Rent. The Who’s Tommy. Spring Awakening. American Idiot. These musicals all owe a debt to Jesus Christ Superstar—considered the first rock opera. A musical about the last seven days in the life of Jesus of Nazareth was a risky undertaking in 1971—in some ways it still is—but 40 years later, it remains a popular musical around the world.
Jesus Christ Superstar, the first musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice to be produced for the professional stage, began life as the single “Superstar” recorded by actor/singer Murray Head and released in 1969. “MCA then commissioned a full album and Tim and Andrew booked themselves into a hotel and completed the full score in five days,” says Mark Fox, advertising manager and marketing coordinator for Andrew Lloyd Webber’s entertainment company, The Really Useful Group. The double album, with Ian Gillan, lead singer of the band Deep Purple, as Jesus, was released in October 1970. The album had such a following in the United States that unauthorized concerts started to pop up. In Pittsburgh in July 1971, the first authorized live concert of Jesus Christ Superstar was performed to a crowd of 13,000. The musical opened on Broadway on October 12, 1971 at the Mark Hellinger Theatre (now the Times Square Church). Lloyd Webber was only 23 at the time. The London production opened on August 9, 1972.
The religious subject matter did lead to controversy and protests, but that didn’t keep the fans away. The reason for the musical’s appeal? “I can only give a personal opinion. It is told in an accessible way for all ages and creeds,” says Fox. “As a piece of musical theater, it was completely original and featured amazing rock anthems and incredibly clever lyrics which have proven themselves to be timeless where other rock operas have dated.” At the time of closing, it was the longest-running musical in West End history, with 3,358 performances. In its 40-year history, it has been performed in Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Kenya, Malta, Mauritius, Mexico, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Singapore, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Trinidad, Uruguay, Yugoslavia, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and of course, all over the United States.
For all those productions, a performance license had to be acquired. Per copyright law, one can’t just go to the library and photocopy a score, so a license is required to stage any musical. “When the authors (or rights holders) decide to release a new play or musical to the secondary licensing market is decided on a per-case basis. There is no hard-and-fast rule,” says Bert Fink, senior vice president of communications for R&H Theatricals, part of Rodgers & Hammerstein: An Imagem Company founded by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. The Really Useful Group handles licensing rights for Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals in the UK and most of the world, but since 2001 in the United States, Mexico and Canada, R&H Theatricals is the exclusive representative of the Lloyd Webber musicals in the secondary market. Those are Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Aspects of Love, By Jeeves, Song & Dance, The Phantom of the Opera and Sunset Boulevard. In June of 2010, R&H announced that Phantom of the Opera would be available to high schools and colleges (it is rare for titles to be released to the secondary market until a production has run its course on Broadway and national tours). “Our job is to be the liaison between the customer and the client. And the customer is that high school or that community theater that wants to put on musical x and the client is the author or authors of that musical,” says Fink.
Fink suspects that Lloyd Webber’s decision to give the rights to R&H was not only a business decision, but a personal one. As a 13-year-old, he sent his idol Richard Rodgers a fan letter. Rodgers invited him to a dress rehearsal and the opening of The Sound of Music at the Palace. Incidentally, Lloyd Webber now owns that theater and produced a record-breaking revival of The Sound of Music there. R&H Theatricals licenses stage performances of over 100 musicals to the secondary market. That is community theaters, summer stock theaters, dinner theaters, high schools, junior highs, religious institutions—basically everything but Broadway production or a tour of a Broadway production. For example, Stratford Shakespeare Festival worked with R&H to put on a production of Jesus Christ Superstar directed by Des McAnuff. Now that the show is Broadway-bound, R&H is no longer affiliated with it (though Fink stresses that they were proud to be a part of it and happily send it off to Broadway). A school interested in staging Jesus Christ Superstar must fill out an application which affirms that the auditorium has a certain number of seats, that ticket prices will be set at a certain amount, that the show will last a certain number of performances, and that the show will be performed as written to protect the rights of the authors. “That’s the role that we play, working with everybody so the customers can do the musical that they want to do following the contract that the authors have stipulated in terms of the material,” says Fink. “Particularly on the amateur level and on the high school level we can almost always say yes. The rights holders give us that prerogative, so we can say to high school x here are the rights to do Jesus Christ Superstar,” Fink says. A royalty is worked out and if the school agrees, they make a deposit and are sent the script and the score. After the production, the materials are returned and the royalty is sent to R&H.
Of the two Andrew Lloyd Webber biblical musicals, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat is more frequently performed, but Jesus Christ Superstar does very well. “I have seen high school versions of Superstar which have really impressed me because it’s a very sophisticated rock score and I’ve been very impressed by the students who have taken it on,” says Fink. “We hold the amateurs to the same high standards and they always meet it,” Fink says. “Because Jesus Christ Superstar doesn’t require certain Broadway scale scenic elements or what have you, as long as you’re not changing the lyrics or changing the score or changing the story, as long as you’re following what Lloyd Webber and Rice intended in their material, you are doing the same script and score that will be done on Broadway this spring.”