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Various Artists (Concept albums & Themed compilations) - Jesus Christ Superstar CD (album) cover

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR

Various Artists (Concept albums & Themed compilations)

 

Various Genres

4.21 | 120 ratings

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Sinusoid
Prog Reviewer
4 stars With today being Passion Sunday in the Christian calendar, it seems like a perfect time to glance at JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.

First off, I ought to note to those who might not know that I will approach this concept album from two angles: one would be the proggy perspective that members of PA are used to, and the other would be from a musical theater approach. I have become a fan of musicals and Broadway within the last year and a half, so the prog audience is going to get a little different take on this album.

While not naturally my style, with musicals, an understanding of the plot, characters and story is quite vital to enjoying the musical. Yes, the musical largely focuses on Jesus's last days which correlate to the Gospel readings on Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter). However, the man who betrays Jesus, Judas Iscariot, has as large of a role in this story as does Jesus. Also, instead of the traditional Christian telling of Jesus and Judas as two men (one the Son of God, the other a disciple) accepting divine destiny, the musical explores the two men from a more psychological, humanist and perhaps secular angle. There are other figures throughout like Mary Magdalene, the high priest Caiaphas, etc. that have a fair role in the story while traditional ''go-to'' names like Peter and Pontius Pilate are kept to a minor stance. This musical saw the writing team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice hit their creative stride (started with JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT in '68), providing memorable tunes with a few offbeat melodies with a story that is very well known, yet told in a slightly different context, but not enough to sound too disrespectful or blasphemous.

My understanding of the classical music term ''recapitulation'' is where a theme in one part is reused elsewhere in the piece albeit in a slightly different setting. Webber (the musical force here) does this quite well here; despite the laundry list of tracks, many themes are recycled and reused throughout the musical, giving a unity effect, almost as if this was one giant prog epic about the last days of Jesus. But this isn't a rare thing in musicals as many have reprises and finales that borrow or shorten themes from the more memorable numbers. A specific other example is Stephen Sondheim's COMPANY, where the opening title number is cued very often at various points in the show.

One thing I like to hear whenever I listen to a musical is a memorable lilt that I can't get out of my head. Good musicals have at least one instance of this, and JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR offers several. There's the shuffle in ''This Jesus Must Die'', the opening fuzzy guitar riff in the orchestra reused in ''The Thirty-Nine Lashes'' (how do we know it's 39? They count it in the music.), the gentle melody of ''Everything's Alright'', the chanting of both ''Hosanna'' and ''The Temple'', and the grand bombastic finale that could only be described as ''Superstar''. There's a ton of melodies going for this musical.

This particular show emphasizes the characters, and I want to spend a few words on how well the actors pull off the characters. For starters, the chorus is one of the best I've heard from any musical; if you think the ensemble means nothing, listen to both ''The Temple'' and ''The Arrest'' as the chorus carries both numbers. The men who played Caiaphas, Annas and King Herod must have had fun portraying them as it shows in their demeanors. Yvonne Elliman sounds like the right Mary Magdalene as a sweet, gentle yet emotional restrained woman. The rub can set in with the two main leads, Judas and Jesus. Yes, I know it's Ian Gillan as Jesus Christ, and for the most part, Ian taps into to a humanistic Jesus rather well. When the tender moments need to shine like on ''Gethsemane'', Ian can really bring powerful emotions and truly make the character come to life outside of a true religious context. However, Ian finds the need to use his trademark high-pitched screams here; it works in Deep Purple, but here it's miscast. I find the same level of balance with Murray Head as Judas; he can work the frustration of the character very well, but he also butchers ''I Don't Know How to Love Him'' (in ''Judas' Death'') in the worst way. Still, the acting is convincing to the point where even with the success of Mark II Deep Purple, this is Ian Gillan's crowning achievement in singing.

How does prog fit into this story? For starters, the band Quatermass is heavily associated with the project with singer John Gustafson portraying Simon Zealots and keyboardist Peter Robinson being the main keyboard player. Also, 2/3 of the classic Nucleus lineup have bits in here. There are the constant shifts to 5/4 (notably ''Everything's Alright''; sounds like a hybrid of Dave Brubeck's ''Take Five'' and the church hymn ''Sing of the Lord's Goodness'') and 7/8 (''The Temple'') as well as the epic nature of the story itself (the Passion of Christ is a big portion of the basis of Christianity along with Jesus's Resurrection). Really, listening to the music almost reminds me of a Nucleus or an If or a Soft Machine; there's plenty of fuzzy guitars and Hammond organs flying about, and Webber himself actually manages to sneak a Moog line into the Overture. Not to mention the very avant-garde ''Crucifixion'', which is quite creepy and unorthodox for a musical, let alone one where Jesus Christ is a fulcrum in the story.

This is one of the greatest musicals I have come across, and the bounty of prog similarities helps in my enjoyment of this. Prog fans will gravitate towards the more rock-based approach to the music and tricky time signatures, and musical fans will find the great character portrayals, snappy melodies and abundance of singing appetizing.

Sinusoid | 4/5 |

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