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SLSO Untold: Broadway Smash Hit Originated with the SLSO

By Eric Dundon

On October 12, 1971, the rock opera and stage megahit Jesus Christ Superstar opened on Broadway. A year later, the musical received five Tony Award nominations, including a nod for Best Musical. Since then, the show enjoyed prolonged success in performance venues from New York to London to Brazil and Russia.

Powell Hall in 1967, then known as the St. Louis Theater. This photo was taken just a few year before the SLSO and the American Rock Opera Company performed the first ever stage adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Six months prior to the official debut, the musical received its very first stage performance not under the lights on Broadway, but under the lights at Powell Hall here in St. Louis.

Leonard Slatkin, the SLSO’s Conductor Laureate, was on the podium for the first two performances of Jesus Christ Superstar ever on April 13-14, 1971—50 years ago. On the golden anniversary of the first performances, Slatkin told KMOX’s Charlie Brennan and Amy Marxkors that when he heard the music—which originally was released as a rock album in 1970—he knew the music was special.

Listen to the full interview on KMOX here.

Composed by Broadway icon Andrew Lloyd Webber with lyrics by Tim Rice, the album saw success on its own, with several singles reaching millions of American on the airwaves. Listeners enjoyed the music to such a degree that the album topped the U.S. Billboard LP chart in February 1971.

With a buzz surrounding the music—the musical depiction of Jesus of Nazareth’s final days was described as “sacrilegious” by some—the American Rock Opera Company sought to transform the album for the stage. The company contacted the SLSO about a joint presentation with the orchestra. Slatkin jumped at the opportunity. Quickly, a vocal cast assembled and preparations were made for the concerts.

There was one major flaw. When the orchestra received the music, very little of it was actually written for instruments of the orchestra.

“Before the first rehearsal, the orchestra’s librarian—Roger Grossheider—and myself spent all night redoing the music for the instruments of the orchestra,” Slatkin said. “We had to add string parts, we had to fill it out, and we had to make sure it would compete with the sound of the rock band.”

The hard work paid off.

Due to the popularity of the music, the pair of performances with the SLSO sold out in less than two hours. Slatkin told KMOX that the audience loved the concerts.

Further presentations with the orchestra were quashed due to licensing restrictions, but the Jesus Christ Superstar has since established itself as a pillar in the anthology of musical theater.

Since then, the SLSO has had a long history of performing show tunes, including scores to musicals and films like Singin’ in the Rain, to hosting Broadway stars on the Emerson Concert Stage, including Idinia Menzel, Leslie Odom, Jr., and Sutton Foster.

Eric Dundon is the Public Relations Manager of the SLSO.


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