Aaron LaVigne as Jesus and the ensemble from Jesus Christ Superstar, touring again 50 years after the original first hit the stage. Photo by Matthew Murphy, Evan Zimmerman - MurphyMade

'Superstar' resurrected for 50th anniversary

By 
  • December 8, 2021

Count Fr. Paul Massel among the Canadian theatre lovers hyped for the return of Jesus Christ Superstar, now on stage in Toronto.

Massel, the marriage preparation and catechetics co-ordinator at the Diocese of Peterborough, first recalled seeing the rock opera, created by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, at the Stratford Festival a decade ago.

Jesus Christ Superstar is that story of Christ bound in history for sure, but applicable today to every human being and every life experience,” said Massel. “What Andrew Lloyd Webber has done in taking the dramatic text of Jesus’ life and making it and the music contemporary is proving to us that this great story of God entering humanity through the person of Christ is happening as much today as 2,000 years ago or 10,000 years ago — and will happen 2,000 years from now.”

Enthused by his first viewing, Massel purchased a ticket to experience the production again as it celebrates its 50th anniversary tour with a five-week headlining engagement at Toronto’s Princess of Wales Theatre until Jan. 2.

“We are really honoured to be the first big musical to re-open theatre in Toronto,” show producer Stephen Gabriel told The Toronto Star. “Toronto’s known for music. And if you’re a Rush fan or an Alanis Morissette fan, or any other major Canadian rockers, it is something that will hit you viscerally.”

Jesus Christ Superstar’s half-century celebration includes performances in over 25 different North American cities during the 2021-22 theatre season and is expected to hit the stage in more than 50 North American cities during its three-year run.

The re-imagined edition of the musical was inspired by the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre’s incarnation that debuted in London.

Much like its contemporary Godspell — which launched several months prior to Jesus Christ Superstar’s debut — the musical depicts the final weeks of Jesus’ earthly ministry and His sacrificial crucifixion. And similar to Godspell, Judas Iscariot is the secondary primary character of the musical. 

In addition to the play achieving an appeal to contemporary audiences, because of the text being infused with modern-day attitudes and language, champions of the play hail the musical soundtrack for generating the enduring appeal.

The most recognizable tune is the love ballad “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” The song was so popular upon release in the early 1970s that multiple versions of the track — one by Mary Magdalene performer Yvonne Elliman and the other by Australian-American recording artist Helen Reddy — landed in the Billboard Hot 100 Top 40 at the same time. 

Massel, a former stage actor and singer for multiple decades before being ordained to the priesthood in the year 2000, can speak to the emotional and spiritual power that can be inspired by a production like Jesus Christ Superstar. He says it is a very similar phenomenon to a priest performing the liturgy at the altar.

“When you stand offstage ready to go on, you are in prayer,” said Massel. “You are using your imagination and asking God to be with you. Every artist knows that there is something larger contributing to the creativity of which comes forth through them.”

Massel, a member of the original Canadian cast for the Phantom of the Opera in 1989, adds that the transcendent escapism one can feel throughout a live production can be described as “the horizontal line of our humanity connects with the vertical line, which represents the infiniteness of God.” 

“People escape the enchainment of this life in a sense, and through the arts experiences God.”

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