From the late 1950s to the mid 1960s, it was common for original cast recordings of successful Broadway musicals to find their way up near the top of the pop album charts. Hit shows like West Side Story, The Sound of Music and Funny Girl, among several others, all spun off million-selling albums during this era, but by the late 1960s, the pop album charts had been decisively taken over by rock. It was in this environment that a young British composer and his lyricist partner managed to achieve a massive success by precisely reversing the old formula. On October 27, 1970, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, who would go on to become the most successful composer-lyricist team in modern theater history, released a double-LP “concept” album called Jesus Christ Superstar, which only later would become the smash-hit Broadway musical of the same name.
Jesus Christ Superstar was the third musical written by Lloyd Webber and Rice, following on The Likes of Us, which was staged for the first time in 2005, and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, which saw only limited performances in various English churches between 1968 and 1970. Superstar grew out of Tim Rice’s longtime fascination with Judas Iscariot, whom he conceived not as a craven betrayer of Jesus, but rather as a dear friend struggling with the implications of Jesus’ growing celebrity. Although the musical would later find broad support among leaders of liberal Christian churches, it was nevertheless too controversial to gain the financial backing necessary for a stage production. Lloyd Webber and Rice therefore chose to package Superstar as an album first.
Working with a cast that included Murray Head—later of the pop hit “One Night In Bangkok” (1985)—in the role of Judas, and Yvonne Elliman—of the 1977 #1 hit “If I Can’t Have You”—as Mary Magdalene, Lloyd Webber and Rice recorded the Jesus Christ Superstar album in the summer of 1970 and released it in Britain and the United States the following fall.
Then as now, Lloyd Webber and Rice had their detractors in the critical establishment. Writing for The New York Times, critic Don Heckman questioned whether this new “rock opera” deserved praise either as rock or as an opera. “As rock, it leaves much to be desired,” he wrote. And in relation to 20th-century operas by the likes of Stravinsky and Gershwin, Heckman argued, “The comparison is pretty devastating.”
Nevertheless the Jesus Christ Superstar album spawned a Top 40 single in versions of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” by both Yvonne Elliman and Helen Reddy, and it shot all the way to the top of the Billboard album charts in early 1971, paving the way for a smash Broadway opening later that year.