The first authorized live performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” was unlike the public debut of any other musical; it was a 1971 rock concert that took place in front of 13,000 people at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena.
After being unable to get the backing for a stage production, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice released “Jesus Christ Superstar” as an album musical, with Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan performing the titular role. The success of the concert album led to unauthorized live performances of the album taking place all over America, including Richmond. Court injunctions were obtained to close these shows.
Shortly after the Pittsburgh performance, “Jesus Christ Superstar” debuted on Broadway, then the West End, where it ran for more than eight years. Based loosely on the Gospels’ account of Jesus’ last days, the musical has been revived multiple times, adapted for film twice and performed as a live televised concert starring John Legend, Sara Bareilles and Alice Cooper.
At times, the show has courted controversy, with some religious groups stating that its interpretation of Judas is too sympathetic and that his criticisms of Jesus are blasphemous. Some Jewish groups have also criticized the show for reinforcing the view that Jewish people were responsible for the death of Jesus.
Now this sung-through rock opera’s 50th anniversary production is coming to the Altria Theater as part of the Broadway in Richmond series. In the tour, Mary Magdalene is portrayed by Jenna Rubaii, who was first introduced to the album of “Jesus Christ Superstar” as a child growing up in Clearwater, Florida.
“My dad is a huge fan of the musical,” says Rubaii. “I remember hearing ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ when I was a little kid.”
Her first theatrical experience also has a note of serendipity. When the Broadway tour of Lloyd Webber and Rice’s earlier biblical musical “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” came through Florida when Rubaii was a child, she was cast as a member of the chorus. After graduating from the University of Miami, Rubaii was cast in the national and international tour of the Green Day musical “American Idiot,” originated the role of Joelle in the Broadway production of “Groundhog Day” and was in the international tour cast of “Saturday Night Fever.”
For longtime fans of “Jesus Christ Superstar, Rubaii says the show will be different from previous productions they may have seen. This version aims to give the feeling of attending a rock concert with a live band onstage and actors playing musical instruments; Jesus Christ will play the guitar.
“It’s really raw. It’s in your face. It’s a very human version of the story, and we really focus on the music. …The root of this production is the original brown album. Expect that incredible music [and] lush orchestration,” Rubaii says. “Our production is a fusion of a rock concert, a passion play, a light show [and] a dance concert. It’s really a visual and sonic feast.”
In playing Mary Magdalene, Rubaii says her interpretation is less that she was a fallen woman who was saved by Christ, but instead a woman devoted to Jesus’ teachings. Accordingly, her version of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” isn’t a love ballad as much as a “discovery of her faith and what it’s like to feel that love from within.”
Broadly, Rubaii says the show’ aims to bring the figures of the Bible back down to Earth.
“Come see something that has stood 50 years strong,” Rubaii says. “The music is some of the greatest music of all time. It is fast paced, 90 minutes, no intermission. [And] it is some of the best singing I’ve heard in a really long time.”
Broadway in Richmond’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” plays June 21-26 at the Altria Theater, 6 N. Laurel St. For more information, visit broadwayinrichmond.com or call (804) 592-3368.