Thursday, 31 January 2008

What's The Buzz? 31/1/08

What’s The Buzz?

If you were to run a poll asking what Andrew Lloyd Webber’s greatest work is I have a sneaking suspicion that “The Phantom Of The Opera” would win by a mile. If you asked me I would plump for “Evita”, although I think “Joseph” is the most entertaining. However, if you were to ask, Palladium redcoat, Anthony Bristoe he would say “Jesus Christ Superstar”. Suggest he is mistaken and you would be greeted by a befuddled look – in fact his eyes may even well up a little! So this weeks column eschews the EPEMs (Elaine Paige Essential Musicals) of yore to launch, for one week only, the ABEMs (Anthony Bristoe Essential Musicals).

Without a doubt “Superstar” is a musical that has broken ground since day one. One of the earliest musicals to feature a rock score it’s, what often used to be called, a “Rock Opera”. With lyrics by Tim Rice, it was also the first major musical to initially appear as a “concept album”. Released in 1970 the cast included Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan (one of several cast members from the rock world) , Murray Head as Judas and Hawaiian discovery Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene. At first the album didn’t do particularly well in the UK, but in America it was a different story. The narrative, of course, is centred on the last days of Christ and this provoked controversy in both countries. What made it particularly contentious is that the narrative took the perspective of Judas and often questioned events from the gospels, as well as omitting the resurrection – never mind that rock music was being used! Despite the consternation of the religious right, the LP became something of a phenomenon in the US making the very top of the album charts as well as inspiring concert tours which paved the way for a Broadway mounting in 1971. The much awaited production starred Jeff Fenholt, Yvonne Elliman and Ben Vereen and, although often accused of being too lavish, had a successful run of around eighteen months. The London version was much simpler and, starring Paul Nicholas as Jesus, opened at the Palace Theatre in 1972 where it ran for around eight years becoming London’s longest running musical up until that time. Let’s also not forget the successful 1973 Norman Jewison movie which also starred Elliman and was filmed in Israel and other middle eastern locations. As different incarnations flourished around the world “Jesus Christ Superstar’s” place in the musical canon was assured. A Swedish production even saw a pre-Abba Agnetha Faltskog as Mary. That’s the blonde one folks!

But what of the music? It wouldn’t be fair of me to say it’s a personal favourite score of mine but, for the purposes of the shows plot, it all works brilliantly. From the slow build of the overture that leads into the questioning “Heaven On Their Minds”, via the heartfelt “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” until it reaches the crescendo that is “Superstar” itself, the shows score certainly contains all the energy, excitement and emotion that the plot requires. Focussing on subject matter that, in previous tellings was known as “The Passions” it is truly a passionate take on a story that we all know.

I think I grew up knowing the show’s title song, although the lyrics I knew as a child began “Jesus Christ Superstar went down the motorway on a Yamaha…” Yes, really! But seriously, by the time I was a teenager, far from being controversial, Rice and Lloyd Webber’s take on the gospels was considered an acceptable interpretation. I first got to know the musical when I saw the movie at school. It was one of those days that snow had descended so not many children, or teachers, had got in. So as the snow continued to fall we all sat in the hall and watched a video. I also remember that we sang “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” in the school choir. OK, so it’s about god technically but, given we also had to sing “I’m Just A Girl Who Cain’t Say No”, I think that the school choir had a lot to answer for!

So “Superstar” always fell into the category of shows that I liked elements of. I always liked “Could We Start Again Please” in the movie for instance, although it’s setting was very reminiscent of those early seventies “I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing” Coca-Cola ads. To “get” a musical fully I guess you really have to see it live. The 1996 revival at the Lyceum theatre finally gave me that opportunity. The energy of Zubin Varla’s Judas and Joanna Ampil’s sweet portrayal of Mary Magdalene would have been enough for anyone to fall in love with the show, but this production had a secret weapon. Steve Balsamo as Jesus. His performance of “Gethsemane” remains one of the most exciting and moving things I have ever seen on stage. His voice soared, and I appreciated the song in a way I never had before. I saw this production twice. First I was delighted to take my younger brother Joe. He must have been around fourteen at the time. Joe was really into cars (he is now a mechanic) and The Prodigy. The last kid you would expect to like musicals – or so you would think. The previous year I had taken him to see a couple of shows and he was overwhelmed. He absolutely fell in love with the theatre, and adored “Jesus Christ Superstar”. Watching the show he was palpably excited, he had no conception that a show could sound rocky and have electric guitars! So a few months later when my brother Adam, and stepmother Vina, came for a prolonged visit before moving to Mauritius I headed to the theatre for a second time.

All in all, the second visit was a somewhat surreal experience. On more than one level. It was a few days after the death of Princess Diana when we ventured to the Lyceum. As you may remember, the atmosphere at the time was incredible. The entire country seemed to be emotionally overwrought. It’s a strange thing, mystifying (sorry I couldn’t resist that quote!) but some of Tim Rice’s lyrics seemed to have parallels with everything that was going on at the time. We were being besieged by images of Diana’s “good works” and the many wonderful things she did for her various charities. To hear Judas, at the shows outset, sing “Heaven On Their Minds”, where he first questions what people are saying about Christ, really gave me pause for thought. These reflections echoed through the evening and I ended up viewing the show in an entirely different way. Naturally I am not attempting to compare Diana to Christ but it was certainly an example of theatre at its most thought provoking, albeit in a very unusual way.

Well, as I said, the surrealism was on more than one level. We were seated in what was called “The Tribune”. This was on stage seating, not dissimilar to an amphitheatre. From this position we witnessed that Mary Magdalene liked to pinch the guys bums and that, apparently, some of the disciples liked to wear CKOne. Also, disturbingly, we found ourselves sprinkled with Christ’s blood as one of the cast threw it around with gay abandon.

Whilst, personally, I will never be convinced that “Superstar” is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s greatest work (and neither should it be for such an early piece) it does contain some of what is Rice and Lloyd Webber at their best. Be it Tim Rice’s witty word play, the lovely “Everything’s Alright”, the vaudeville approach of “Herod’s Song” or the heartfelt and rousing “Gethsemane” it really does contain some amazing moments. Simply put, “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” is one of the greatest love songs in musical theatre, from any composer. What is beyond doubt is that the 1996 London production, for many reasons, remains one of my greatest theatrical experiences.

I suppose before I go I should apologise for sending Anthony up a little. He is not quite that bad. Honest. Ok, well maybe a little… The real truth is that when he talks about “Jesus Christ Superstar” he is passionate and isn’t that what the best theatre should be all about? To rouse passions? I think so!

There are a vast numbers of recordings of the show but my favourite would have to be the Lyceum version. The shows most oft recorded number is of course “I Don’t Know How To Love Him”. The Elaine Paige version on her “Stages” album is great and Petula Clark’s hit 1971 single used a very clever arrangement that incorporated elements of the shows title song. Rebecca Storm took a similar approach but her version has never been that easy to acquire. If you bought last years “Challenge Anneke” charity album “Over The Rainbow” you could listen to the gravel voiced Bonnie Tyler growling her way through it! She brings to it an, entirely appropriate, rock edge in a recording that has fast become a favourite of mine.

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