Ellis Nassour's Jesus Christ Superstar

Behind the Scenes of the Worldwide Musical Phenomenon

Applause Books 2024
Dedicated to Tim Rice
Andrew Lloyd Webber

Book Excerpts

“   And it came to be, on October 12, 1971, in a little town called New York that Jesus Christ Superstar was ready to open and face its toughest audience: the critics.
     Jesus Christ Superstar’s stage debut had it all—and then some. It truly was, to quote casting director Michael Shurtleff, “a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus parade—minus the elephants.
    ”The perennially ponytailed Tom O’Horgan arrived at the Hellinger Theatre
at 9 a.m. to find a gift from costumer Randy Barceló, a one-piece blue velvet jumpsuit. He loved it and immediately put it on. He headed to the stage, where his assistant, Harvey Milk, had the anxious cast gathered. Surrounded by all that elegance and glamour, the director had the group warm up for their last run-through by jumping around barefoot as he kept time by clapping his hands. 
        West 51st Street, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue, had become a paradise for vendors. One had created a quasi-religious setup by nailing two planks of wood into a cross. He was doing a brisk business selling all manner of Superstar images forged on metal and hanging from silver chains. Another, in a league all his own, was selling Superstarjock straps in four colors and a Jesus Christ bikini, a wisp of silver lamé quite expertly put together. Asked if any of the merchandise was from producer Robert Stigwood, both vendors replied in the negative. The forger stated, “The producer’s folks were intimidating me to get me off the block.” They were unsuccessful.  
        Protesters and celebrity-seeking gawkers began gathering in the afternoon.
In addition to religious sects, a group of African Americans were holding placards condemning the show for casting a black man as Judas. Barricades were positioned to keep the entrance free. Police began moving protesters across the street. It certainly wasn’t a case of out of sight, out of mind. They waved bright, colorful placards condemning all concerned with the production, and made their presence loudly known by breaking into song.  
        A large contingent from Manhattan’s West 57th Street Calvary Baptist Church  and ultraconservative lay Roman Catholic group ProEcclesia rang out “Give me a J, give me an E, give me an S, give me a U, give me an S. J-E-S-U-S!” and “One way Jesus, one way Jesus!” They waved placards painted in huge letters of “We are one in the Lord.” . . . “Jesus Christ Superstar, the lamb of God.” . . . “Jesus doesn’t need stage lights, He is the Light.” . . . “Down with Superstar, up with Jesus.” . . . “You’ve got your story twisted!” . . . “Mary said ‘He is my Lord.’ not  He is my lover.” . . . “Judas is a phony.” . . . “Jesus lives in my heart!” . . . “He’s God, not a charlatan! He said He would raise the dead and He did!”
        Reporters and TV cameramen soon tired of this and crossed the street to catch the arrivals show, but the demonstrators were no fools. To grab a bit more attention, they broke out in song: “The Lord’s Prayer” and the 1920s gospel hymn “This Little Light of Mine.”          The very rational Dennis Miller, student minister of Calvary Baptist Church,  opined: “The play represents a confused and commercial portrait of Christ—a Christ who doesn’t rise from the dead. They aren’t men of faith, and their statements only serve to undermine the scriptures.”



        As show time approached, the street became the center of a massive traffic jam. Audiences arrived in taxis, limos, a Bentley, four Rolls Royces—one deco- rated in psychedelic splendor—even a motorcycle and a Volkswagen bus. They ranged from a college sorority to jet-set and jeweled glitterati; stage, screen, and recording personalities; the mayor of New York, John V. Lindsay; and Sir David Frost, who flew in to support his friend Lloyd Webber.
        There was the attention-grabbing, mawkishly dressed, tall gent in Orthodox Jewish mode but in a black sheepskin coat and wearing a wild black wig, fake     
 beard; a lad in elegant white tie minus the trousers under a plastic raincoat, 
 wearing the tallest cowboy boots north of Dallas and sporting what appeared to  be press credentials that read “How to Win Friends”; and a black gent channeling the blaxploitation legend Super Fly, the baddest badass pimp—wrapped in what appeared to be white mink. As soon as he spotted cameras, he whipped it off and, in a carefully choreographed swirl, exposed a funkadelic outfit appearing to be skinned from a spotted cow.
        All were enjoying what Warhol called their fifteen minutes of fame, only that night it was more like four minutes. It was a colorful event that could have been conceived and directed by director O’Horgan himself.
        Among the last to arrive were Tim Rice—slightly dress-casual, wrapped in a sweeping white Lawrence-of-Arabia-like scarf with his girlfriend, Pru, and a large contingent of family—and Andrew Lloyd Webber in a long, black velvet jacket and frilly white shirt with collar up, debuting his young fiancée, Sarah, in a gown with a plunging neckline; he also had a number of family members along.
    At 6:45, ticket holders reluctant to enter for fear of missing a close view of some of the Who’s Who were urged inside. It certainly wasn’t calm backstage. In fact, panic had set in. O’Horgan was pacing back and forth. He yelled out to the production stage manager, “Where the hell’s that son-of-a-bitch Ben?” None of the cast nor his dressers had heard from Ben Vereen since the 11 a.m. run-through. Had he been in an accident? Had he decided to jump ship? There’d been no phone call, nothing. With the orchestra poised to begin the overture
and the curtain about to rise, a decision had to be made.
         “Tom, it’s ten minutes,” said stage manager Galen McKinley. “The cast is assembled. What do we do?”
         “Get Yaghjian!” roared the director.
         “I’m right here, boss,” said Vereen’s understudy, Kurt Yaghjian, running into the wings.
         “You can do it?”
         “Yeah, boss!”
         Just as Yaghjian was heading down to change, outside, as the last stragglers entered, there was a flash of flesh running from Broadway to the stage door. It was Ben Vereen, arriving breathless. “Sorry, I overslept!”
       O’Horgan angrily asked, “Ever heard of alarm clocks?”
     Yaghjian was distraught, but the musical’s costar had arrived.
      After that near disaster, O’Horgan, with his young partner, Marc Cohen, headed to their seats.
      The conductor quieted the orchestra, the lights dimmed, and the overture began . . .