It’s practically a miracle that Jesus Christ Superstar Live! will air on NBC Easter Sunday evening, because when authors Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber first wrote it in 1970 — inspired by Bob Dylan’s lyric, “Did Judas Iscariot have God on his side?” — every stage producer in London considered it the worst idea in history.
Instead, it became Broadway's biggest moneymaker before it even opened, scoring the largest advance sales in history: $1.2 million (about $7.4 million in today's dollars). Recently Hamilton set a $57 million advance-sales record, but Jesus Christ Superstar helped make such phenomenal successes possible. Performed in over 40 countries, JCS is often revived worldwide, especially at Easter. The Olivier Award-winning London revival closed in September, a Vienna production just began, and another opens in Chicago in April.
But success sure wasn't certain at the turn of the 1970s, when the only rock operas were Hair, by then passé, and the Who's Tommy, which was thought to exist only on LP record. (Actually, the Seattle Opera did the first stage version of Tommy in April 1971, starring Steve Curry, the guy on the Hair album cover, and a then-unknown singer named Bette Midler.) So the composers gave up on the idea of a stage production and released Jesus Christ Superstar as a record in England, where it tanked. In America, however, it was a different story. The album shot to No. 1 on Billboard's chart, producing two different hit versions of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” by Yvonne Elliman and Helen Reddy.
Sunday's TV production will have many more viewers than the original Broadway production with Ben Vereen and Elliman — 18.5 million watched 2013's The Sound of Music Live! — and arguably NBC'S big-name cast (John Legend as Jesus, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene and Alice Cooper as Herod) will outshine the original cast album musicians (Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan, Elliman and Manfred Mann’s Mike d’Abo, backed by Joe Cocker’s band).
Whether Jesus Christ Superstar Live! will do Sound of Music numbers remains to be seen (Fox's A Christmas Story Live! scored just 4.5 million viewers), but it may get a boost from this month’s big trend: Christian entertainment. The music-based Christian film I Can Only Imagine is the dark-horse hit of the spring, earning $40 million on a $7 million budget, with zero publicity outside church circles. And Paul, Apostle of Christ and God’s Not Dead 3 are also in theaters for Easter.
Critics often predict disaster for these high-risk shows, which preserve embarrassing moments and flat notes forever. But perhaps because of the dramatic power of famous people in public peril, viewer appetite for them isn’t going away. One of the most eagerly anticipated television events for 2019 is Rent Live on Fox in January.