for the cast, crew, backers, and close friends.
There are drinks, some food, and lots of predictions and back-slapping.
This all culminates in the television reviews on the 11
P.M. news and the early A.M. second edition newspaper reviews. Some producers and press
agents even have "spies" in the New York
Times and Daily News composing rooms or
newsrooms who phone in the verdict). But the party for Jesus Christ Superstar was a bit different. It was
a superspectacular in the truest sense of the word -- cost: a whopping $25,000!
There were motion picture camera and media reporters. Waiters, with every imaginable type
of hors d'oeuvre, floated around the room. There was a rock band, two bars, and four
separate buffet tables that included cold vegetable and gelatin salads, huge baked hams,
roast beefs, casseroles, beef bourguignon, mousses, assorted desserts, and champagne
and wine. Another table was filled with cold jumbo shrimps, curries, fresh fruit and
cheeses. One thousand guest were invited.
Stigwood and creators Rice and Webber were asked by a newsman of they were bothered by the
protest of various religious organizations. Webber, looking a bit irritated, responded
sternly, "Do I look bothered?" . . .
New York, 1970 : Tim Rice and Andrew
Lloyd Webber with Ellis Nassour at album launch of Jesus Christ Superstar,
which became a world-wide phenomenon.
| "Told with wit and in a clear
narrative style. A fascinating,
||Jeff Fenholt (foreground)
as Jesus and
Ben Vereen as Judas.
|[ Credit: Hal Bucksbaum,
MCA Records ]
[Credit: © 1971 Roy Blakey; Used by Permission ]
As they arrived at the gala, the
authors were pleased with the cheers from the partygoers. "They should enjoy the hell
out of this blast," commented an onlooker. "If they're not rich already, this
one'll do it for them." Stigwood was asked by a reporter why he had backed the play.
"The life of Christ, especially the last seven days, is very dramatic," he
explained. "I knew it would make good theater."
"There's a lot of talk about the Jesus movement," the
producer had said earlier, "but this music is so great, you could go and do a musical
about Mohammed or Moses and it would still be a hit." In that
morning's New York Times Stigwood was quoted,
"We're slightly sitting ducks. I wish we could have started off humbly -- off
Broadway. But that would have been insanity!" "Like an army of
extras for a Fellini movie," described Time
magazine, "the guest turned out to nibble at hams decorated to resemble Indonesian
masks and to dance until 4 A.M. to live rock. Transvestites right out of The Damned, complete with dark red lipstick and
1930s feather boas, shouldered their way slinkily past matrons from
Westchester." There was something for everyone. Girls danced with
guys, girls danced with girls, and guys danced with guys. The booze flowed freely even
after the mammoth buffet ran out. Some guests managed to get a drink, then sought the
table to which they were assigned and, because of the rowdyness, ended up leaving a half
hour after they arrived. The Tavern bouncers had strict instructions to admit no one
without an invitation. It was the party of the year, and it seemed every gate-crasher in
New York made an attempt to get in on the goodies.
One young woman who wore gray velvet knickers was turned away by the
doorman. "Don't you know
who I am?" she boiled, pulling out a newspaper in which her photograph was featured.
"I starred in Andy
Warhol's last picture."
The doorman replied coolly, "I don't care who you are, you must
have an invitation." She pulled up her
blouse, revealing her breasts, and said, "Here's my invitation. Does this get me
in?" To the waiting crowd's
amazement, the doorkeeper, hardly ruffled, stared right into her eyes, and, without
quavering, said quite
Some photographers gathered, and the girl did her little act for the
cameras, then walked away with the
group with whom she had arrived. At the same time, Andy Warhol and entourage pulled into
lot. Warhol had an invitation, but when he discovered it was good for only one and not for
all his followers
and starlets, he promptly left. However, the girl with the tear-away blouse was able to
with her "invitation" because later she sat at a deserted table with a male
friend stuffing herself with food and
wine, bare bosoms and all, as photographers stood on chairs and clustered around to record
the memorable scene.
It was an evening of wild costumes. Everyone was trying to outdo the
other, with the men's clothes rivaling the women's. They came in green, purple, and maroon
tuxedos -- patent leather slippers, suede boots, cowboy boots, spats, and chaps -- black
tie, no tie, frilly lace shirts, and no shirts at all. Some threads were even reminiscent
of biblical times.
A very dignified lady, swathed in mink, eyed a fellow with a red
mustache, leather headband, dress, and high heels and screamed, "That's got to be the
bearded lady from the circus!"
Then there was the guest decked out in a one- piece silk suit, black
top hat, and a necklace of pearls; the curly-haired man in the beige net jumpsuit and
nothing else; the barefoot bearded fellow in another jumpsuit open well below the waist;
the guy in the rather conservative suit sporting earrings and a stars-and-stripes shoulder
purse and a date on seven inch heels draped in a black ankle length see-through outfit
that was sleeveless and slit open at both sides; and the chap in the thick horned-rimmed
glasses and Sherlock Holmes cape whose sideburns formed his moustache -- or vice versa.
Ben Vereen walked about the room accepting well wishes with a shepard's staff in his hand.
Stigwood, in black tie, posed for pictures and talked with television newsmen. Composer
Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice seemed amazed and mystified at the goings on.
"It's unbelievable," exclaimed Rice. "What a mad
crush. I've never seen anything like it. I had to explain who I was to get in!"
A woman at one table took a look at the party and said to her husband,
"It looks like Sodom and Gomorrah!"
Jeff Fenholt and his wife, Maureen, arrived just in time to grab the
last remaining food. Yvonne Elliman was with her parents. Between nibbles at the food and
sips of the drinks, the columnists and television reporters made the rounds of the
principles interviewing and photographing them.
Rice's family sat serenely at an extra large round table near the
entrance. They seem surprised at all the hulla-baloo. Particularly beaming was Rice's
grandmother, to whom he is quite close and devoted.
"They've hear about all the attention Jesus Chris Superstar has been getting over
here," Rice said, "but this is their first time to see for themselves. The
'Superstar' single got limited airplay in England, and the LP is an absolute dud. [by this
time, English record sales had not even reached the 300,000 mark] We are just beginning to
get some publicity at home. Only three weeks ago a friend of my mother's said, 'Wouldn't
it be wonderful if Tim could make a living out of that song.' "
"It's all a bit incredible," Rice said. "It has all
gotten a bit out of hand -- this orgy, the Superstar
buttons and pocket calendars, the pickets, the T-shirts, the pirated concert versions
touring around purporting to be the real Superstar,
and all sorts of royalties and cuts. We never thought it would go this far."
By the time the eleven o'clock news rolled around, the crowd had
thinned considerably. The band was gone, but the dancing continued to the accompaniment of
records. A television set was turned on, and press agent Merle DeBuskey monitored the
various network channels.
The reviews were mixed . . .
For information on
Ellis Nassour Arts & Entertainment Collection
the University of Mississippi