Catherine Brown

Old and New Testament Ethics in Two Lloyd Webber Musicals

July 2019


This article was written for What follows is my pre-edited draft. The final article may be read here. Thanks are hereby expressed to editors Daniel Johnson and Olivia Utley.




Jesus Christ Superstar [Jesus], Barbican, dir. Timothy Sheader, July-August 2019


Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat [Joseph], London Palladium, dir. Laurence Conor, July-September 2019



By chance I have seen both Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat this week. Perhaps by chance, they are running simultaneously on the London stage. Not at all by chance, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice developed them simultaneously between 1968 and 72. Pop takes on Bible stories were at that time hitting a stride; Joseph was commissioned by a teacher at Colet Court boys’ prep school in London explicitly in response to Herbert Chappell’s The Daniel Jazz of 1963, and Michael Hurd’s The Jonah-Man Jazz of 1966.


As far as the New Testament was concerned, a tradition of imaginative reconstructions of Christ’s life had been developing over the entire preceding century, starting with Higher Critical biographies such as Ernst Renan’s 1863 Vie de Jésus. This depicted its subject as a man not a God, rejected the miracles, and was criticised by some Jewish people for asserting the ethical superiority of Christianity (a criticism which was to recur in relation to such ventures). In the following decade Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote The Brothers Karamazov, in which Ivan Karamazov imagines what would have happened had Christ returned to Seville at the time of the Inquisition (he would have been sentenced to death at the stake). D. H. Lawrence’s last prose work was an introduction to an English translation of this episode. In the preceding year, 1929, he had been inspired by it to write his own story of Christ resurrected, The Man Who Died, in which Christ wanders from his tomb to Sinai, where he for the first time comes to full life in the flesh through an affair with a Priestess of Isis. His Russian contemporary Mikhail Bulgakov was also inspired by Dostoevsky’s Jesus to create the metafictional, passively resistant Yeshua Ha-Notsri in his 1928-40 novel The Master and Margarita.  The deeply-religious, strongly-anticlerical Greek novelist Nikos Kazantsakis was also inspired by Dostoevsky, and possibly by Lawrence; his 1948 novel Christ Recrucified imagines a recapitulation of the passion story by those enacting it in a village under Ottoman occupation. Seven years later his The Last Temptation of Christ, like Renan’s biography, treats Jesus as a man subject to all human temptations – but, exceptionally, as resisting them. The Italian director Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1964 The Gospel According to Saint Matthew, whilst cleaving strongly to its Gospel, also showed a man of passion and temper.


All of these works rejuvenated Christ and his religion during a long period of declining church attendance in the West; the Second Vatican Council of 1962-5, and the New English Bible of 1961-70, aimed to do the same. Godspell (1971, with a film in 1973) coincided with Jesus in stressing Christ’s humanity over his divinity, and in not depicting his miracles. Both these musicals aligned Christ with the hippie movement, and therefore also vice versa; one of the reasons that ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ worked as a concept was that several pop stars of the period already looked like (a dominant Western visualisation of) Christ: Paul Rodgers of Free, Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin, Dave Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Ted Nugent, Jim Morrison, and Cat Stevens. In the 1973 film of Jesus, the priests and potentates wore defined costumes whereas the disciples retained much of the actors’ own youthful garb. By the same token, feminism in its Second Wave had not yet taken hold; both Joseph and Jesus are male-dominated stories, offering only minor roles for women: solos for just Potipher’s wife and Mary Magdalene, choruses for Joseph’s brothers’ wives and the Apostles’ wives, and dancers for Pharaoh and Herod; the current production of Joseph moderates this imbalance by giving the parts of both Jacob and the narrator to a female singer.


Apart from these theological reasons, there were geopolitical reasons for taking an interest in the Bible and its lands at that time. The period of Joseph and Jesus’s development coincided with the 1967 Six Day War, the 1967-70 War of Attrition, the Palestinian attack on the Israeli Olympic team in 1972 (the same year as the first professional production of Joseph), and the Yom Kippur War of 1973 (which took place just months after Norman Jewison’s film version of Jesus had been shot in Beit Guvrin National Park and Beit She’an; the latter had been a target for rockets fired from Jordan since 1969. This military context explains the two intrusions of contemporary weaponry into the film: when Judas is debating whether or not to betray Jesus, he is decided by the appearance of five armoured tanks bearing down on him across the desert; he flees before them to the high priests. After he has betrayed Jesus, a military jet crosses the sky, either implying that Judas is caught up in historical processes beyond his control, or that contemporary Israeli weaponry is standing in for the Satan of Luke 22: 3 (who enters Judas before he betrays Christ); either way, ‘I really didn’t come here of my own accord’. Egypt, where most of Joseph is set, lost control of the Sinai peninsula to Israel in 1967 (the year before the musical’s originary cantata was written), and regained it between 1973 (when it received its first West End performance) and 1982, when Israel finally withdrew.At the time of the Biblical Joseph, and again in the 1960s, Egypt was a major regional power, and Joseph’s good management of Egypt’s economy and his alleviation of the people’s hunger may have reminded contemporary audiences of President Nasser.


The two musicals are entwined both thematically and developmentally; the success of the Jesus concept album of 1970 and the Broadway and West End shows of 1971-2 inspired Lloyd Webber and Rice to lengthen Joseph from fifteen minutes to full length. The similarities and contrasts of the two works must have been vividly present to their young creators’ minds (Lloyd Webber and Rice were 22 and 26 in 1970). They are sung-through dance musicals based on Genesis 37-46, and three of the Gospels’ accounts of Holy Week, respectively. Both centre on an exceptional and charismatic young man who believes that he has a uniquely close relationship to God, stands out from his circumambient group of ten or so other young men, arouses jealousy, is sold (for twenty pieces of silver in Joseph’s case [Genesis 38: 2], thirty in Jesus’s [Matthew 26: 15]), and is brought low. Both are tested by a preposterous potentate (Pharaoh and Herod), their betrayers eventually repent and are forgiven, and in one manner or another they triumph, with the point being made that evil had to be allowed free rein in order for God’s higher good to be achieved (in Genesis 45: 8 Joseph comforts his brothers: ‘So it was not you that sent me hither, but God: and he hath made me a father to Pharaoh, and lord of all his house, and a ruler throughout all the land of Egypt’).


For all these similarities, the musicals are profoundly different. The differences may partly be accounted for by the fact that one was written for children, and the other as a concept album for thinking rock fans. The music of Joseph is as easy as may be required by any school (adult productions of Joseph tend to use some child singers, as the current one does even in the role of Potiphar); Jesus is notoriously demanding even of professionals. One result of this is that many people in the English-speaking world have encountered, if not appeared in, Joseph at some stage in their childhood; this would explain why so many of the Palladium audience were able to sing along to so many of the songs, and to laugh at indistinctly-delivered one-liners. By contrast, when singing the title song ‘Jesus Christ,Superstar’, most people fail to get past the title, and substitute ‘daa-di-di daa-di-di’ until it recurs (paralleling the fact that many people today know little more about Jesus Christ than that he is a superstar).


The difference is that between a light-hearted comedy for children, and a tragi-comedy for adults; a riches-to-rags-to-even-greater-riches story versus a passion. Josephhas far more musical and verbal humour; its pastiches include country and blues (‘One More Angel in Heaven’), rock ‘n roll (‘Song of the King’), chanson (‘Those Canaan Days’) and calypso (‘Benjamin’); Jesus has only ‘King Herod’s Song’ in ragtime; much of the rest is haunting rock with a heavy emphasis on threatening horns and distorted guitar. Joseph abounds in such couplets as ‘All these things you saw in your pyjamas/Are a long-range forecast for your farmers’; the wit of Jesus is mixed with more serious subject matter; the Priests ask ‘Where do we start with a man who is bigger/ Than John was when John did his baptism thing?’; Caiaphas punningly tells Judas‘We’ll pay you in silver, cash on the nail’; Jesus ambiguously tells the Apostles to ‘stick to fishing from now on’. These differences of tone are strongly emphasised by the sets of the current productions: Joseph is all bright sun, sand, and eponymous technicolor; Jesus, a production which ran outdoors at Regent’s Park in 2016 and 2017, is now confined in a dark set with rusting iron cruciform girders. Both musicals contain an anguished song by a prisoner (‘Close Every Door to Me’) or someone who is about to become one (‘Gethsemane’), but the difference of anguish and profundity between the two songs marks clearly the difference of the musicals. Joseph is oddly masochistic:


Do what you want with me,

Hate me and laugh at me

Darken my daytime

And torture my night.


Jesus agrees to fulfil God’s will only with and despite understandable horror:


I only want to say,

If there is a way,

Take this cup away from me

For I don’t want to taste its poison.


Yet the difference is not just one of emotional tenor. For all the plot similarities, the musicals differ in their ethics in ways which arguably correspond to their respectively Old and New Testament origins. Jesus, but as far as I am aware not Joseph, has been criticised by some Jewish people; the current production of the former parries charges of antisemitism by associating Christian symbols with both the high priests and the Temple merchants (in the latter case encouraged by the merchants’ line ‘Sunday here we go again’). Two years ago Tim Rice criticised a group of schools in New Zealand for changing Joseph’s affiliation in ‘Close Every Door to me’ from ‘Children of Israel’ (who ‘have been promised a land of our own’) to ‘Children of Kindness’: ‘I mean Joseph is an innocent story straight from the Bible and these people in New Zealand thought we were making statements about Israel and Palestine – bonkers.’ He and Lloyd Webber might indeed have written in such an innocent spirit, even whilst Israel was militarily asserting that ‘land of our own’, but in the current production it was hard not to wonder whether the huge applause for this song was not tinged with support for ‘Children of Israel’ being ‘never alone’. By contrast, Jesus emphasises Christ’s prophecy of the Temple’s destruction.


Beyond this, what ethics may be inferred in Joseph? There is a vague, sappy, American-style insistence on the importance of having dreams, which is somehow conflated with Joseph’s gifts at dreaming and dream-interpretation. The Narrator tells us, questionably:


We all dream a lot – some are lucky, some are not
But if you think it, want it, dream it, then it’s real
You are what you feel

In the next song Joseph enigmatically asserts that ‘Any Dream Will Do’. This either means that any ambition or delusion is fine as long as one has one (absurd), or else he is offering to demonstrate his dream-interpreting skills, for which ‘any dream will do’. The same song contains more that is lyrically suggestive but analytically incomprehensible:


The world and I, we are still waiting
Still hesitating
Any dream will do


The chorus ‘Go Go Go Joseph’, intended to buck Joseph up whilst he is in jail, may be understood as counselling everyone to never give up:


Hang on now Joseph you’ll make it some day

Don’t give up Joseph; fight till you drop


but the next line makes the qualification:


We’ve read the book and you come out on top.


Whether or not one should despair, in that case, depends on one’s fate; later in the same song Joseph reveals to Pharaoh’s baker that ‘Your execution date is set’, at which point the Chorus declines to nonetheless exhort ‘Go Go Go Baker’.


In Genesis it is clear that Joseph is not just his father’s favourite (because he is the child of Jacob’s ‘old age’, 37: 3), but that he is also uniquely beloved of and protected by God. Yet Joseph does not mention God once. As a consequence, Joseph is secularised into someone who is gifted with exceptional good looks, talents, and luck, the implication being that by virtue of the former two, he also deserves the last. To envy such a person, as his brothers do, is an example of ‘tall poppy syndrome’ (the desire to cut down those who excel). Rather, the musical implies, such people should be celebrated, even adored, for their gifts and luck. Underneath the exuberant music is therefore concealed a rather ruthlessly meritocratic, laissez-faire ethos. It is in a parodic chanson that the brothers mendaciously tell Jacob that Joseph is ‘One More Angel in Heaven’, but that his ideals ‘Like peace and love’ will ‘never die’. For all his charisma and courage, there is no evidence that these have ever been Joseph’s ideals. His forgiveness of his brothers for their perfidy not only comes after a test of their reformation (by seeing whether they will defend their brother Benjamin), but is relatively easily dispensed from the height of his new relative position, as is the reverse of the case during Christ’s death. In ‘Stone the Crows’ the chorus claims that Joseph is the ‘Greatest man since Noah/ Only goes to shoah’, before Joseph concludes with the crashing non sequitur ‘Anyone from anywhere can make it/ If they get a lucky break’. If anything this musical proves that ‘lucky’ breaks are given only to those who are already well favoured. The rewards of such blessings are firmly of this world: not only does the musical celebrate fancy clothing in its title and its closing lines (‘Give me my coloured coat,/ My amazing coloured/Coat’), but also other trappings of favour and power:


Joseph got a royal pardon

And a host of splendid things

A chariot of gold, a cloak,

A medal and some signet rings.


It is emphasised, to triumphal music, that Joseph comes to meet Jacob


In his chariot

Of gold

Of gold

Of gold

Of gold!


The contrast with Jesus’s entry to Jerusalem, in a coat of no particular colour, on an ass, hardly needs pointing. Joseph’s position of power, celebrated within his musical, is circumscribed by Jesus’s insistence that:


Neither you, Simon, nor the fifty thousand,

Nor the Romans, nor the Jews,

Nor Judas, nor the twelve

Nor the priests, nor the scribes,

Nor doomed Jerusalem itself

Understand what power is,

Understand what glory is,

Understand at all.


Jesus, though stressing Christ’s human susceptibility to fatigue, stress, anger, and fear of violent death (though not lust), is largely orthodox in its presentation of his ethics. Tim Rice, unlike Pasolini (who sticks to Matthew), roams easily across the Gospels according to Matthew, Luke and John in search of what he wants: Christ’s counsel to ‘Save tomorrow for tomorrow;/Think about today instead’ is based on Matthew 6: 34; Mary Magdalene’s care of Jesus is based on the account of the ‘sinful woman’ in Luke 7, but Judas’s criticism of Jesus for accepting it is taken from John 12. Caiaphas telling him to quiet his supporters is based on Luke 19:


Nothing can be done to stop the shouting.

If every tongue were stilled

The noise would still continue.

The rocks and stones themselves would start to sing.


Jesus’s insistence that ‘There is not one of you/ Who cannot win the kingdom;/ The slow, the suffering,/ The quick, the dead’ contrasts with Joseph’s facile, aleatory version of this quoted above, ‘Anyone from anywhere can make it/ If they get a lucky break’. The trial before Pilate is based closely on John 18 and 19. Pilate asks:


You have been brought here

Manacled, beaten by your own people.

Do you have the first idea why you deserve it? …

Where is your kingdom?

Look at me. Am I a Jew? …

But what is truth?

Is truth a changing law?

We both have truths.

Are mine the same as yours?


However, the ending of this scene is interpolated. Enraged by sympathetic anguish, Pilate screams:


Don’t let me stop your great self-destruction

Die if you want to, you misguided martyr!

I wash my hands of your demolition

Die if you want to, you innocent puppet!


Indeed, it is generally with characters other than Jesus than most invention is (perforce) used. The hearing before Herod is reasonably extrapolated from its one mention in Luke 23: 8-11:


Prove to me that you’re divine

change my water into wine …

Prove to me that you’re no fool

walk across my swimming pool …

I only ask what I’d ask any superstar

What is it that you have got that puts you where you are?

I am waiting, yes I’m a captive fan.

I’m dying to be shown that you are not just any man.


Pilate’s wife’s dream concerning Jesus (Matthew 27: 19) is transferred to Pilate. Other scenes are invented: Jesus is overwhelmed by lepers; Mary Magdalene is given a conflicted love for Jesus; the obscure apostle Simon the Zealot becomes an anti-Roman propagandist whom Jesus disappoints; we see the high priests deciding to destroy Jesus, and Mary Magdalene and Peter, after the latter has denied Jesus, unite in asking ‘Could We Start Again, Please?’ The major addition is the characterisation of Judas. In Luke 22: 3, Satan simply enters him just before he betrays Christ, but Jesus builds an entire critique of Christ on Judas’s criticism regarding the perfume incident in John 12: for hypocrisy, overreach, endangering himself and his followers, and megalomania – in short, cultishness. He opens the musical by telling Jesus:


You’ve started to believe

The things they say of you.

You really do believe

This talk of God is true …

You’ve begun to matter more

Than the things you say.


He is often described as the musical’s narrator, but it would be more accurate simply to describe him as its antagonist. He is in better faith than the Priests and the bloodthirsty crowd, and has better arguments, but the best he and the musical can level at Christ is not vindicated. He is forgiven and is therefore not (as he feared) ‘Damned For all Time’. When suicidal, he takes over Mary’s song ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’.


This musical – as has been insufficiently recognised – meditates on several topics with considerable profundity. One is the nature of stardom and discipleship. It implies that youngsters bopping around in the desert after their guru are closer in spirit to Christ’s chosen followers than the starched practitioners of those sober, ritualistic or self-lacerating forms of Christian worship that have been pursued over the intervening centuries. We are forced to reflect on whom we worship today, and why: the line ‘Hey JC, JC won’t you smile at me?’ has striking contemporary resonance. That some individuals who attract worship do not desire it would later be explored in comic mode in Monty Python’s 1979 The Life of Brian, but it had already been explored in tragic mode in Jesus. Whereas in Joseph there is no sense that Joseph does not want to ‘become a star … be famous …  be a big success’, Jesus refuses the glorification offered by Simon Zealotes:


Christ, what more do you need to convince you
That you’ve made it, and you’re easily as strong
As the filth from Rome who rape our country

Jesus responds that his followers don’t understand what power and glory are, and that ‘To conquer death, you only have to die./ You only have to die.’ According with this difference, it is Joseph not Jesus that tends to be a star vehicle, most recently for Jason Donovan and Sheridan Smith. There are no such names in the current Jesus, and it is striking that for many of the original Broadway and film cast members, it is principally for this musical that they are remembered. There was therefore particular plangency in the decision of Jesus’s director Timothy Sheaderto replace the fake blood usually used in the scourging scene by gold glitter. The cast take it in turns to slap him, each time turning a new area of his flesh to gold. Rather than presaging the use of gold in centuries of church furnishings, let alone in the creation of an idol such as the golden calf, this seemed to be a metaphor for the best kind of enduring fame, which every blow of his scourging helped him to win. It also inverted the base use of precious metals stressed in this production by the fact that Judas’s hands become tainted by silver glitter once he has accepted the blood money.


The musical makes much metatheatrical reflection on role-playing, both fixed (neither Jesus nor the actor who plays him can deviate from the part written for them) and fungible (the chorus of apostles and their wives becomes the mob that calls for Jesus’s crucifixion). This is heightened by the film, which opens with the cast and crew arriving on set in the Israeli desert. They leap out of their van and start handing costume helmets, guns, and Roman standards from its roof; at the point when the Overture corresponds to the scene of the flagellation, the cross is lifted up from the roof and passed between many hands. When the Overture reaches ‘Superstar’, the actor playing Jesus suddenly appears, robed for his part. By the end of the Overture, everyone is standing on the ancient set, ready to begin. The whole has the feeling of something improbable; a zany adventure, not necessarily a good idea, but entered upon with much goodwill. At the same time, like the Mass, it is also palpably the re-enactment of a miracle – be that only the miracle of the story’s survival into the present.


When the resurrected Judas asks Jesus:


Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?

If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation;

Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication


the unspoken irony is that Jesus has reached the whole world, as Judas – who is singing in the present – should know. In Jesus of Montreal, a 1989 Canadian film reworking of Christ Recrucified, a court psychiatrist (aka Herod) asks the actor playing Jesus (who has just overturned the cameras at an audition for a beer advert) whether he is not resentful that his acting career has been restricted by his birth in such an obscure place, and not, for example, New York; the irony is the same. Perhaps, however, Judas is speculating that 1970 would have been a better time for the first coming. As it is, the musical, not its hero, is reaching the ‘whole nation’ – unless the latter is doing so through the former. The Apostles at ‘The Last Supper’, however, are at least wise to project as follows:


Always hoped that I’d be an apostle;

Knew that I would make it if I tried.

Then when we retire, we can write the Gospels,

So they’ll still talk about us when we’ve died.


The fact that the film is shot at the ancient Nabatean ruin of Avdat furthers these reflections on time. At the time of Christ this ruin was a Temple to Oboda, a deified Nabatean king; the Romans did not occupy this part of Palestine until 106 AD. Since then the worship of Oboda has died – sic transit comes to mind, as it does when the actor playing Pilate picks his way with his Roman standard across the ruins to face Jesus – but the Nabateans became Christians during the Byzantine period, and many Christians live in that part of South Israel today.


The musical raises, if not answers, the major questions of Christian ontology. The title song asks:


Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ Superstar,
Do you think you’re what they say you are?

Judas adds during one of the verses:


Tell me what you think about your friends at the top.
Who’d you think besides yourself is the pick of the crop?
Buddha, was he where it’s at? Is he where you are?
Could Mohammed move a mountain, or was that just PR?
Did you mean to die like that? Was that a mistake, or
Did you know your messy death would be a record breaker?


The last two questions are answered in the affirmative by the musical itself; the others are for the audience to decide. The ending’s uncertainty is emphasised by the fact that ‘Superstar’ comes before the crucifixion. It affirms, in advance of the event, that Jesus will in some sense survive it, but all that follows the crucifixion is an instrumental piece (to the same tune as ‘Gethsemane’) cryptically entitled ‘John 19: 41’ (‘Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid.’) Individual productions perforce nudge the interpretation in one direction or another (and will then be judged against people’s own beliefs; the musical was at one point banned in South Africa as irreligious, and in Soviet Hungary as religious). The Barbican production has the Jesus actor being helped down from the cross and then sitting thoughtfully at the side of the stage, until the on-stage lights are switched off. In the Regent’s Park production it was of course God or nature that gradually dimmed the house lights over the course of the evening’s show. The film ends with the cast and crew returning to their bus. Just before driving off, the actors who have played Mary Magdalene and Judas look hard at the horizon. There they have left the cross in place. Now, against the setting sun, it is empty. The actor playing Jesus has not returned to the bus, but in the final shot we see a shepherd and his flock moving across the horizon. What is moving is less the shepherd (a slightly corny device, because incredible that a cast member would thus abscond) than the fact that the cross has been left on location (more plausible), thereby changing its ontology from prop to feature of the landscape, and restoring it closer to its original place and role. The grandeur of the Israeli landscape does not (as one contemporary review of the film claimed) condemn the musical, but rather amplifies it. The puppet masters have not put all of their toys away, therefore art is not cleanly folded in on itself and kept apart from life. The cross stands at the intersection of art and reality, and therefore also at that of an evening’s entertainment and the largest truths.

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Catherine Brown