How the Lyric Opera’s Production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ Made the Cover of ‘Life’ Magazine

Scene from “Jesus Christ Superstar 50th Anniversary Tour,” coming to the Kauffman Center, March 29 – April 3 (photos by Evan Zimmerman. Murphymade. © 2018. all rights reserved the Really Useful Group)

Picketers, legal jeopardy and a frantic rush to transcribe the music and lyrics from the original concept album all played a role in the dramatic story of the 1971 performance in Kansas City

“Life” magazine cover with a photo by David Douglas Duncan of Chris Brown in the role of Christ in the 1971 Lyric Opera of Kansas City production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” (collection of Sally Tourtellot Ruddy)

When the Kauffman Center presents eight performances of “Jesus Christ Superstar” from March 29 to April 3, many attendees may not know of a rather remarkable local version which took place months before the production premiered on Broadway 51 years ago. It is a story filled with as much drama as the rock opera itself, including picketers, legal jeopardy, a frantic rush to transcribe both the music and lyrics from the original concept album, and a “Life” magazine cover story on the Kansas City production two weeks after it occurred.

In 1971, the Lyric Opera decided to present two back-to-back performances of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in Municipal Auditorium as its major fundraiser. The American Rock Opera Company was to provide the talent, with Kansas City as one of the venues for the 177 performances it had booked across the country. But just days before the Lyric’s shows, with more than 8,000 tickets sold, the copyright holders brought suit, claiming that the performances were unauthorized and must be shut down. When an injunction was issued, the touring company backed out. Russell Patterson, the director of the Lyric, consulted with his board as well as their legal counsel, Landon Rowland, and the consensus was to persevere — find new talent, rehearse, and go on with the show.

The original music by Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber and lyrics by Tim Rice tell the story of the last week of Jesus’ life with an unexpected focus on Judas and his point of view. Initially, due to fears that the subject matter would lack commercial appeal or be considered blasphemous, Webber and Rice were unable to obtain financing to stage their musical, and in 1970, “Jesus Christ Superstar” was released as a concept album instead. Its subsequent enormous popularity with songs such as “Superstar” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” led to a Broadway opening Oct. 12, 1971.

But five months before that, on May 15, 1971, in Kansas City, singers and musicians, along with the Lyric Opera’s orchestra and chorus, appeared on stage without sets or costumes and twice performed what is known as a “concert version.” The events leading up to the performance made for a cliffhanger.

Sally Tourtellot (now Sally Tourtellot Ruddy), was then on the board of the Lyric and had been instrumental in suggesting JCS as a possible money-making endeavor. She had received the album as a gift from her son soon after it was released. She offered her farm in Lee’s Summit as a place where the singers and musicians could rehearse. Her barn also provided a safe refuge for out-of-town performers to stay, as there were concerns that lawyers from New York might appear at their hotel to intimidate them.

Patterson was able to book a Michigan-based rock band, The New Heavenly Blue, founded by Christopher Brubeck, the son of Dave Brubeck. While Patterson was successful in re-casting most of the singers, he had to draft two of the band members to sing the parts of Jesus and Judas. With their hippie-style long hair, band members Chris Brown and Steve Dudash looked perfectly cast for their roles.

JCS was the first professional gig for…Pat Metheny, who would go on to become a renowned jazz guitarist
and composer.

Lyric Opera director Russell Patterson and Nick Tourtellot, a student at the Conservatory who played one of the disciples in JCS, at work transcribing the score in the barn at Pine Lane farm where the singers and musicians rehearsed ( photo by David Douglas Duncan)

But now Patterson was desperate to find a bass guitar player to replace Brown, who would be singing the part of Jesus instead of playing with the band. When he told Ruddy about his dilemma, she suggested the son of a dear friend of hers as a fill-in for Brown. The reaction of Patterson and the other band members was a collective eye roll, but they agreed to an audition. Their skepticism only increased when the musician arrived, having been driven to the farm by his mother — who had promised he could skip his high school classes if hired. The teenager succeeded in dazzling everyone with his guitar playing and was hired immediately.

JCS was the first professional gig for the not-yet-able-to-drive Pat Metheny, who would go on to become a renowned jazz guitarist and composer. Metheny recalled a group photo that was taken of the performers. “In the middle of the shoot I was asked to step out of the shot because I didn’t look enough like a hippie, which was true. I was 15 with braces and short hair and definitely did not fit in with all these actual, true-to-life hippie dudes.”

Meanwhile, David Douglas Duncan, the photojournalist, who was a lifelong friend of Ruddy, was on his way to KC to visit family and friends. He sat next to Louis Sosland on his flight; Sosland, the Lyric board chair, told him about the rehearsals going on at the farm, when Duncan mentioned Ruddy was picking him up at the airport. Duncan was intrigued but was also apprehensive that the rock opera might seem sacrilegious. Ruddy encouraged him to listen to the music and read the libretto. He was impressed not only with the rock opera but the group of young people using a record player to familiarize themselves with the orchestration and lyrics.

Challenges, Pushback — and Success

Last page of the “Life” magazine story about the 1971 Lyric Opera of Kansas City production of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” with photos by David Douglas Duncan (collection of Sally Tourtellot Ruddy)

A major challenge faced by the Lyric was that the performers were not able to get the sheet music. While they were rehearsing, Patterson, Brubeck and Nick Tourtellot were elsewhere on the farm playing the album over and over as they transcribed the music. With only about 48 hours to rehearse, the first time the company was able to have a complete run-through happened to also be the first performance.

Duncan called his editor at “Life” magazine and pitched his JCS story, postponing his upcoming trip to Russia. Duncan was promised the cover, but only if there wasn’t major breaking news. His article was published May 28, 1971, with Chris Brown/Jesus on the cover. The additional seven pages of copy and photos included a photograph of Mayor Charles Wheeler and others giving a standing ovation at the show’s finale. Now 95, Wheeler still remembers the “joyous and uplifting” performance as well as the immense pride he felt for his hometown successfully presenting JCS.

Most of the reaction was positive. Ruddy recounted, “Before the start of the concert, David walked around checking camera angles from which to shoot. Meantime, I was standing guard over his camera case. The ‘Kansas City Star’ music critic, John Haskins, came up to me waving the concert program in my face. He said, ‘The performers listed on the program aren’t the same ones you announced when this whole thing started. Ticket holders should be entitled to ask for their money back. I’m going back to my desk to review this as a fraud.’

“I’m not much given to tears,” Ruddy added, “but I was tired and angry. David appeared to investigate, and I explained. David turned to Mr. Haskins saying, ‘Go ahead with that if you want to look like a damn fool. The story of this concert will get rave reviews in Life magazine as the lead cover story.’ Madeline Voiet, a Star reporter, had joined our group. I asked John Haskins to let Madeline Voiet write the review. She came to the rescue and gave a glowing report.”

There were also picketers outside the Municipal Auditorium; one held a sign saying “Father, Forgive Them.” However, after the first performance, they were invited in to see the second show, and many did.

Recently Tim Rice and Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber spoke to “The New York Times” about the show’s longevity and appeal. “Fifty-one years since the album came out . . . blimey!” Rice said.

“Everything I was doing was all instinct.” Lloyd Webber recalled. “Yes, I’d had some amateur productions, but we’d never had anything in the professional theater — and I don’t know whether that would have influenced us for good or bad.” He thought for a second. “Without sounding immodest” — he chuckled — “it’s actually rather good.”

The upcoming Kauffman Center production, part of the Kansas City Broadway Series, was originally staged in London at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, where it won the 2017 Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival and sold out in 2016 and 2017. Director Timothy Sheader and choreographer Drew McOnie have infused the now 51-year-old rock opera with new life; it will travel to more than 25 cities in its year-long North American tour in celebration of its recent half-century birthday.

The Kansas City Broadway Series presents “ Jesus Christ Superstar” at the Kauffman Center, March 29–April 3. For tickets, https://tickets.kauffmancenter.org

Nan Chisholm

Nan Chisholm is an art consultant and appraiser of 19th- and 20th-century paintings. After a long association with Sotheby’s, she founded her own business in 2003. She has appeared as a fine art appraiser on “Antiques Roadshow” since its inception in 1995.

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