12th October 1971 should have been the happiest night of my life. I was 23 years old and a fairy tale was about to come true. An unknown British young man was to have his first musical premiered on Broadway. Jesus Christ Superstar was to open on the very same stage as My Fair Lady had played only a decade and a half before.
I shall never forget the saga of Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway. Never in my opinion was so wrong a production mounted of my work. Even though this brash and vulgar interpretation was quite leniently dealt with by the critics at the time, the public saw through it. The biggest selling double album of all time ran in its first theatre incarnation a mere 20 months.
Throughout its entire preview period I was never allowed to rehearse the orchestra. Looking back 25 years later, I suppose there were pluses. Because the production was so awful, no production of Superstar in the rest of the world was the same, so I had a baptism of fire by a kaleidoscopic gaggle of directors.
Most important, I resolved that night that when I got my first opportunity I would start my own production company. It’s an irony that I’m working with Hal Prince at the moment on the other side of the pond on Whistle Down the Wind whilst Gale Edwards has been creating her production of Superstar here at the Lyceum. For it was Gale who staged Whistle Down the Wind at my annual Sydmonton Festival and as a consequence the project was hijacked from the cinema to the theatre and Hal always wanted to direct Superstar.
Back in 1970, whilst Tim Rice and I were in New York, Hal Prince sent a telegram to my parents’s flat saying he wanted to direct and produce Superstar. I only got it after we had signed the rights away. It read “I am the producer of West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof and Cabaret. Please advise re. rights of Jesus Christ Superstar“. They were gone. I could have cried. I had two idols, Hal and Richard Rodgers. I still wonder how my career would have been perceived in those early days if he had directed it rather than my theatrical debut being allowed to be turned into a mountain of kitsch that looked like a monument to a demented pastry chef.
I am writing these brochure notes having seen Gale Edwards’s production in preview. She has listened to everything I told her. I introduced her to John Napier and we had a thrilling evening discussing which painting we felt might be closest to a new production of the piece. We unanimously came down on Holbein’s astonishing, timeless and horrifying The Dead Christ in the Tomb in the Kunstmuseum Basel, Switzerland.
We also felt that even if the idea of a “rock opera” sounds like a late 1960’s timewarp, I should not change any of the music. In fact the only change is in the orchestration of the final scene because I felt, in preview, that it had to be stripped to its bare bones.
I am immensely proud of Gale Edwards and what she has achieved with her virtually unknown cast. She spent a year auditioning over 1,200 actors to arrive at the performers you see and hear tonight.
Warts and all, it’s wonderful for me to see the old baby directed and produced in the manner that I had hoped would have marked my Broadway debut.
Andrew Lloyd Webber
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