'Jesus Christ Superstar' finds new disciples - four decades on


FORTY-ONE years ago this month, young tyros Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice unveiled their first stage production, Jesus Christ Superstar, on Broadway.

A year later, it opened in the West End, and the great composer Shostakovich was so impressed, he went back for second helpings. Now, the musical is back on a 40th anniversary UK tour which, to the delight of Irish fans, also takes in two Dublin dates at the O2. Directed by Laurence Connor, this is a JC Superstar for the X-Factor generation – in fact, Ben Forster, who plays Jesus, was chosen via an ITV reality show, Superstar.

But the main focus is on Tim Minchin, the British-Australian musical comedian who plays the pivotal role of Judas, through whose jaundiced eyes we witness the final week in the earthly life of Jesus of Nazareth. It’s an all-singing, all-strutting, all-modern extravaganza, with the music’s rockier elements turned up to 11, and not a flowing robe in sight, the actors going for a more rasta-punk-grunge look, with loose shirts, T-shirts, leathers, greatcoats, Mohawks and dreadlocks.

The tunes sound fresher than ever. It’s great to hear songs such as Heaven on Their Minds, What’s the Buzz?, King Herod’s Song (sung by DJ Chris Moyles as Herod) and I Don’t Know How to Love Him (sung by Melanie Chisholm from The Spice Girls in the role of Mary Magdalene) and get swept away by the kinetic energy of it all.

The set and props are redolent of the Occupy movement, as Jesus’s disciples set up their tents in the shadow of a cold, grey office building, while Judas looks on in horror at the unstoppable people-power. A banner proclaiming “Follow The Twelve” hangs from one of the upper floors and Twitter feeds roll onscreen as followers are crowdsourced to converge on Jerusalem. The duelling vocals of Forster and Minchin’s Jesus and Judas are counterbalanced by Mel C’s mellifluous reading of Mary Magdalene.

Meanwhile, the council of Pharisees, watch the disciples on a version of YouTube and discuss how to deal with this new threat. Highlights come thick and fast: Tim Minchin putting anger, power and despair into his final moments, and Ben Forster searching his soul in the Garden of Gethsemane – a show-stopping performance.

It’s to the production’s credit that, 40 years after its West End debut, Jesus Christ Superstar has found a new platform to get its message across.