Jesus Christ Superstar - An Australian Cast Recording, Live at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney, December 1973
Here are my liner notes for the new release on Aztec Records, Jesus Christ Superstar An Australian Cast Recording, Live at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney, December 1973.
Kudos and thanks to Executive Producers Coralea Cameron and Gil Matthews for seeing this through, and to Peter Chambers for recording the show in the first place.
Dedicated in Memoriam to Jon English (died 9 March 2016), Michelle Fawdon (died 23 May 2011), Stevie Wright (died 27 December 2015), Rory O’Donoghue (died 13 December 2017), Peter North (died 5 November 2005) and Wayne Matthews. R.I.P.
You can purchase this CD at www.aztecrecords.com.au
Jesus Christ Superstar
By Ian McFarlane © 2018
It’s remarkable to consider that in the 46 years since the debut of the original Australian stage production of Jesus Christ Superstar, there has never been a recording released of the actual live Australian stage show from that time. It was one of the most significant events in Australian theatre, and surely it deserves to be presented for audio gratification before the memories fade from the minds and hearts of those who saw it in the first place.
The wait is finally over, and Aztec Records now delivers, on double CD, a stirring performance from December 1973 that captures the show in all its glory. Let’s explore the story of the local production of Jesus Christ Superstar, but firstly, by way of introduction, it’s worth considering some musical, social and cultural background.
Heaven On Their Minds...
Among the prevalence for progressive rock and the emergence of heavy metal and glam rock, the early 1970s could be viewed as the era of God Rock or Jesus Rock.
As the enlightened 1960s, a decade of radical social change, was coming to an end, various distressing events had unfolded that led to strong sentiment the devil’s work was bringing the civilised world to the brink of collapse: the escalation of the Vietnam War which led to considerable anti-war sentiment and numerous Moratorium marches and demonstrations; the presence of the Manson family and their part in the subsequent Tate/LaBianca murders; the murder of Meredith Hunter at the hands of the Hells Angels during The Rolling Stones’ fateful Altamont free concert, later depicted in the Maysles brothers’ documentary Gimme Shelter, etc.
Pushed by these disturbing events and social change in general, the counter-culture movement was on the rise. Young people had been openly questioning the established order – everything from the government, the war mongers and religious institutions down. Time magazine had even posed the questions “Is God Dead?” (on a 1966 front cover), and “Is God Coming Back to Life?” (December 1969), which led to some factions within the Church striving to come up with an antidote to the problem. A subsequent Time cover image (June 1971) declared the era of “The Jesus Revolution”.
Young people, in particular, were encouraged to turn to Jesus Christ for guidance and answers. Churches around the world were opening their doors to the staging of the Rock Mass, whereby electric instruments and a rock backing were melded with the standard liturgy of Christian worship. Various Jesus Festivals were staged in the US, perhaps in emulation of the famous rock festivals such as Monterey Pop, Woodstock Music & Art Fair, or Atlanta International Pop, but with a religious focus. Anything to keep the youth of the day engaged with the Almighty.
The arts and entertainment world even got in the act. The first and foremost manifestation of this was Jesus Christ Superstar, the original rock opera written by Andrew Lloyd Webber (music) and Tim Rice (lyrics), which told the story of the final week in the life of Jesus Christ through the troubled eyes of Judas Iscariot.
Lloyd Webber and Rice had first met in 1965. Lloyd Webber came from a very musical family and had studied at the Royal College of Music. Rice was just starting his career as a producer with EMI and later the Norrie Paramour Organisation. Their first successful pop stage show was the 1968 production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, based on the story of Joseph from the Holy Bible’s Book of Genesis. In 1969 they hit upon the idea for Jesus Christ Superstar, taking a year to write and record the music.
It wasn’t a particularly radical approach, as some nay-sayers would have it. As Lloyd Webber and Rice said at the time, they were simply fascinated with the incredible drama of the Christ legend. “Basically, the idea of the whole opera is to have Christ seen through the eyes of Judas, with Christ as a man, not a god. Our intention was to take no religious stand on our subject matter at all but rather to ask questions.” So they weren’t in the habit of providing answers, they were just suggesting that young people should continue to ask the hard questions.
The initial British recording featured Ian Gillan, from Deep Purple, as Jesus Christ, Murray Head as Judas, and Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene. Jesus Christ Superstar – A Rock Opera (Original UK Cast Recording) was a great success (Top 10 in the UK) and the stage show opened for a long running Broadway season in New York.
Godspell, written by Stephen Schwartz, was another successful stage musical and soundtrack album, this time a modern day recreation of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. Both JCS and Godspell were subsequently made into Hollywood movie musicals in 1973. Call it exploitation if you will, but people need entertainment, and by any measure these were successful ventures.
What’s The Buzz...
Here in Australia, the Jesus Rock buzz took hold as well. Entrepreneur/producers Harry M. Miller and Robert Stigwood (former managing director of Brian Epstein’s NEMS Enterprise and head of his own Robert Stigwood Organisation which oversaw the work of the Bee Gees) were quick off the mark. Along with stage director Jim Sharman and musical director Patrick Flynn, they got the first local production of JCS underway. Miller, Sharman and Flynn had already staged a successful run of the American Tribal Love-Rock musical Hair, with Tully as the stage band.
Sharman had studied at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) and emerged during the 1960s as a gifted and radical director on the Sydney theatre scene determined to depose traditional stagecraft. Following his JCS tenure, Sharman directed the original Sydney stage production of Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show (also produced by Miller), after which he went to London where he directed the cult film favourite The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Following extensive auditions held around the country during late 1971, Trevor White (Jesus), Jon English (Judas), Michele Fawdon (Mary Magdalene), Robin Ramsay (Pontius Pilate), Peter North (Chiaphas), John Young (Annas), Joseph Dicker (King Herod), Stevie Wright (Simon Zealotes), Rory O’Donoghue (Peter), Michael Caton (Priest) and Tom Dysart (Priest) were selected as the principal players. Numerous other actor/singers were picked to be various Apostles, Zealotes, Lepers, Soldiers, Reporters and Court members.
White had come to Australia as lead singer/pianist with English band Sounds Incorporated. He hadn’t been onboard for the band’s most successful early phase, having joined in 1968 but the group was still touring. They broke up in 1971, in Perth WA, following an Australian tour. White was just about to return to the UK but found his feet quickly in Sydney with JCS.
Jon English had been singing in local bands since the mid-1960s (Zenith and the original version of Sebastian Hardie) but had yet to make a mark as a solo performer. He’d gone to one of the Sunday auditions in Sydney but then had to take an extended morning tea break, from his job as an accountant, in order to attend call back. He’d been aiming for a lead part but expected he might land a role as one of the Apostles or in the Chorus, so was exalted when offered the part of Judas. English was on-stage for the entire performance which took a lot of energy and stamina. He remained with the original production for a lengthy and successful run (705 performances between May 1972 and February 1974), then returned for the 1975-76 season.
Of course, English went on to emerge as one of Australia’s best loved solo performers with numerous hit singles including ‘Turn the Page’, ‘Hollywood Seven’, ‘Behind Blue Eyes’, ‘Words are Not Enough’ and ‘Six Ribbons’. From 1984 onwards he took leading roles in many other stage productions, such as The Pirates of Penzance, Rasputin, The Mikado and H.M.S. Pinafore. The versatile performer also starred in the acclaimed television mini-series Against the Wind (1979) in the role of convict Jonathan Garrett, and the popular television comedy series All Together Now (1991-93), playing the part of absent-minded, washed-up rock star Bobby Rivers.
Michele Fawdon had acted with the Sydney Ensemble Theatre and the Old Tote Company and made several television appearances in shows such as Matlock and You Can’t See Around Corners.
John Young had sung with Sydney suburban dance band Elm Tree and was doing a sheet metal apprenticeship in a government factory. He’d also just signed to Albert Productions and issued his debut single, ‘Pasadena’, on his way to becoming Countdown favourite John Paul Young with the hits ‘Yesterday’s Hero’, ‘I Hate the Music’, ‘Standing in the Rain’ and ‘Love is in the Air’. It’s a little known fact that, in 1971, Young had taken part in a stage musical called Jesus Revolution which was apparently so bad it had closed down after only a couple of performances.
Stevie Wright had been lead singer with the legendary Australian sixties band The Easybeats but had struggled subsequently to get his solo career off the ground. Following his JCS run he scored his greatest hits with the Vanda & Young written and produced classics ‘Evie (Parts 1, 2 and 3)’ and ‘Guitar Band’.
Rory O’Donoghue had played in bands since his teenage years (singer/guitarist with The Pogs and Oakapple Day). He went on to forge his most famous role as Thin Arthur, the laconic, philosophising straight man to Grahame Bond’s outrageous, 300 pound, Harley Davidson riding protagonist Aunty Jack in the successful ABC-TV comedy The Aunty Jack Show. He continued to perform, often in tandem with Bond.
It’s worth mentioning that White, English, Fawdon and Wright had all been born in England while Young hailed from Glasgow, Scotland.
German-born/Los Angeles-raised Michael Carlos (organ, Moog synthesizer) had come to Australia in 1967, joining Levi Smith’s Clefs before forming progressive rock band Tully. Fresh from the break-up of Tully in late 1971, he was installed as the band leader. The assembled stage band comprised Mike Wade (guitar), Bruce Worrall (bass; ex-Sherbet) – who was replaced by Ken Firth (also ex-Tully) – Jamie McKinley (piano, acoustic guitar), Greg Henson (drums) and Ellis Horman (percussion). With numerous, demanding performances night after night, they became a very tight musical ensemble backed by a full orchestra.
The JCS production was moulded into a lavish, almost two hour performance, with all the singers at the top of their game. The sets, designed by Brian Thomson, and costumes, designed by Rex Cramphorne, were impressive. The centrepiece of the stage setting was the dodecahedron metal capsule set up on a steel cage, which split apart and unfolded like “some giant primal egg” to reveal Jesus and his followers. There were also the 60-foot high columns of clear Perspex, standing ominously behind the elevated platform where the various Apostles, Lepers or Crowd members would gather for their parts.
The show was staged for an initial concert run from late March to mid-April 1972 – Adelaide, Perth, Melbourne (Festival Hall), Launceston, Hobart and Brisbane – before the gala premiere at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney on Thursday 4 May. The cost of a ticket was $5.20.
Writing in Go-Set magazine (25 March 1972), Stephen MacLean reported:
“Religion as a topic is a bore but Jesus Christ Superstar most definitely is not. In fact, without a doubt, it’s one of the most important events ever to hit Australia, and if Australian rock and roll is ever to progress, then Superstar is here to give it a giant shove.
“Two versions of Superstar will be seen here: the concert version, which opened at the Adelaide Arts Festival last Thursday, finishing this Saturday, and the theatrical production opening at Sydney’s Capitol Theatre early in May. Between $250,000 and $300,000 has been poured into the production; after watching several rehearsals it’s very easy to see just where the money will be spent.
“The rock opera has a monumental cast comprising a fifty-piece orchestra, forty voices onstage and plenty more backstage people there to make it all happen.
“Despite the huge glut of products currently exploiting religion, Superstar is very much the real thing. Many are under the impression that the show is quite old, but in fact Australia is the second place on the world stage where Superstar has been staged.
“It opened in New York little more than two months back and has yet to be staged in London. The Australian production also appears to be the superior one; when it opened on Broadway, there was something of an uproar. Jesus looked more like a drag queen than a revolutionary charged some critics, and a look at the American version was enough to point out to the Australian producers just where the mistakes had been made.”
MacLean also reported that on the Adelaide opening night, Barry Humphries is said to have sent producer Harry M. Miller a telegram reading: “Don’t worry if Superstar dies a death tonight, it will only take three days to revive”.
Despite the positive nature of the rock opera, the local production was beset by controversy. Christian protesters, offended by the perceived blasphemous nature of the show, were out in force for the theatre opening night in Sydney. They were under some misguided apprehension that the show belittled the memory of Jesus Christ, as if it were a negative prospect and the work of the devil. Placards declared such things as “Jesus Christ Our Only Mediator!” and “Jesus Christ is our Saviour, not a Super Star”. There was even a bomb threat which proved to be unfounded. The protesters faded away once the show emerged as a crowd favourite.
The mainstream press also took an interest. Writing in The National Times (8 May 1972), Kevon Kemp declared “This Sydney ‘Superstar’ is a triumph, not to be missed... in a few nights from opening this production will be a tremendous piece of theatre”. As well as praising the performers, he described the directors, designers and musicians involved as “now a triumphant force in the country’s theatre”.
In one newspaper report by Nancy Berryman, she wrote that cast members had taken an unconventional approach to getting from one side of the stage to the other. When a cast member exited stage right, the most convenient way to enter stage left was to dash around the block outside the theatre. Seems going via the normal route inside the theatre, up and down narrow stairs under the stage, took twice as long. White and Fawdon regularly took the shortcut along the street, sometimes having to dodge prop men carrying scenery in the other direction. Fawdon said, “We seem to take it in turns to catch cold”. White, who ran four times around the block each performance including one turn in handcuffs, said, “It’s a bit hard to sing when you’re out of breath. I usually peek my head out first to see if the coast is clear”.
Once the performance season was well underway, the players and musicians went into EMI Studios, Sydney, for a session to record a version of the stage show. While everything was well rehearsed by that stage, it was a rushed recording and the resultant album release (Jesus Christ Superstar - Original Australian Cast Recording, on MCA Records) was a mere reflection of the full stage show, being mainly dictated to by how much music could fit onto the two sides of vinyl. Two tracks were also lifted for release as a single, featuring Michele Fawdon & Rory O’Donoghue/Jon English – ‘Could We Start Again Please’ b/w ‘Superstar’.
In a TV advert aired in the day, Harry M. Miller extolled the virtues of the show when he announced, “Perhaps once in a lifetime there comes an entertainment phenomenon, a show that gets to the heart of all people, really moves them. Jesus Christ Superstar is such a show and I think it’s important that you see it, with your children.”
Over the course of the show’s original two year run, various performers came and went. In mid-1973 Marcia Hines replaced Fawdon as Mary Magdalene, the first African-American performer anywhere in the world to take the role. Hines was born in Boston, MA, and had arrived in Australia in April 1970 at the age of 16 to appear in Miller’s Hair production. She gave birth to daughter Dohnyale ‘Deni’ Hines in December 1970, staying in Sydney to raise her. In 1974 Marcia joined the Daly-Wilson Big Band as lead singer, then signed to Robie Porter’s Wizard label as a solo singer. Alongside English and Young she was an enormously popular star on Countdown, enjoying hits with ‘Fire and Rain’, ‘From the Inside’, ‘I Just Don’t Know What to do with Myself’, ‘Until Your Love Broke Through’, ‘You’ and ‘Something’s Missing in My Life’.
Also by December 1973, when this particular performance was recorded, Tony Rose had taken over as Pontius Pilate, Wayne Matthews had replaced O’Donoghue as Peter and Reg Livermore was on stage as King Herod. Livermore went on to carve out a successful career as one of Australia’s most renowned singers/theatrical performers. He originated the role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter in Sharman’s production of The Rocky Horror Show and his run of brilliant one-man shows included Betty Blokk Buster Follies, Wonder Woman, Sacred Cow and Son of Betty.
In this mix we should also mention Peter Chambers. He’d been with the show since the beginning in various roles as an Apostle, Soldier or Leper, later taking on the role of Peter as well as occasional understudy for both Jesus and Judas. He also supplied the recording equipment which captured this show for posterity. It was a labour of love for Chambers in later years to convert it to CD, minus all the clicks, bumps, and grinds of the handheld microphones of the day.
The original JCS run wrapped up in February 1974. A new production was staged throughout 1975-76 – including a New Zealand tour – with English and White reprising their lead roles while Chrissie Hammond took the part of Mary Magdalene (Stacey Testro played Mary in NZ). Two young singers who met when they appeared as Apostles in this production, Russell Hitchcock and Graham Russell, went on to form Air Supply. With massive worldwide hits such as ‘Lost in Love’, ‘All Out of Love’, ‘Every Woman in the World’, ‘The One that You Love’, ‘Here I Am’ and ‘Making Love Out of Nothing at All’, they remain among the most successful Australian songwriters ever.
Widespread interest in the rock opera took off again in August 1992 when Miller launched a revival season, this time with John Farnham in the role of Jesus. Alongside Kate Ceberano (Mary Magdalene), Jon Stevens (Judas), Angry Anderson (King Herod), John Waters (Pontius Pilate), Russell Morris (Simon Zealotes) and David Gould (Caiaphas), Farnham featured on the #1 charting Jesus Christ Superstar The Album issued by Polydor in July. He also sang on the hit single ‘Everything’s Alright’ (with Ceberano and Stevens, national #6 during September).
I Only Want To Say...
In subsequent years, Jon English was often asked in interviews about his time with Jesus Christ Superstar. He was always proud of the show’s success and in his own role as Judas. Interviewed by TV presenter Donnie Sutherland on rock show After Dark (May 1982), he recalled splitting his trousers during his audition as well as nearly getting hanged one time during his staged suicide (‘Judas’ Death’) nearing the end of the opera.
English said, “With what the stunt people called gags there’s always a modicum of risk when you’re doing it for the first time. They were devising different sorts of flying harnesses for me to see what worked best. I used to get a rope put round my neck and I’d fly up 60 feet in the air. The original flying harness was made of canvas with wires attached. Everything was checked to make sure the tension was right, the breaking strain of the wire was 2,000 pounds, the whole thing. But they’d never check the buckles on the harness and this one time I went up both buckles broke, so I was actually hanging on, like that (motions holding on to the rope over his head), and screaming. So the director came up to me after the show and said ‘don’t scream so much, it frightens the kids’!” He ends with a chuckle.
In a 1995 60 Minutes episode, English described the protests that took place. “There were an enormous number of protesters, and they were very angry, they had these placards. I walked through them one time and they actually interviewed me, they thought I’d been in the audience, because they wouldn’t go and see it, it was blasphemous. I said ‘I thought it was very, very good in fact. I thought the bloke that played Judas was absolutely sensational, he’ll go a very long way.’ Then someone twigged it was me and they said ‘that’s him!’ and it was literally shove, shove, push, push. A couple of the doormen had to come out and rescue me. It really was ‘crucify him! crucify him!’. It was scary.”
On the 1997 TV show Where Are They Now, Peter Luck hosted a JCS reunion of the 1972-74 production with Marcia Hines, Jon English, Trevor White, John Paul Young, Tom Dysart, Rory O’Donohue and Harry M. Miller. While the others were present in the studio together, English was beamed in via satellite from Wellington, New Zealand where he was otherwise engaged with The Pirates of Penzance. English was in an ebullient mood and, prompted by Luck, related the time during ‘The Last Supper’ when, right at the most sombre moment, someone in the audience farted really loudly. “We’re in this serious Daliesque pose and then we were supposed to sing but we were all laughing. I don’t know how he did it but Trevor managed to sing his part but I couldn’t because I was laughing so much. After the show I apologised to the stage manager but he said ‘it was the most dramatic moment on stage I’ve ever seen in my life’.” White said, “After all these years, I thought it was you”, to which English shook his head and said “No!”
In an interview with Peter Thompson for ABC-TV’s Talking Heads (2006), English said, “Well, because it was quite a controversial show, all the loonies came out of the woodwork. Once, at the end of Act 1 where I systematically betrayed Jesus, some nutcase from the balcony threw $6.00 worth of 20 cent pieces at me and gave me five stitches over the eye.” Thompson then asked, “What happened to Trevor White?” and English replied, “Some idiot threw a Molotov cocktail at the stage but the wick came out, fortunately.”
Jesus Christ Superstar – An Australian Cast Recording
Live at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney, December 1973
All songs written by Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice (Universal/MCA Music Publishing Pty Ltd)
2. Heaven on Their Minds
3. What’s the Buzz/Strange Thing Mystifying
4. Everything’s Alright
5. This Jesus Must Die
7. Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem
8. Pilate’s Dream
9. The Temple
10. Everything’s Alright (Reprise)
11. I Don’t Know How to Love Him
12. Damned for All Time/Blood Money
Tracks 1-12 from Jesus Christ Superstar
1. The Last Supper
2. Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)
3. The Arrest
4. Peter’s Denial
5. Pilate and Christ
6. King Herod’s Song
7. Could We Start Again Please
8. Judas’ Death
9. Trial Before Pilate (Including The 39 Lashes)
11. The Crucifixion
12. John Nineteen: Forty One
Tracks 1-12 from Jesus Christ Superstar
Lead Cast (1973)
Jesus Christ: Trevor White
Judas Iscariot: Jon English
Mary Magdalene: Marcia Hines
Pontius Pilate: Tony Rose
High Priest Caiaphas: Peter North
High Priest Annas: John Young
Priest 1: Brian Withers
Priest 2: Peter Noble
Priest 3: Bill Binks
King Herod: Reg Livermore
Simon Zealotes: Stevie Wright
Peter: Wayne Matthews