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''Jesus Christ Superstar'' rocked the stage

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Was Jesus bigger than the Beatles? It certainly seemed so on July 12, 1971, as 13,000 fans packed Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena to see Jesus in concert. Jesus, that is, as played by 21-year-old Jeff Fenholt, who shared the groovily pan-cultural spotlight with a black, beautiful Carl Anderson as Judas and the Hawaii-born Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene.

The visitation was the first ”authorized” enactment of Jesus Christ Superstar, adapted from the LP that had rushed in where the Who’s messianic 1969 rock opera Tommy dared to tread. Superstar reinvented ”J.C.” as the ultimate hippie rebel and became 1971’s No. 1 album, selling more than 2 million copies in 12 months.

The no-name Brits behind all the hubbub, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, 23, and lyricist Tim Rice, 26, could barely grasp their messiah’s stature. ”In England it was a dud, but I’ve come to realize that in America it was like Sgt. Pepper,” says Rice. ”For six months, it really was the album everybody knew.”

Rice and Lloyd Webber had spent months finding a record company willing to finance the album, having abandoned their initial, far more expensive dream: a Superstar stage musical. But that was before scores of lucrative, unlicensed U.S. concert productions sprang up and ”forced us to put on our own versions,” says Rice. In October 1971, the team’s dream came true. Superstar was reborn as a garish Broadway hit in the face of ecumenical controversy: Jewish groups claimed its nasty portrayal of Jerusalem’s high priests would encourage anti-Semitism, while Rev. Billy Graham decried the show’s conception of Jesus as a mortal with delusions of divinity.

”What the people up in arms failed to look at,” says Ben Vereen, who played Judas on Broadway at 24, ”is that as long as people were rockin’ to Jesus, everything was gonna be all right for humanity.” Things were all right for instant millionaires Lloyd Webber and Rice as well, who later resurrected their 1968 Bible-inspired work, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Their Evita debuted in London in 1978; since then, they have separately created words and melodies of staggering popularity (Rice cowriting songs for The Lion King, Lloyd Webber creating Cats and Phantom of the Opera and becoming a peer of the realm to boot, with a fortune of some $1.15 billion).

Superstar‘s musical-theater versions alone have grossed in excess of $150 million worldwide, but the concerts, says Rice, have proved even more lucrative. As one of Superstar‘s priests puts it to Judas when he’s offered 30 pieces of silver to betray Christ, those are ”pretty good wages for one little kiss.”

Time Capsule: July 12, 1971

Carole King landed a one-two punch with ”It’s Too Late” and ”I Feel the Earth Move”; Shaft scored at the box office; Dee Brown’s Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee was a must-read; and the prognosis was good for Marcus Welby, M.D.

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