In 1968, then-unknown writing and composing duo Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber decided to follow up their rock-music-meets-musical-theater experiment Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with something a little bigger. Updating biblical themes was an interesting challenge, so the duo opted to take on what has been called “the greatest story ever told.” The end result? Jesus Christ Superstar.
Little did they know that this ambitious and controversial project—originally an album—would spark their careers as the creators of some of the biggest hits in musical theater.
By depicting the final days in the life of Christ from the point of view of Judas Iscariot, and by fusing modern language, cultural allusions and music to the scriptural version of events, the musical may have offended some conservative Christian groups, but it also brought the story into a context that was welcoming to the counterculture of the early 1970s. Nearly 40 years later, the musical that was once viewed as sacrilegious is now regularly produced by churches across the country.
Although well-established, the production does have a number of unique challenges, most notably the need for a sizable and multitalented cast and a directorial vision that understands how to make the production entertaining while respecting the story’s religious roots. Not every theatrical group is up to the challenge, but Asheville’s BioFlyer Productions—the group behind the 2005 original musical production Rockula—appears to be up to the task.
“The show brings the idea of Jesus into the present day,” says Rock Eblen, who plays Jesus and serves as the show’s director/producer. “Judas’ point of view and his lyrics are powerful because he brings up the questions we all have, [like] ‘Who are you, Jesus?’”
In addition, Eblen notes that the story is as much about Judas’ concerns about Jesus—ideological ones, as well as a growing mistrust about his claims of divinity—that are presented in a sympathetic light.
“Judas has always been vilified in the past and in religious circles,” Eblen says. “But in the spiritual sense, Jesus would not have been able to [achieve] what he did without Judas. We try to present Judas as a brother to Christ, [and it’s] gut-wrenching when that friendship is torn apart.”
The choice to humanize Christ and focus on the “man” instead of the “savior” became the public’s main point of contention with the musical, and it’s still an issue with some Christian groups. But for some in the cast, this provocative edge is exactly what makes the story so interesting.
“Judas is watching the interaction between Jesus and his apostles through the entire show, and he’s seeing hero worship,” explains Michael Roach, who plays a number of parts in the production. “Judas is losing faith in the man Jesus while others are gaining faith in the mystical Jesus. Judas is trying to say, ‘Hey, you’re a guy, you’re not the Son of God! Why are you saying [that] you are?’ And that’s the point of the show, to see Jesus as a man.”
But there’s another layer to Jesus Christ Superstar, one that has less to do with the religious concerns and more to do with the difficulties of staging a grand production. In order to truly connect with the audience, the production needs to have performers who are talented singers, capable dancers and possess strong stage-acting skills. The performers also need to be comfortable with the challenges of working with a live band, such as the one Musical Director Chuck Taft will be helming. With a cast of 18—sizeable by local-theater standards—it’s even more important that every performer understand the greater vision of the production. If that weren’t enough, the production will also include a multimedia element, designed specifically for the performance by students at A-B Tech.
The cast doesn’t even have the luxury of period costuming to help tell the story. To make the production even more relevant to a local audience, Eblen has clad his cast in a mix of 20th-century and modern garb. It’s a risky decision, but one that just might pay off.
“The show is free to interpretation, and most [productions] tend to mix time periods, which we’re doing as well,” explains Roach. “Our Jewish priests will be dressed like 1960s evangelist preachers, and the first people you see on stage are soldiers dressed in “street clothing,” as we describe it. The first person you see dressed in biblical fashion is Jesus, and he’s about the only one. Everyone else is [dressed] in a mix of the 1960s and 1970s [fashions].”
Even in the face of such challenges, Eblen and the cast seem confident that they’ll be able to give the production a proper treatment, and perhaps even offer a few new insights into the story of Jesus.
The production will benefit Eblen Charities, an outreach program that works with families and children battling the effect of illness and disability.
who: BioFlyer Productions present Jesus Christ Superstar
what: A modern musical retelling of the final days in the life of Jesus Christ
where: Diana Wortham Theatre
when: Wednesday, March 19, through Friday, March 21. 8 p.m. ($20. www.dwtheatre.com or 257-4530)