Surflight Theatre’s second mainstage production this summer is “Jesus Christ Superstar,” to be performed through July 15. “Superstar” is the Muhammad Ali of musical theater, now beloved but originally disliked by many and even hated by some. It launched the careers of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice when it opened on Broadway on Oct. 12, 1971. But it was a perilous journey to the Mark Hellinger Theatre.
The show began as an album with the same name, released in 1970. It wasn’t successful in Great Britain. The BBC originally banned its airplay, calling it sacrilegious. Besides, an album based on the last week of Christ’s life didn’t catch on in a country with few churchgoers, struggling to reach number 23 on the British charts.
It was a totally different story when it was released in the United States, rocketing to the top of the Billboard pop album charts and ending up as the best-selling pop album of 1971. So it was quickly developed into a Broadway show.
It was controversial, with some Christians considering it blasphemous while some Jews were angered by its portrayal of most of its villains as Jewish. Interestingly, it was banned in South Africa for being irreligious, but also in then Communist-controlled Hungary for being religious propaganda.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” ran for 711 Broadway performances. But it received only mixed reviews, with Clive Barnes of The New York Times writing years later, “I hugely objected to the original New York production, which was probably the worst night of my life. It was a vulgar travesty.”
Of course it was a rock opera, and back in 1971 that was still a tricky thing for critics to deal with. Two years earlier, “Hair” had been nominated for only two Tony Awards, winning none.
The Tony Awards voters didn’t reward “Jesus Christ Superstar,” either. It was nominated for just five awards and didn’t win any. “Superstar” didn’t even earn a Best Musical nomination, being beaten out, understandably, by Stephen Sondheim’s “Follies” and “Grease,” but also by Melvin Van Peebles’ “Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death” and the eventual winner, “Two Gentlemen of Verona.” When was the last time you heard of those last two being produced?
Ah, but he who laughs last laughs best. “Superstar” has had three Broadway revivals (“Grease” and “Follies” have had only two each), in 1977, 2000 and 2012. There were also two West End productions, four U.S. tours, six UK tours, two Australian tours and two film versions.
The ongoing popularity of the show rests mainly on its score, with songs such as “Everything’s Alright,” “Gethsemane,” “Superstar” and, of course, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” You’re almost sure to be leaving the theater humming one or two.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” will be performed at 8 p.m. on June 26, 27, 28, 29 and 30 and July 2, 3, 5, 6, 7, 10, 11, 12, 13 and 14. Matinee performances at 2 p.m. are set for June 28 and July 1, 3, 8, 10 and 15. Tickets are $39 for adults and $29 for children younger than 13. They may be purchased online at surflight.org, by phone at 609-492-9477 or at the box office, located at 201 Engleside Ave., Beach Haven.