The Three Jesus Musicals of 1973

In 1973, movie audiences were assaulted by three very strange musicals based on the life of Jesus. All three films offered an unusual consideration of Jesus’ mission and ministry, albeit with varying degrees of success.

Two of the films, Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar, seemed like different sides of the same coin. Both originated in 1971 as theatrical productions: Godspell as a popular Off-Broadway work written by John-Michael Tebelak with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz, Jesus Christ Superstar as a West End and Broadway presentation based on a rock opera album by Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice. The film adaptations also mirrored each other in too many ways. The theatrical concepts were recast into open air works set amid vast settings – Manhattan for Godspell, the deserts and ancient ruins of Israel for Jesus Christ Superstar – with large casts of little-known actors populating the screen. The directors for both films – David Greene for Godspell, Norman Jewison for Jesus Christ Superstar – also shared a curious penchant for sequences captured via telephoto lens shots that isolated the actors in a far distance amid a vast landscape; they also took initiatives with non-traditional casting, with multicultural disciples in Jesus Christ Superstar and an even mix of women and male disciples in Godspell.

Even more unusual was the near-identical manner in which films considered Jesus. The films made no reference of His birth or childhood and introduced him well into his adulthood – encountering John the Baptist in Godspell, waiting outside of Jerusalem in Jesus Christ Superstar. Neither film showed Jesus performing miracles, although Jesus Christ Superstar alluded to His curative feats and included a scene where Jesus is overwhelmed by lepers seeking His healing power. Both film emphasized Jesus’ humanity and downplayed His divinity – with the lyrics to “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” from Jesus Christ Superstar going so far to comment on how “He’s a man, He’s just a man.” And, more remarkably, both films ended with the Crucifixion, with no consideration of the Resurrection that followed.

The cast of Godspell in a musical number shot at New York’s Lincoln Center

In shooting Godspell on locations across Manhattan, director Greene stressed the contemporary relevance of the Gospels. The most successful element of the film is the opening sequence, where working-class New Yorkers are enchanted away from their dreary jobs through the unexpected appearance of John the Baptist (played by David Haskell) and his blasting of the shofar that opens the song “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord.” The New Yorkers abandon their duties, change their clothing into funky hippie threads and leave the burdens of the city – not to mention the city’s other residents, who promptly vanish from sight while the disciples gather at Central Park’s Bethesda Fountain (with its oversized angel statue in the center of the water) to be born anew.

Godspell tries to keep a positive and peppy vibe, but the camera magnifies the intensive cheerfulness of the cast and the result often feels like a film that is too cute for its own good. And there are more than a few moments where the cast goes skipping along with inane merriment down Manhattan’s wide avenues.

Godspell’s Jesus, as played by Victor Garber, is a goofy and cheerful character sporting an oversized afro, clown make-up around his eyes, bright suspenders, oversized shoes and (in a facetiously cute touch) a Superman shirt. Garber was taller than his fellow players, but he was never framed as an otherworldly entity. Indeed, Jesus blended in with the film’s ensemble, mixing it up in the vaudeville-style skits used to bring the Parables to life and sharing the song-and-dance numbers without dominating the sequences. Garber’s Jesus may be the smartest person in the room, but He’s also one of the gang – a very uncommon cinematic depiction of Jesus.

Presenting the Parables with a heavy emphasis on mugging and double takes gives the impression that Jesus spoke softly and carried a big shtick. But that happy-silly approach doesn’t work when the film presents Jesus facing His enemies. Rather than risk accusations of anti-Semitism, Godspell reimagines the Sanhedrin as an oversized puppet monster. It is a silly notion, especially in view of the intentionally ramshackle nature of the creation, and it offers an unnecessary blurring of the fundamental issues that targeted Jesus for persecution and, ultimately, death.

This situation is further complicated in the film’s last scenes, where Judas’ betrayal seals Jesus’ fate. The Last Supper is held in a former junkyard cleaned up by the disciples and Judas – whose Biblical lines are recited by David Haskell, which creates a disturbing dichotomy considering his earlier turn as John the Baptist – runs off for his betrayal and returns with several police cars that park outside of the junkyard fence. One might think that Godspell would reinvent the Roman centurions as the New York Police Department, but the cops never appear to carry out the Crucifixion. Instead, Judas conducts the murder unilaterally by tying Jesus’ wrists to a fence with long red ribbons. Immobilized in the agony of the cross with His arms outstretched, Jesus suffers quickly and dies. The disciples, in grief, take Him down from the fence and hold him over their heads with His arms still outstretched from the Crucifixion position. Chanting “Long Live God,” they carry the dead Jesus through the city, turning a corner and disappearing from sight. The camera tracks after them, and suddenly the city is alive again with its population – the disciples and Jesus are absent from view, but present on the soundtrack.

Ted Neeley as Jesus surrounded by the studly centurions in Jesus Christ Superstar.

While Godspell uses skits and sketches to illustrate Jesus’ teaching, Jesus Christ Superstar takes the show business scene as the foundation of its existence. That film opens with a busload of performers who arrive at an isolated spot in Israeli desert and unload the costumes and props (including an oversized cross) from their vehicle. The performers wander about the site of an ancient temple and story commences with a focus on Judas (played by Carl Anderson, an African-American singer/actor who broke racial barriers with his casting). Jesus Christ Superstar is unique in trying to understand why Judas betrayed Jesus – the reason, according to the film, was Judas’ growing disillusionment with Jesus’ shifting emphasis from generic acts of intellectual benevolence into creating a cult based on His perceived self-deification.

Further confusing Judas is Jesus’ behavior. As interpreted through Ted Neeley’s performance, Jesus is an aloof and sometimes unpleasant individual who enjoys the lavish attentions from Mary Magdalene and becomes peeved when His action and judgment is called into question. Neeley might be the most emotionally complex Jesus in movie history, with behavior that violently swings between emotional levels.

This drama is viewed by the priests of the Sanhedrin, who are seen occupying the scaffolding around the ruins of a temple. They are threatened by and jealous of Jesus’ appeal to the masses and happily manipulate the conflicted Judas into having Jesus arrested.

While Jesus Christ Superstar deserves credit for daring to reshape the story by trying to explain Judas’ point of view and behavior, the film is frequently undercut by Tim Rice’s lyrics, which traffic too heavily in flippant colloquialisms and intentional anachronisms – the most notorious being when the gleeful hedonist Herod Antipas commands Jesus to “walk across my swimming pool.” Rice’s lyrics are often too clever for their own good and wind up demeaning the story with crass jokes rather than enhancing it with cerebral wit.

And, quite frankly, the film is not helped by central performers who are not very good actors. Neeley’s vocalizing is not particularly vibrant – the film’s producers reportedly considered Mick Jagger, John Lennon, and even David Cassidy before casting Neeley – and his physical presence is underwhelming. (After the apprehension in the garden, Neeley is dwarfed by the studly actors playing the centurions, which gives the odd impression of Jesus being a small man amid a musclebound Roman occupation.) The sequence that should be the show-stopper, the intense “Gethsemane” number, is reduced to blandness by Neeley’s enervated singing and mild screen presence. Even in anger, Neeley never plumbs the fury of Jesus and instead he merely lets loose with screeching in a higher note.

Anderson is a much better singer than Neeley, but his acting is unremarkable and he never plumbs the desperation of Judas’ doubts. Instead, he resorts to singing louder when frustrated by his dilemma, but in this case turning up the volume is not the same thing as turning in a performance. The same problems burdened Yvonne Elliman’s Mary Magdalene, who is a musical joy and a dramatic zero. Only Joshua Mostel’s Herod Antipas registers with audiences, bringing an unapologetic hedonism in his wicked display of ancient Judean vulgarity and crude mockery of the prisoner brought before him.

The only time when Jesus Christ Superstar truly feels like a work of imagination is the title song number, which is envisioned as a dream of Jesus between the hours of His condemnation by Pilate and the Crucifixion. Judas, who hanged himself earlier, is lowered into an amphitheater via a crane and joins a chorus of disco-clad singers and dancers to belt out title song with an emotional gusto that was strangely absent from the earlier footage. When the film concludes with the Crucifixion with the performers returning to their bus to venture home. Anderson is the last person on the vehicle, looking out with an enigmatic expression at the cross left standing at Calvary – and, one might assume, with Jesus still nailed to it, as His burial was not shown and Neeley is not clearly visible among the performers getting on the bus.

Jesus Christ Superstar would be filmed on two more occasions, with a 2000 direct-to-video production presented in a theatrical setting and a live 2018 telecast broadcast on NBC. To date, there have been no additional film versions of Godspell, although the show continues to be staged theatrically in both its original version and in a Godspell Jr. edited production aimed at student theater groups.

Robert Elfstrom as Jesus in Gospel Road.

The third Jesus musical of 1973 was the most idiosyncratic of the trio – and, arguably, the most delightfully unusual of this entire genre of Jesus-focused cinema – was Gospel Road: A Story of Jesus. The production was created by the country music icon Johnny Cash, who credited his Christian faith in helping him to overcome professional and personal obstacles.

When asked why he was making the film, Cash said, “I think Jesus was the most misquoted, misread and misunderstood man in history. People have twisted His words to suit their needs. People also died for Him. They died for His words.”

Cash self-financed the production – the budget has been cited as being between $500,000 and $1 million, although there is a good chance it was actually lower. Gospel Road, like Jesus Christ Superstar, was shot on location in Israel. But unlike the other two musical films of the era, the musical numbers were performed in off-screen while Jesus and those of His world are depicted by non-professional actors in dialogue-free sequences. (The players in the film were a mix of Cash’s family and friends along with tourists in Israel who were visiting the locations where the film was being shot and were corralled before the camera.)

The film is almost entirely narrated by Cash, who occasionally appears on screen in his trademark black clothing while clutching an open Bible. Cash describes the life and ministry of Jesus in a mix of readings from the New Testament, personal observations and a wealth of original music that is played on the soundtrack.

The idea of having a wall-to-wall narration against a pantomimed presentation might seem dull, but Cash was a narrator of undeniable charisma and his force of personality makes Gospel Road an invigorating and deeply personal experience. He approached the film with a sense of sincerity rather than an air of academia, and the result was a genuine emotional bond with the subject that is missing from most Biblical films. And, of course, that Johnny Cash voice was always invigorating, whether he was speaking or singing.

Most of the musical soundtrack consists of gospel-tinged works sung by Cash, with some selections performed by the Statler Brothers, Larry Gatlin, the Carter Family, Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, and Cash’s wife June Carter Cash, who was cast as Mary Magdalene and performed the film’s best-known song, the John Denver-penned “Follow Me.” Whereas many critics look back at Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar and bemoan that their respective scores are anchored in a specific era, the music of Gospel Road has a timeless element. A few songs had appeared prior to the film’s production: “He Turned the Water Into Wine” and “Jesus Was a Carpenter” were from earlier Cash albums, while Larry Gatlin’s “Help Me” and Denver’s “Follow Me” were performed in cover versions on the soundtrack.

Cash initially conceived Jesus as an elusive entity who would only be seen by His feet. However, Cash he realized that approach would not work. The star and his wife considered several casting choices before deciding on the Gospel Road director, Swedish-born filmmaker Robert Elfstrom, to play Jesus. With his blonde hair, blue eyes and fair skin, Elfstrom was not your typical Nazarene. Elfstrom’s son, Robert Jr., who shared his father’s Scandinavian appearance, appeared briefly as a pre-teen Jesus; as with the other musicals, there is no recreation of the Nativity or of Jesus’ miraculous healings. (Elfstrom came to this film after previously directing the 1969 documentary Johnny Cash! The Man, His World, His Music.)

And, yes, while Elfstrom may not have been physically correct for the role, his performance was remarkable for capturing the softer side of Jesus’ humanity. In this film, Jesus is seen at ease with all around Him, even laughing with His disciples and enjoying the company of playful children. This easy-going Jesus is capable of solemnity and, when applicable, anger, and the multiple phases of behavior frames Jesus with a dimensionality that is missing in too many films that imagine Him solely as a being with a fixed single emotional state.

As a director, Elfstrom brings in a number of remarkable artistic moments. During Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, Jesus’ perspective is shown in a stunning POV shot from beneath the water looking up at John. When emerging from the baptism, a white dove unexpectedly lands on Jesus’ shoulder, offering a surprise symbolic appearance by the Holy Spirit. The film recreates the story of the woman accused of adultery, but unlike many other Jesus films it does not conflate that woman with Mary Magdalene – the two are depicted as complete different individuals.

Furthermore, Elfstrom telescopes the prosecution of Jesus by presenting His three hostile judges – Caiaphas, Pilate and Herod Antipas – together, with each framed with an arc of ancient ruin. Jesus’ crucifixion takes place on a cross that is considerably shorter than those used in Bible films, which gives the disturbing impression of a torturous death occurring at eye level. But what is truly striking is what transpires during Jesus’ death: the cross bearing the dying Jesus is shown against several modern urban landscapes, where traffic whizzes by in seeming indifference to the sacrifice being made on the cross.

Gospel Road is a fascinating endeavor with a distinctive personality. In an interview with Cash biographer Robert Hillburn, Elfstrom credited Cash as being an indefatigable spirit in bringing the film to life.

“John put his heart into this film,” Elfstrom said, recalling the pre-production period in Israel. “He was up with me at 3:30 in the morning, going out to various sites, and then he’d come to my room in his pajamas at night, and we’d figure out the scene for the next day.”

20th Century Fox picked up the theatrical distribution rights from Cash and initially released the film primarily in the South, with Northeast playdates sparingly scheduled months after the film ran its course in Southern theaters. The double-album soundtrack album was one of the most popular music releases of 1973. Cash gave permission to Billy Graham to screen the film at his religious crusades, and the film found new audiences in 2005 with a DVD release that was timed to the distribution of the biopic I Walk the Line.

Gospel Road is a rarity in cinema: a labor of love where the audience cannot help but share the creative artist’s passion for his work. The combination of Cash’s heart and Elfstrom’s cinematic skills created a memorable gem. While it is the least known of the three Jesus musicals of 1973, it was certainly the most original and the most emotionally satisfying.