The History of Rockers in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’
Jesus Christ Superstar, an interpretation of the last days of Jesus Christ, wasn't the first attempt to bring rock music to the stage – that honor is widely credited to 1968's Hair – but it's arguably been the most enduring.
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice released the rock opera as a concept album starring Ian Gillan of Deep Purple and Mike d'Abo of Manfred Mann in 1970, helping to launch the careers of two unknown singers, Yvonne Elliman and Murray Head. Jesus Christ Superstar moved to Broadway in 1971, became a film two years later and has lived on even longer through many revivals. It has also served as an opportunity for many rock singers to test out their theatrical chops.
Here's a look at some of the famous names who have performed in the rock opera's most prominent roles.
Ian Gillan (1970)
John Lennon may have suggested that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus," but Ian Gillan was the first to sing the role. Gillan needed just three hours to record his parts for this project, which also featured contributions from Joe Cocker's Grease Band. Though the album hit No. 1 by February 1971, Gillan says he never predicted its lengthy commercial shelf life.
"The title track had all ready been a hit. Commercially, I could imagine it being successful in the short term. No, I had no idea it was going to go on to sell 38 million units," Gillan said in 2009. "You could tell in terms of the music that it would have longevity in terms of musical appreciation, so to speak. I am talking specifically about [“Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)”], which was the part I was first introduced to. I thought it was just so beautifully constructed lyrically, and a great tune. I was given the opportunity to improvise over it. I am not very commercially minded, I never can tell what is going to be successful or not, but you do know a fine piece of work when you hear it."
In late 1971, the music moved from album to stage, premiering on Broadway. By 1973, it was adapted for the big screen, but Gillan bowed out of the opportunity to take on the role. "I was offered the film but I turned it down. I never did the stage performance because quite frankly I am a musician," he said in 2013. "I have never had any interest in acting at all, if that answers your question. I am not an actor; I am a musician. I never liked the idea of being in one place for weeks and weeks, maybe months, on end.”
Mike d'Abo (1970)
Mike d'Abo memorably sang lead on Manfred Mann's "Mighty Quinn." After they broke up in 1969, he created the role of King Herod; d'Abo's lone number, "King Herod's Song," arrives late in the musical. He later had a bit role in the next Webber-Rice concept album, Evita, which was also subsequently turned into a smash hit musical and movie.
Yvonne Elliman (1970)
Unlike Gillan and d'Abo, Yvonne Elliman wasn't famous when she appeared on the original 1970 recording as Mary Magdalene. But she became its breakout star thanks to the Top 40 success of "I Don't Know How to Love Him." Her connection to the role was solidified when she originated it on Broadway in 1971 and then appeared in the film adaptation two years later.
“The human aspect of Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar made me interested,” she said in 2002, but added that making the movie in Israel was difficult. “It was four months in 115 degree heat, and sometimes 120 degrees. They had these little guys with no shirts on bringing trays of watered-down lemonade which they would make you drink, because people were just dropping. You don’t realize you are sweating.”
Elliman then spent several years singing backup for Eric Clapton while putting out solo albums that netted a few hits on the adult-contemporary charts. Her version of "If I Can't Have You," a Bee Gees-penned song from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, went to No. 1 in 1978.
Murray Head (1970)
As with Elliman, Murray Head catapulted to fame through Jesus Christ Superstar, singing the role of Judas and providing the lead vocals on the No. 14 hit "Superstar." But unlike Elliman, Head had previous experience as both an actor and recording artists when he was cast. He continued to release albums, and appeared in movies and on television. Head reunited with Tim Rice in 1984 when he played the American in Chess, a 1984 musical about U.S.-Soviet tensions that featured music by Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus of ABBA. Head's "One Night in Bangkok," a No. 12 hit, was included in the show.
Sandra Bernhard (1991)
Through Sandra Bernhard never performed in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar, she did take the Mary Magdalene song "Everything's Alright" and combine it with Jimi Hendrix's "Manic Depression." The result, called "Manic Superstar," was released on 1991's Excuses for Bad Behavior.
Dennis DeYoung (1993)
A 1993 touring production on Jesus Christ Superstar found Ted Neely and Carl Anderson reprising their film roles as Jesus and Judas, respectively. Also among the cast were Irene Cara from Fame as Mary Magdalene and former Styx singer Dennis DeYoung as Pontius Pilate. The next year, DeYoung released "Pilate's Dream," his spotlight number from the musical, as part of a collection of musical standards called 10 on Broadway.
Gary Cherone (1994)
As Extreme's popularity declined in the '90s, Gary Cherone joined a troupe in his hometown called Boston Rock Opera for three productions of Jesus Christ Superstar. He starred as Jesus in 1994 and 1996, with the latter production featuring Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo as Mary Magdalene. Four years later, he went to the other side: "I’d done Jesus first, and then I did Judas, and Judas is the role for me," Cherone said in 2003. "I like the Jesus role, but Judas has the heavier tunes."
Indigo Girls (1994)
A collection of Atlanta-based musicians led by Indigo Girls Amy Ray and Emily Saliers released Jesus Christ Superstar: A Resurrection on Ray's Daemon Records in 1994. Saliers played Mary Magdalene, with Ray taking on the role of Jesus. It was later staged in Atlanta, Austin and Seattle, with all profits from the album and show going to gun control-related organizations. Ray told the Seattle Times that she didn't have any issue with the idea of a woman playing Jesus Christ, since she considered it to be "a completely androgynous role, because it has a spiritual essence that transcends gender. I decided the kind of people who'd be troubled by me doing this are the same people who have trouble with the whole concept of Jesus Christ Superstar. When it was first produced on Broadway in 1971, it was considered kind of sacrilegious and there were some protests."
Roger Daltrey (1996)
Given his role in bringing rock opera to the masses with the Who's Tommy and Quadrophenia, not to mention his experience as an actor, it was only a matter of time before Roger Daltrey got around to doing Jesus Christ Superstar. It finally happened in 1996, when Daltrey played Judas in a BBC Radio production that also featured Tony Hadley of Spandau Ballet as Jesus.
Alice Cooper (2000)
The 1996 London revival cast was featured in a recording made four years later, with one exception. The role of King Herod, which was played in that production by Nick Holder, went to Alice Cooper. It was a natural fit for Cooper, who is the child and grandchild of pastors. "King Herod's Song" is also musically rooted in vaudeville, which Cooper has often said was a major inspiration for his act.
Sebastian Bach (2002)
Sebastian Bach isn't the first name you'd associate with this particular narrative, yet Skid Row's bad-boy former frontman stepped into the lead role when Jesus Christ Superstar began touring the country again in 2002. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it wasn't a great fit and Bach – who made his Broadway debut in Jekyll and Hyde two years earlier – was fired the following year.
The disagreement apparently stemmed from proposed changes in the script. "It was explained to me that we needed a brand new ending to the show that would effectively erase any sense of rock 'n' roll from the curtain call," Bach wrote in a statement at the time. He felt the update would "leave everyone walking out of the show without the sense of elation and excitement that was part of the show for the last five months. This, I felt, was an insult to my fans."
Corey Glover (2006)
Corey Glover starred in a national touring company's production of Jesus Christ Superstar between 2006-08, taking on the controversial role of Judas. The Living Colour frontman didn't shy away from critics who've questioned the show's more sympathetic portrayal of Jesus' betrayer since its premiere in 1970.
"I think it was a catalyst” for changes in how the public views Christianity, Glover said in 2006. "I’ve always had sympathy for Judas. He’s been painted with such broad strokes. He’s a man that saw the world in a particular way. You look at the songs and books that are coming out these days, and there’s been a humanization of Judas and Jesus and the whole story. You look at a song like ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ — that’s The Da Vinci Code!"
John Lydon (2014)
A made-for-arenas tour of Jesus Christ Superstar almost featured a surprising figure in the role of King Herod: John Lydon. The former Sex Pistols star was set to be joined by a string of other stars, including Incubus singer Brandon Boyd as Judas, Michelle Willams of Destiny's Child as Mary Magdalene and JC Chasez of NYSNC as Pontius Pilate. Despite that star power, however, the entire two-month tour was scrapped for unknown reasons a little more than a week before it was scheduled to begin in 2014.
Alice Cooper (2018)
Nearly two decades after first playing King Herod, Cooper was set to reprise the role in a live made-for-TV production in 2018. "The Herod part's fun, because it really is the only fairly funny song in the whole show, and it's very condescending," Cooper says in the above video. "I think this character is a really conflicted guy. He's a puppet king. He's not really the king, because the Roman Empire are running him. And now he's in the presence of a king that's wearing rags but can do miracles. So, he's sort of a ball of paranoia and ego all mixed together. So, you know, he has Jesus right where he wants him, so he's going to poke him with a stick – and that's really what the lyrics do in the song." John Legend earned the role of Jesus Christ in this production, with Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene.