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So, I'll admit, I love Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar. I've seen it many times, and I've often tried to compare the 1973 and 1999 versions. Grant you, the acting is a heck of a lot less corny in the later version, but I'm struck by one major difference between the two.

In both versions, the climax of the film is Jesus being crucified. The last words spoken in each are from Jesus, from the cross. But after that, there's a huge difference.

In the 1973, let's film it in Israel version, the musical ends by the cast and crew getting in the bus, but all of them intently watching a sunrise. A wordless song is played, but it is fairly easy to interpret this as an artistic decision to simply allow for the fact of the resurrection, but due to its ineffability, leaving the fact without comment.

In contrast, the 1999 remake affords no such reflection. The cross is raised up, and the scene directly ends into the title and the credits. While there is music, the ending is very definately at the last breath on the cross.

The question I have then is this - is there any record of the theology of the two producers that would validate this hypothesis? Are either Norman Jewison (1973 director), Gale Edwards (1999 remake director), or Andrew Lloyd Webber himself on record as having discussed the motivation behind this crucial change?

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I didn't know there was a 1999 version and I've never seen it. But the 1973 version never mentioned the resurrection. We saw Jesus crucified, then the big finale song number, then the cast gets on the bus looking thoughtful and drives away. I always took it as a very pointedly open-ended ending. The finale clearly asks if Jesus is really God or what. I always assumed they left out the resurrection because they don't want to say there was one. They want to leave it as an open question. Most of my Christian friends saw JCS as anti-Christian because it ignored everything from the Bible ... –  Jay Sep 24 '12 at 3:46
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... that could be considered definitive: the resurrection, the healings and other miracles (note the only miracle we see is one weak example of foreknowledge), fulfilled prophecy, etc. Personally I saw it as expressing the view of someone who doesn't know who Jesus really was and is seeking answers. –  Jay Sep 24 '12 at 3:48
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FWIW, the stage version also ends with the Crucifixion, which I thought was pretty weird and completely missing the point (though I also loved the musical). The soundtrack ends with a title called John 19:41 - the burial. –  Wikis Sep 24 '12 at 14:22
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@TRiG: I'm not trying to pick a fight. But without that, our faith is useless. –  Wikis Sep 24 '12 at 18:18
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I see what you did there pun master: "...this crucial change..." indeed. –  Caleb Sep 25 '12 at 8:14

1 Answer 1

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The original concept album (on which the stage and film versions are based) was deliberately ambiguous about whether Jesus was, in fact, anything other than a man. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice came to the Gospel text with a humanistic premise.

"We approached the opera from the point of view of Christ the man, rather than Christ the God," Rice noted. "We had been well-coached in the mechanics of Christianity and its legends and beliefs. That was drummed into us at school. They treated the legends, so we decided to treat the bloke as a man. We read the gospels very carefully and that was it. What we did not read was eighty-three other people's interpretations of Christ because we didn't want to be affected by their views. We stuck to the text and our interpretation of what we think could have happened." [...] "We tried to humanize Christ, because, for me, I find Jesus as portrayed in the gospels as a God as a very unrealistic figure." 1

"We were basically trying to tell the story of Christ as a man," says Tim Rice. 2

Note that the title song Superstar, in which Judas questions Jesus about his actions and motives, was the first one to be written: the rest of the opera is built around it. That certainly comes through in the way that the two creators talk about the work - it's all about that central accusation.

Rice and Lloyd Webber could not agree about how to handle the resurrection:

Webber has been quoted as saying that he and Rice had arguments, "long arguments, in fact, about the basis of the opera and how it should be treated. We had to decide which events in the life of Jesus we were going to write about - and this was the most difficult area of all in which to find agreement. Eventually we chose the last seven days of His life. Even now, I don't go along with some of the things that Tim has written in the opera. The lyrics are extremely good for any composer to work with, but I don't necessarily agree with all of them. I would have liked to have included the resurrection, but it just wouldn't have been worthwhile. We disagree too much about it." 1

Accordingly, the ending of the opera was deliberately made to be open to multiple interpretations, which might be brought out differently in various stage or film versions. For example, regarding the 1971 Broadway production, Rice said:

"I think O'Horgan's production hints more strongly at the resurrection than the record does. The reaction of the crowd below [the cross] - going from hysteria to chaos to a beautiful sort of peace. O'Horgan is saying, 'This is not the end.'" 1

The fact that the stage version will invariably end with Jesus coming back for a curtain call - effectively a resurrection! - also changes the way in which the story is perceived, compared to a film adaptation.

For the 1973 film, director Norman Jewison broke with the two original creators, who had a different opinion about how the movie should be approached. The fact that his film does allow space for a resurrection may spring from his slightly different take on the original text, and the context in which it was made. His idea was to present the events on a human scale (no huge crowds), blurring temporal lines (neither modern dress nor period authenticity) so as to suggest parallels between attitudes then and now. He was also conscious of the possibility of religious offense, especially given that the picture was being filmed in Israel (actually at the same time as the massacre at the Munich Olympics) and previous versions of Superstar had been heavily criticized for anti-Semitism. All of this may lead to a slightly more sympathetic and open-ended view of the story, compared to the accusatory tone of the original libretto. 1

The Gale Edwards version (originally also a stage production in 1996) was made partly because Lloyd Webber himself was dissatisfied with the 1970s productions, and wanted to stage a show that was more true to his own image of what the opera text was about.3 By this time, he had a lot more clout than he did in the early 70s, when he was unable to stop the Broadway and film directors from doing their own thing. 1 Whereas the original album was a compromise between Lloyd Webber (agnostic) and Tim Rice (self-described as "slightly religious"), this version is a purer strain of Lloyd Webber. He is probably not making a particular theological point so much as a dramatic one, thinking the spectacle and the experience would be improved by presenting it in this way.3 A sudden stop is not necessarily saying that there is no more to the story, but it does perhaps startle the audience into thinking about it in a way that a tidier ending might not.

I did not find any direct reference from Jewison or Edwards about their artistic choices, but I do think that what they did was fairly subtle, within the range of interpretations supported by the ambiguous opera text. Essentially, being true to the original vision of what the opera is about means not coming down too firmly on one side or the other. That said, some productions - particularly those sponsored by churches - have added an explicit resurrection scene or song at the end, which certainly counts as making a theological point. 1

1. Rock Opera: the creation of Jesus Christ Superstar from record album to Broadway show and motion picture. Ellis Nassour and Richard Broderick. Hawthorn Books, 1973.
2. Life magazine. May 28, 1971.
3. Billboard magazine. Oct 19, 1996.

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Wow!!!! Spot on awesome answer. As soon as a bounty is allowable, expect some love comin' your way... –  Affable Geek Sep 25 '12 at 20:30
    
Thanks! It's all due to the fact that my library happened to acquire the Nassour book back in 1973, and kept it safe all this years. –  James T Sep 25 '12 at 22:44
    
Saw this musical (for the first time!) done by a local amateur group the other week. Mary Magdalene was the last character to leave the stage. (She was also, undoubtedly, the star of the show, with the best stage presence by far.) For the curtain call, she, Jesus, and Judas held hands and bowed together. –  TRiG Apr 24 at 23:17

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