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In 1967, when Mart Crowley began writing his play The Boys in the Band, he was so frustrated with his career as a screenplay writer that he intended, with every breath of each invented character and situation, to be controversial. The themes of the play were self-loathing and self-destruction, the loneliness that envelops you when the crowd disperses. “These were things that fascinated me,” he revealed. “Things I was hung up on much too long. I tried to learn how people become their own worst enemies. Once I came to grips with that realization, I became a happier person.”
When the play opened Off-Broadway a year later, his intentions were well served. It became a sensation, and one of the longest-running Off Broadway shows (just short of 18 months; 1001 performances). It went on to thousands of regional and world-wide productions. An Associated Press blurb read: “One of the few plays that can honestly claim to have helped spark a social revolution.”
Soon after the praise for the blistering portrayal of his nine diverse characters, the play opened a powder keg of emotions just as America’s gay pride and identity movement opened another powder keg after the Stonewall Inn arrests. The onset of the fateful AIDS crisis came next. Gays fought for research funding and a better portrayal of themselves. Crowley’s play was considered divisive, too-stereotypical. He never imagined he and his play would be targeted and so reviled. The fame was not short-lived; however, the cheers were.
Now 50 years later, after the play has been revived three times, produced regionally and worldwide, andfilmed with its original cast, the playwright and The Boys in the Band are making their Broadway debut amid great fanfare. It is subdued compared to back when it became the first homosexual-themed play to reach mainstream audiences.
“I’m back!” laughs Crowley. “The band is still playing. Who in the world would ever believe this would happen? I’m extremely blessed for all the good fortune at this time in my life.” This was the day after he stood across the street from the Booth in pouring rain as the giant sign high atop the theatre blazed the play’s title in lights over the Theatre District and the theatre marquee with the play’s title and his name were lit.
Though you’d never guess, unless you do the numbers, Crowley turns 83 in August. Success and life may have had their ups and downs, but now transplanted back to New York after a storied life and career in Hollywood, he feels a spry 38.
No less impressive than the play’s revival,with producers including David Stone, Scott Rudin and Ryan Murphy, is the cast of eight stage, TV, and film stars – and one newcomer, headlined by Golden Globe and four-time Emmy winner Jim Parsons, Zachary Quinto, Tony-nominee Andrew Rannells, two-time Tony nominee Robin de Jesús, and Golden Globe winner and Emmy nominee Matt Bomer. Two-time Tony-winner Joe Mantello directs.
Responding to the controversy his play stirred, Crowley says, “The Boys in the Band is no sermon. I’ve giving no one advice. What do I know about social causes? I had no hidden agenda. If anything, my agenda was very much other there. I was writing for personal fulfillment and for my own survival after years of frustration and failure. It all came onto the page, maybe even boiled over, rather quickly and easily.”
He says there is “a little of me in some of the characters, and a lot of many people I have known, but the black comedy is not a confession, nor is it autobiographical” – although there’s some dialogue that draws personal parallels.
The Boys in the Band is set in an apartment in New York Upper East Side, as Michael (Parsons), a once successful film writer now between jobs, holds a birthday party for his bitingly-frank and sarcastic friend Harold. The guests include five gay friends, a hustler (Harold’s “present”), and Alan, Michael’s straight, married former college roommate, who arrives unexpectedly and in the throes of a personal crisis.
Though the play unleashes a fast stream of hilarious gay one-liners, it has moments of brutal honesty after Michael, drinking heavily, initiates a cruel truth or dare game where each guest must call the person he has loved the most. With the laughter faded and raw wounds opened, the birthday cake, strewn gift-paper, streamers, and confetti are the detritus of a disastrous event.
The success of the play came just in time for the Vicksburg, Mississippi native, who as a youth immersed himself in community theater and countless hours daydreaming at the movies. He went as far as making movies with his uncle’s camera in the city’s military park that traces the siege that Ulysses S. Grant inflicted on the city.
Hollywood was his dream and it appeared he was on the right and fast track. “But, and isn’t there always a but?” he says. “I was dried up in LaLaLand, and so exasperated at trying to make it as a screenwriter and being shut out that I considered throwing in the towel.”However, success at 32 was also tough. Crowley faced stress, depression, and alcoholism.
After his 1953 graduation from Catholic school, Crowley didn’t head to college – the Catholic college his father wanted for him, Notre Dame, but hopped a few buses to California, didn’t go to UCLA but got a job washing dishes in the cafeteria, and visited movie lots. His dream was to attend UCLA Film School, “but dad said it was out of the question.” He’d read that Catholic University of America in Washington had an excellent drama department. “That led to a compromise.”
Home for Christmas in 1955, Crowley discovered through a family friend in Greenville that Elia Kazan was shooting Baby Doll, based on the Tennessee Williams’ rowdy short story set in the Mississippi Delta. Kazan and his stars Carroll Baker, Karl Malden, and Eli Wallach were eating in the friend’s Greenville restaurant. No one ever tore rubber on a highway faster.
“I knew Kazan’s work and was in awe of him,” said the playwright. “I went up and introduced myself and asked him a lot of questions. I was ready to quit school and go to work for him. He seemed amused, but advised, ‘Go back to school. Get your education, then come and see me.’”
Crowley went back to school, but it was UCLA, and to work on an art degree. He briefly became an illustrator, then returned to Catholic University, majoring in speech and drama and working in college productions and summer stock. “Those summers on the road was when I began to write.”
Back in New York after university, Crowley got a job as a PA on the 1959 remake of the prison break film The Last Mile, starring Mickey Rooney. That led to jobs on another Williams adaptation, The Fugitive Kind starring Marlon Brando, Anna Magnani, and Joanne Woodward; Butterfield 8 with Elizabeth Taylor and Eddie Fisher; and others.
Fate intervened one night when Crowley literally ran into Kazan walking. “The first thing he said was, ‘What the hell took you so long?’ He hired me as an assistant on ‘Splendor in the Grass.’” He impressed the director with his culinary expertise creating Greek salads, and became Natalie Wood’s shoulder to cry on when it came to Warren Beatty.
Jump forward to 1960: Wood was starring in “West Side Story” and needed an assistant. “Lots of scripts and novels came in for her. Natalie trusted me to read them and tell her what I thought.” They became devoted confidants. “Knowing how badly I wanted to write, she told me if I returned to California she’d introduce me to an agent.”
Crowley became an integral part of Wood’s life, not only professionally, but escorting her, joining her and husband Robert Wagner at parties at the homes of s Jane Fonda, Judy Garland, Rock Hudson, and Roddy McDowall. He became the person Wood could depend on above all others. “Finding someone as precious as Natalie was so rare,” he states. “She was warm, caring, wonderful.” The pressures of stardom and romance led to problems for Wood, who more than once attempted suicide with sleeping pills. The first time, Crowley discovered her unconscious and rushed her to the hospital, where he registered her under a pseudonym and managed to keep the incident out of the press. He says, “I was just as helpful to R.J. [Wagner] when he had “to overcome some rough spots.”
Though he prefers not to discuss Wood’s drowning because so much misinformation has been spread, he was devastated to lose his beloved friend. He’s godfather to Wood’s two daughters – one by second husband, producer Richard Gregson; the other, her second marriage to Wagner. Wood stipulated that in the event of her death, Crowley “would be second in line after my older sister (Lana) to raise the children.”
In a 2011 interview, Crowley revealed that although Wood was afraid of “dark water, she loved being on water – finding it a tranquil escape from the public eye. He pointed out Wood was adept at piloting the dinghy for errands to and from the vessel. He stated it is ludicrous to believe Wagner could have harmed her, “There isn’t a human being on the face of the earth he worshiped and adored more. He was besotted with her, and she with him in her own way.”
Wood came through. Crowley was signed by the giant William Morris agency, an unknown on a roster of megastars and Oscar-winning writers. He was hired as a contract writer. “It was very much like those scenes in Sunset Boulevard of the writer’s offices -- writing all day, with trips to the water cooler and roaming the back lot, but to no avail.”
There was a screenplay for Wood, optioned by Twentieth-Century Fox, which never made it past studio chief Darryl Zanuck [Crowley was to make a triumphal return to Fox years later]; and 1968’s Fade-In, to star Burt Reynolds. However the studio brought in another writer [it was never released theatrically, but occasionally pops up on TV retitled Iron Cowboy]. With the first money he made from Boys, he paid to have his name removed from the negative. “No one tried harder,” he points out, “but nothing ever panned out. Plays were rejected. Film scripts that were optioned never got off the ground. TV pilots I wrote never got picked up. It was one flop after another. I went from being an optimist to a pessimist.” He was also hurting financially. He’d housesit for stars, and at one point needed to sublet his apartment.
“On days when I didn’t have one martini too many, I’d fall asleep on the couch. I tried to get motivated by thinking up projects usually for me, not for the studio.” One idea came to him was while he was at a birthday party surrounded by very interesting people. I started mulling that over. The title came from a Judy Garland line in A Star is Born, but the stimulus that motivated Crowley was a piece in The New York Times about closeted drama. “I wondered why playwrights didn’t really write what they were writing about instead of beating around the busy. I thought, ‘Why hasn’t anyone done that?’”
In July 1967, he got a call from Diana Lynn, a film/TV actress adept at comedy, drama, and the piano [she starred opposite Ronald Reagan in Bedtime for Bonzo], who asked him to house-sit her Beverly Hills mansion. “For five weeks, I sat in the library and fought off the servants and wrote. It was there that I got the idea of setting the play at a birthday party.”
He met with a New York agent. Her reaction: “A play about homosexuals at a birthday party! I can’t send that out. Come back in five years.” The comedy/drama was worshopped in 1968 at the Playwrights’ Unit in a small Greenwich Village theatre [now, the Soho Playhouse] under the aegis of producer Richard Barr, instrumental in the career of Edward Albee. Word spread and soon there were lines around the block of those hoping for a ticket to one of five performances. When funding came up short, Crowley and the actors passed a hat around to the waiters at Joe Allen’s, where Allen made a sizable investment. “They all came out pretty well,” laughs Crowley.
The Boys in the Band premiered in the mid-50s way west of the theatre district and was an instant if controversial hit. It became a celebrity magnet drawing the likes of Jackie Kennedy, Marlene Dietrich, Rudolf Nureyev, and Groucho Marx.
New York Times critic Clive Barnes called it “one of the best-acted plays of the season” and “quite an achievement,” adding “I have a feeling that most of us will find it a gripping, if painful, experience – so uncompromising in its honesty that it becomes an affirmation of life.” Those were words Crowley never forgot and, in his darkest days, would repeat over and over.
The play brought Crowley the prestige that had eluded him in Hollywood. The major studios wanted the rights “but didn’t want my involvement. I probably would have done the first draft of the screenplay and then lose control. I wanted it done right, with the cast of the play and with me as producer. No way! So, I settled for less money but got what I wanted – including a brilliant director, future Oscar winner William Friedkin.
The film did well, and has become a cult classic. Crowley suddenly had more money than he’d ever known: from royalties from Off Broadway, touring companies, regional, the West End production with the original cast, and worldwide productions, and income from the film. “It didn’t last forever,” he regrets, “particularly the way I lived.” In 1973, for six years, he “sort of evaporated” and tried to regain momentum in Paris, the south of France, and Rome. “You see where the money went, but like Edith Piaf, I am regret free.”
Wood and Wagner remained loyal friends. Crowley returned to the West Coast and 20th Century-Fox to be executive story editor and later producer of Wagner’s hit series Hart to Hart. Due to the intense stress, he left after four seasons – returning to write two TV movie specials. Not long after, he collapsed following a massive heart attack. “That was my wake-up call to stop drinking and change my diet.” Wagner, who attended the Transport Group’s 2010 Obie-winning revival, with audience members seated throughout the playing area, came in for the Broadway premiere. Mart Crowley flung open a door 50 years ago and the closet hasn’t been shut since.
There were other plays, including A Breeze from the Gulf, a brutal, thinly-disguised family life story in the mode of Eugene O’Neill and Albee. One critic wrote: “A deeply-religious alcoholic father, a dope fiend mother — well, what chance does an only son have for happiness?” It co-starred Ruth Ford, the beautiful model turned actress, who lived in the famed Dakota on Central Park West where she became muse to writers, actors, and musicians. It opened way Off Broadway, on New York Upper East Side. Reviews were strong to mixed, but it failed to find an audience. In retrospect, many feel it was ahead of its time and is ripe for revival.
The play can be found in 3 Plays, a collection that includes Boys and his last play For Reasons that Remain Unclear, an autobiographical one-act about a writer who arranges a reunion to confront a priest who molested him.
The playwright’s second work, Remote Asylum, produced in Los Angeles, was about three lost souls: an actress, her tennis pro lover [played by William Shatner, breaking away from Captain Kirk] and a gay writer friend, Michael – introduced in Boys, who escape to a Mexican villa to find themselves and end up dancing on each other’s graves. The reviews were poor. This failure, coming on the heels of Boys’ mega success put Crowley in such a tailspin he escaped to France for two years.
“I tried very hard, couldn’t shake the depression. To do that, I had to change my inner self and get to know the real Mart Crowley.”
At the 2018 Olivier Awards, held in massive Royal Albert Hall, it was no surprise that Hamilton and Angels in America scored big. The musical captured seven of its record 13 nominations.
Play: The Ferryman [which captured eight nominations]by Jezz Buterworth (Jerusalem). [Play opens in October at Broadway’s Jacobs Theatre.]
Score: Lin-Manuel Miranda, Hamilton.
Choreography: Andy Blankenbuehler, Hamilton.
Outstanding Achievement in Music: Miranda and orchestrator AlexLacamoire, Hamilton.
Director, Play: Sam Mendes, The Ferryman. [The category makes no distinction between Play and Musical.]
Revival, Play: Royal National Theatre’s Angels in America, Parts One and Two, TonyKushner [now on Broadway with the original stars Andrew Garfield and NathanLane].
Revival, Musical: Follies, Stephen Sondheim.
Actor, Play: Brian Cranston, Network, adapted by Lee Hall (Billy Elliott).
Actress, Play: Laura Donnelly, The Ferryman.
Actor, Supporting, Play: Bertie Carve, Ink [by James Graham, about mogul Rupert Murdoch].
Actor, Musical: Giles Terera (Aaron Burr), Hamilton. Actress, Supporting, Play: Denise Gough (Harper Pitt), Angels In America, Parts One and Two. [She’s now on Broadway.]
Actress, Musical: Shirley Henderson, Girl from the North Country [Conor McPherson's musical, scheduled to come to Broadway, is based on the work of Bob Dylan; with book and lyrics by Tom Eyen and music Henry Krieger, Dreamgirls].
Actor, Supporting, Musical: Michael Jibson (King George III), Hamilton. Actress, Supporting, Musical: Sheila Atim, Girl from the North Country.
Presenters this year included Cuba Gooding Jr., Andrew Lloyd Webber, Patti LuPone, Chita Rivera, Michael Sheen, and Juliet Stevenson.
Among U.S. shows nominated were Oslo, An American in Paris, Five Guys Named Moe, 42nd Street, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Young Frankenstein. Performances from nominated musicals included: Hamilton; Everybody's Talking About Jamie; Girl from the North Country, Young Frankenstein, Follies and 42nd Street.
Ms. Rivera, Andy Karl (2017 Olivier, Actor, Musical, Groundhog Day), and Adam J. Bernard (2017 Olivier, Actor, Supporting, Dreamgirls) performed "Somewhere"for the In Memoriam segment.
A special 50th anniversary honor went to Tim Rice and Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with past stars including Jason Donovan and Linzi Hateley.
Sheen introduced the In Memoriam segment. Among those remembered and known here were: Hywel Bennett (film/TV actor, Loot, Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy, Eastenders, Pennies from Heaven, Shelley), David Cassidy, Barbara Cook, Bruce Forsyth (legendary Brit actor/comedian/singer/dancer), Peter Hall, Thomas Meehan, Roger Moore, Bernard Pomerrance [playwright, The Elephant Man), Sam Shepard, and Stuart Thompson (six-time Tony-winning producer).
Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber worked in earnest on the Jesus Christ project. From the very beginning Lloyd Webber knew what he wanted. It would be a mash-up: a fusion of symphony orchestra, rock, and soul. But first they needed capital and a label.
Lloyd Webber figured a scheme to get backing. He sent the Joseph … album to real estate mogul Sefton Myers. At their meeting, which also included prominent attorney/manager David Land, he discussed backing to create a pop music museum. Myers inquired about the lyricist. Lloyd Webber was quick to point out Rice was “a cutting edge record executive” and they had many projects in mind. The museum was of no interest to Myers, but another meeting was set up. They were offered a three-year management contract, which provided £2,000 annually with further increases upon contract renewal. Myers and Land became not just managers but father figures with Myers providing most of the cash and Land the legal ins and out. [After Myers’ death, Land continued to guide Rice and Lloyd Webber through later successes.]
Their musical would cover Christ's last week on Earth as seen through the eyes of Mary Magdalene and apostle Judas Iscariot. In his autobiography, Rice wrote: “As the apostle who betrayed Jesus is given extraordinarily scant attention in the Gospels … we would be able to put words in Judas’ mouth without fear of being scripturally inaccurate. In other respects, I was determined to be as faithful as possible to the story as per Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”
Land, Jewish, was less than enthused about the Jesus Christ project, but he was respectful of Rice and Webber’s artistic freedom. He and Myers shopped the project to British Decca, a very conservative organization [and no relation to MCA’s U.S. Decca]. The label passed stating they’d their share of the contemporary sound with such artists as the Rolling Stones, Tom Jones, and Englebert Humperdinck – adding they had no desire to get embroiled in controversy. The composers felt that the success of their rock opera depended on its reception in the U.S. RCA was a company with deep roots in America as well as Europe, but there was an emphatic “Not interested."
MCA-UK, a much smaller operation, had huge ties in the U.S. with the parent companies’ three main labels. Luck was in the duo’s corner. Their writer/producer colleague Mike Leander was now head of A&R. When informed of the project, he became quite enthused – as did U.K. label president Brian Brolly. Though Rice and Lloyd Webber were thinking full throttle ahead, instead of commissioning the whole composition and giving the duo a large advance, Leander decided to send up a flag to gauge public acceptance.
“They bit big time,” enthused Lloyd Webber. Coming up the ranks, he had thoroughly educated himself in the ins and outs of music rights and was savvy enough never to sign his and Rice’s grand rights in case the envisioned stage musical came to be.
There was only a vague outline of what Rice and Lloyd Webber envisioned as their musical. Rice was busy crafting lyrics for their first composition – for which his partner created a three-cord structure that grew in power with a fanfare written for their doomed King David project.
Rice often mused over a Bob Dylan lyric from “With God on His Side,” a song about the morality of wars on his 1964 album The Times They Are a-Changin. The lyric in the last stanza reads: “ … I been thinkin’ about this, that Jesus was betrayed by a kiss; but I can’t think for you, you’ll have to decide whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side.” The finished tune was a blistering tirade by Judas, whom Rice felt got the “short shrift” in the Gospel recounting of Jesus’ passion. It was christened “Superstar.” Using slang and allusions to modern life, the song depicts Judas as a tragic figure dissatisfied with and questioning the direction Jesus steers His apostles and disciples. Rice stated he wanted the apostle to ask Jesus the type of questions he’d like to ask.
The team had been working on musical motifs everywhere even, as MCA international vice president Richard Broderick reported, in a “joint” specializing in American-style burgers which Rice and Lloyd claimed wasn’t the case. [In his memoir Unmasked, the composer mentions writing on paper napkins [however, maybe it wasn’t in a burger joint]. The ever-open, ever-direct Rice recounts he wrote some lyrics while waiting for his mother to prepare lunch one Sunday.
In an amazing act of trust, Brolly and Leander not only granted Lloyd Webber his every whim, but also gave the duo full control. The budget of slightly under £10,000. The composer became the natural choice to do the orchestrations. He informed that he wanted “nothing fancy,” just a symphony orchestra, rock band, and gospel singers “with a bluesy lead vocal.”
MCA delivered. There were 56 musicians, who became the Andrew Lloyd Webber Orchestra, a rock band with acoustic and electric guitars and drums, an organ, and two choirs – one of pop singers, the other with gospel singers. In addition, the Trinidad Singers were brought in for backing vocals. The rock ensemble consisted of musicians from Joe Cocker's Grease Band.
September 1969: “Superstar” recording session begins
They hit the studio in earnest in September. The composers chose Murray Head to do the vocal. His recording career hadn’t taken off, but he was appearing on the West End in Hair and being considered by director John Schlesinger for a lead in the film Sunday, Bloody, Sunday, a romantic triangle involving him, Peter Finch, and Glenda Jackson [he got the role]. According to Rice, Head was dubious the recording would take place yet “he still agreed to come aboard.” That gesture was more evidence to him that he and Lloyd Webber were creating something – whether loved or loathed – appreciated or misunderstood – that would be hard to ignore.
The sessions, which ran into October, were recorded on eight-track tape at Olympic Studios, constructed in 1906 as a repertory theatre, on Church Road in the suburb of Barnes, with organ tracks done in a nearby church. Lloyd Webber’s bent for perfection caused the budget to skyrocket to the point it rose to the level labels allot for most albums. Brolly began to worry. A few executives referred to the undertaking as “Brian’s Folly.” Though he continued to support the sessions, he assigned an executive from the Classical Division to keep a close eye and lid on expenses.
MCA sought secrecy, however, with Olympic being the studio where such legendary groups as the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Led Zeppelin recorded, word spread under and over ground that MCA was recording a megaproject.
Soon, Rice added Superstar to the project title. “If we called it Jesus Christ we’d have had it, despite the fact that Cliff Richard had recorded a song titled “Jesus” and got away with it.” He admitted what Richard, with his immense popularity, got away with might spell disaster for the neophytes they were.
Rice described the October 5 and 6 sessions with a tinge of poignancy: “Murray sang beautifully, with great strength and passion … [with the pop vocalists] echoing his anguished cries of ‘Don’t you get me wrong’ and ‘I only want to know,’ the classical orchestral lineup adding all kinds of color and mystery … The power of the music now easily matched that of the lyric, and all concerned knew we had created something out of the ordinary.”October 20th the writers took the finished tape to Brolly, who played it twice. He was so enthused he called it one of the best he’d ever heard. When Broderick arrived from New York, heard the tape, met Rice, and became so enthusiastic he wired New York of his discovery, Brolly advised he wanted a U.S. release very close to what he was planning. Now, all Broderick had to do was sell the project to New York and Universal City.
“Superstar” would be the beginning of a turning point for MCA and the Decca label.
Before Jack Loetz in New York gave the go-ahead for the U.S. release, L.A. music head Berle Adams reported a labels uprising. Why is Decca getting “Superstar” when Uni, the L.A.-based house label, was hot with Neil Diamond and top-selling, charted pop singles – including several Number Ones – and had been picked by U.K.-based Dick James Music as the label for the U.S. debut of Elton John. Kapp Records also raised a ruckus, noting its established pop stars.
Broderick put forward the idea that if all three labels wanted the single, why not release on all three simultaneously. Loetz, still skeptical of its reception, leaned toward Decca since that was where his allegiance lay. Tony Martel, the VP of sales and marketing, made the argument that Decca was geared to sell albums, and a Jesus Christ LP was Rice and Webber’s goal. The decision was left to Adams.
Martell had a favorite saying: A good record – a hit – could sell itself, say at least a half-million to a million copies; but to get to the magic Gold status, you need merchandising know-how to sell a million dollars worth of product [today’s Platinum standard]. He’d proven at Columbia he could deliver and was making big headway at Decca with The Who.
Loetz convinced Adams Decca was the way to go. However, in the end, Adams decided with a coin toss. Decca won the prize.
Marketing with good taste and clergy backing
The special handling promise was kept. Creative director Bill Levy designed a simple white sleeve. On front was a sketch of a God-like figure, which looked more like Methuselah, the Biblical son of Enoch, father of Lamech, and grandfather of Noah, who lived 969 years, than the traditional depiction of Jesus. Above the drawing was the single-word title. There was no mention of Jesus Christ, but information on the back cover carried the prophetic words "from the rock opera Jesus Christ now in preparation."
Nowhere was it indicated the song was sung by Judas. On the back, below the names of Rice, Lloyd Webber, Head, and the Trinidad Singers, the lyrics – some difficult to understand on first listening with the composer’s incredible, but way over-the-top orchestrations – were printed. To lessen chances of cries that the record was sacrilege, and to give it an official imprimatur, a quote from Dean Sullivan of St. Paul’s Cathedral, who had warned Lloyd Webber that might be controversy, was printed across the back.
His message read: “There are some people who may be shocked by this record. I ask them to listen and think again. It is a desperate cry. Who are you Jesus Christ? Is the urgent enquiry, and a very proper one at that. The record probes some answers and makes some comparisons. The anus is on the listening to come up with replies. If he is a Christian, let him answer for Christ. The singer says he only wants to know. He’s entitled to some response.”
Before MCA-U.K. could worry about outraging Christian society, they had to worry about securing airplay. That couldn’t be done without a flip side, but nothing further had been composed. Lloyd Webber at the piano and created a stunning instrumental piece, which Rice titled "John 19:41." [The first half was later incorporated into the rock opera as “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say).”] The title referred not to the year of the attack on Pearl Harbor, as Rice took pains to explain, but the chapter and verse in the fourth Gospel describing Jesus’ burial place. Lloyd Webber wrote an arrangement that showcased the pop and rock aspects of his music. In the U.K., “John 19:41” was used in its entirety; but in the States, Decca decided to cut it in half because the latter portion amounted to little more than a jazz improvisation.]
“Superstar” hit stores November 21, 1969, rolling out with a larger than usual promotion. Very little was heard of it after that.
Rice noted that pop was infiltrating Christianity in a big way – in the U.S. There was “Oh, Happy Day” from Stephen Schwartz’s hit Off Broadway musical he and Lloyd Webber were soon to see, Godspell, an energetic, bouncy tale of Christ with its share of vaudeville moments, loosely based on the Gospel according to Matthew; and Lawrence Reynolds and Jack Cardwell’s “Jesus Is a Soul Man,” Reynolds recorded to hit status: Number 28 on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart. Ironically, Decca artist Conway Twitty had a hit with it in the country arena. Controversy reigned; success did notThat didn’t help “Superstar” across the pond. There was no religious outrage or protests – yet. There were all of two reviews in the music trades – both favorable. One of radio’s most popular radio shows, Pick of the Pops, programmed the song several times. On another station, a DJ labeled it “possibly the most controversial record ever released” and went as far as to call it “a direct attack on the teachings and beliefs of Jesus Christ.” Rice laughed, "That was about the sum total of the excitement the record stirred in England."
Lloyd Webber had a good friend in TV host David Frost. An appearance on his hugely popular show could mean big things for the record. Frost, never one to shy away from the controversial, eagerly had them on. He introduced Head, stating that he would do a song from a forthcoming rock opera called Jesus Christ. No sooner than he finished, the network switchboard became jammed with protest calls for over an hour.
The label and Dean Sullivan got response – just not what they had hoped for. The two BBC radio networks banned the record. South Africa also prohibited airplay [and later the album] on the state-owned radio network.
At home, "Superstar" was shipped to Decca distributors and radio stations with much fanfare the first Monday in December. The single arrived at major stations hand-delivered by promotion staff with a press kit. A series of ads and features heralded the single in music trades Billboard and Cash Box. One release explained how Decca was treating “Superstar” with taste to avoid any branding of the record as sacrilege. An ad quoted Dean Sullivan’s message above that God-like sketch. But the ad Decca ran in the trades of December 22nd raised eyebrows with copy that read: “We wish to inform you that all MCA offices will be closed on December 25 in observance of Superstar’s birthday.” Each letter of the song title was capped with snow. Later ads were steeped in good taste.
There was hope this new release would be what the industry calls a sleeper,
that steady sales and increased airplay would net a smash. But there was little
interest in “Superstar.” Decca was at the point where the executives felt they had an expensive fiasco. All of Martel’s savvy marketing couldn’t hide a blunder. As the record dropped, the airwaves were flooded with holiday cheer and traditional tunes of the season. Especially at Christmas, controversy was to be avoided. Probably even a month earlier wouldn’t have made much difference because the holidays began with Thanksgiving.
Broderick, thankfully, had the foresight to personally slip a copy to popular WNEW-FM night DJ Scott Muni, who had helped launch numerous hits. After each play, Muni’s call-in line was tied up with listener questions about the single – and occasional protest.
FM began to pave the way for a hit, but AM play was needed to score on the trade charts. At the end of December, Martel released a statement to the trades: “While many stations have adopted a ‘wait and see’ attitude, those who have been playing ‘Superstar’ have received nearly a 75% positive response from their listening audiences. For the most part, stations playing the single are giving it ‘special handling.’” The latter referred to markets such as New York, Miami, and Cleveland where following a play, DJs held discussions with clergy.
An item in Time gave a boost to sales and airplay: “Considerable air time in the U.S. and England has been devoted to ‘Superstar,’ a soaring, foot-tapping single from a rock opera about Jesus Christ now being written in London.
Way ahead of the U.K. and U.S. was the popularity the single was reaping on the international scene, particularly in countries which were predominantly Catholic – France, Italy, Spain, and the Netherlands. That cause for celebration was partly due to programming of the single on the Armed Forces radio network and Radio Luxembourg.
The high hopes were that the single would lead to a rock opera album, which would lead to concerts and a stage production with handsome royalties which MCA would participate in. However, the record never soared above the high 80s on the Billboard and Cash Box charts. By May 1970, sales had only slightly exceeded 100,000 copies. For most 45 R.P.M. releases that would be quite healthy; but with all that was riding on the single’s success in the U.S. the future of a Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera appeared dubious.
In the scheme of everyday business affairs, when costs aren’t recouped you throw in the towel. That wasn’t the case with “Superstar.” Great faith persisted. Rice and Webber put their noses to the grindstone, writing another 20 songs. The result was a sung-through concept album with elements of classical oratorio and raw emotions set to an intense rock beat. The two-disc album went on to worldwide blockbuster sales status.
That wasn’t the end of the story. So much more was to happen. Entertainment history was to be made.
With the 1968 release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, not only a mega sales blockbuster but also the album that changed the course of rock music, every record label was looking for another Beatles.
MCA Records, a division of Music Corporation of America/Universal Studios, like Columbia and RCA Records, was once an industry leader. Now, its major imprint Decca was considered a stable, old-line company not identified with contemporary sounds. Not exactly true: through a licensing agreement, they were at the vanguard of the “British invasion,” doing a laudable job of launching The Who. There were respectable sales from three LPs, but
That was soon to change.
For their fourth LP, The Who went into the studio with a theme leads Pete Townsend and Roger Daltry christened a “rock opera.” Townshend came up
with the concept after meeting Indian spiritual master and “avatar” Meher Baba.
He musicalized the story of “a psychosomatically deaf, dumb, and blind boy who becomes a master pinball player and object of a religious cult.” Tommy was acclaimed by critics, rejuvenating the band's reputation. Copies were flying off record store shelves and there was a sell-out U.K. tour.
The logical next stop was the U.S. The band was booked for a 5 A.M. concert at 1969’s Woodstock Music Festival, which turned into a riotous event of screaming fans. Decca awoke to unprecedented requests for product. It finally had its first mega smash in almost two decades – and first top-charted LP. [Tommy became one of the most influential albums in rock annals, eventually racking up sales in excess of 25 million, with later successful film and stage adaptations, and induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame].
TV had hurt movie house box offices to the point that MCA transformed its lot into a TV movie and series assembly line. Tommy’s immense popularity suggested another way to pump up the bottom line. The company was in a unique position with film, TV, and music, to use their record artists to crossover to TV for guest-starring roles. However, the company didn’t have The Who under contract, only their records.
The Nashville division, with the rising popularity of country rocker Conway Twitty and coal miner’s daughter Loretta Lynn, was thriving, but these and other country artists didn’t yet have wide appeal or simply weren’t quite ready for prime time. Decca had a rich legacy of albums from long-ago show business giants and a catalog of Broadway original cast albums [including Oklahoma!], but that wasn’t what TV audiences were demanding.
Anything and everything was tried, with dismal results. Berle Adams, a former agent and music publisher who also dabbled as a film producer, the music division’s L.A.-based top executive, instituted a search for new leaders.
New York’s old guard was sent into exile. New, savvier executives were brought in to find the next big power band that could keep the adrenalin flowing. The New York office’s chief Jack Loetz had been a top lieutenant to Columbia’s Clive Davis. As vice president, he brought with him one of the industry’s top marketing and sales experts, Tony Martel. Richard Broderick, a tall, large, robust, balding white-hired man, who’d worked with Colonel Tom Parker and Elvis at RCA, was onboard as international VP.
On a scouting trip, Broderick met in London with MCA’s U.K. chief Brian Brolly, who told him he was on to something big. He played a session tape. “It’s called ‘Superstar.’ It’s from a new rock opera.” Broderick, Irish and a devout Catholic didn’t blink. He was so bowled over, he wanted to hear it again. Brolly arranged an introduction to the composers. Informed that the U.K. division was setting a release date, and wanted a U.S, roll out, Broderick wired New York: “I’ve found what everyone’s been looking for.”
November 4, 1969
Each Tuesday at 11 A.M. Decca’s department heads converged one floor up from their offices at Park Avenue and 57th Street to the MCA board room where they sipped coffee, reviewed sales reports, and sampled upcoming product. Artists & Repertory [A&R] manager John Walsh, a tall blond with matinee idol looks and long shaggy hair who was dubbed the “house hippie,” played demos over what he called “one of the world's worst stereo systems.”
Loetz arrived and seated himself next to Martell. Both had been given a sneak preview. Loetz had concerns; Martel was gung-ho. The helping of tunes did nothing to satisfy the staff. The always-direct James Slaughter, who worked with A&R and Sales, stated, “It’s the same ole same ole.”
When it came to product from Nashville by Queen of Country Music Kitty Wells
and legendary Texas troubadour Ernest Tubb, the 16 staffers squirmed in their chairs. The release from Jay Lee Webb, brother of Loretta Lynn, "Your Cow's Gonna Get Out," brought snide remarks. As staffers derided it, Loetz reprimanded his team: "Gentlemen, The Who and Nashville are what's keeping our doors open!"
Martel motioned to Broderick. He came forward with a 45 R.P.M. vinyl, and solemnly intoned, "There's one more, gentlemen – something quite unusual. Our other labels don't know about it. It will be a Decca scoop. It’s a record from England called ‘Superstar’ by a young composing team, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Quite a fortune was spent on the session and it’s going to blow your minds.”
The record was to be released toward the end of the month in the U.K. and Decca planned an early December launch. He explained, “This won’t just be a single. 'Superstar' is from Jesus Christ, a still unfinished concept album about Christ’s last days. There’s going to be a rock band with the best Britian has to offer plus, get this, a full symphony orchestra. It will be the most expensive in-house project in Decca's history.” Hopefully, you’ll listen with an open mind. The young Brits are calling it a rock opera. We know something about rock operas.”
The tune blasted a pulsating blues rock rhythm as Head sang:
“Every time I look at you, I don’t understand Why you let the things you did get so out of hand.
Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ,
Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ, Superstar
Do you think you're what they say you are?
Jesus Christ, Superstar
Do you think you're what they say you are?”
Martel was tapping his hand against the side of the table. The room fell silent, only suddenly to become engrossed in alternating veins of confused conversation, surprise that segued to shock, and, for a few, excitement. Finally, someone blurted, “Dick, what the hell kinda record is this?” Broderick replied, “Something that can be a monster."
“Who’s this guy?” asked one. “Judas,” Broderick replied. “Judas? He betrayed Jesus! Dick, if we put this out, every churchman in the country will stone us. And not just with rocks, but with boulders!”
More feedback followed: “A record like that won’t get airplay,” “No one will touch it,” “All listeners are going to hear is ‘Jesus Christ, who are you? What have you sacrificed?’”, “If you want publicity, this’ll give it to you! The negative kind!”, and “If the record’s causing this kinda stir here, you know it’s gonna create a firestorm out there.”The majority, in quite vivid terms, stated the public – Christian and Jewish – “would rain the wrath of God” on the company. Loetz, Martel, and Broderick hadn’t expected mutiny. Then, Slaughter jumped up. "Guys, it's fantastic. Best thing we've had. It’s time we had something controversial.”
“Okay, you answer the letters!” jibed an associate. “Hey, I’m from Georgia,” Slaughter snapped back. “Jesus is big news!”
“Southerners’ll think this is sacrilege?” a staffer opined. “This’ll offend everyone. We're crazy if we put it out! Decca is a prestige label."
"Yeah," Slaughter chimed in. "A prestige label that needs a blockbuster hit. We can’t live on Tommy forever!"
Martell chimed in, "There'll be controversy, but young people will go for it. They're the ones buying records. It could be a smash."
The radio promotion manager weighed in. “It clocked at over four minutes! That’s
a lifetime on pop stations – if they’ll even program it. Some are gonna be scared,
but if we finesse this the right way FM stations’ll jump on it. Underground’s the
way to go. Listeners are more hip, but we’re not gonna get big numbers.”
After the meeting, the executives remained. "Jack, I want it," said Martell. “It wasn’t all positive, but you can’t say they weren’t fired up.” "London’s ready to roll, enthused Broderick." Lutz advised, “It's not going to be easy. We're going to have a fight on our hands. Dick, get them to listen again. Let everyone absorb it. Can you get us a couple of days?” Broderick replied, “I know Brian will.”
After he departed, Loetz informed Martel that Adams was high on the prospects of the record; however, he confessed he wasn’t so sure. “We’ll be accused of being blasphemers and anti-Semitic. Are we prepared for that? The whole thing must be handled with extreme good taste. If the record bombs, I’m out the door.” Broderick also knew that because of his enthusiasm for the record and expected album he’d be next in line.
For the next few days, office doors were closed as the tune was played. Walsh and Slaughter made the rounds promoting their enthusiasm and playing it for anyone who'd listen.
The most astute executives know who help keep a company sailing smooth: the secretaries. Curiosity was rampant, and a row of them ran to listen whenever they could. The younger set were enthused; the older, not so much. Loetz’s secretary moaned that she could see hellfire blazing. Another had tears in her eyes when she heard the demo. "It's sad when a company like Decca has to make money by making fun of Jesus," she grieved.
By Monday, after consultations with Adams on the West Coast, Loetz gave the word, “Run with it!” None on staff were surprised when suddenly rumors floated that staid old Decca was putting out a sacrilegious record.
, Andrew Lloyd Webber, just turning 17 and soon to be on his way to a term at Oxford, met Tim Rice in 1965. Rice, 22, was writing pop lyrics and was told by Lloyd Webber’s agent he was in the market for a “with it” lyricist. On meeting Rice, whom he describes in his memoir Unmasked as “a six-foot-something, thin as a rake, blond bombshell of an adonis,” he imagined his goal was to be “a heartthrob rock star.”
Lloyd Webber was working on the score of a musical, but the author of the source material was slow coming up with a plotline. He became impressed with Rice’s “rhyming dexterity” and they eagerly joined forces. While Lloyd Webber was educating himself about the music business, Rice jumped at the opportunity of a position at EMI Records, then a music industry giant, getting his foot in the door of their A&R department, where he first met singer/songwriter Murray Head.
With The Likes of Us, as Lloyd Webber noted, “in the deep freeze,” the duo wrote pop songs, one of which was recorded. Other ideas for musicals floated and one, with a Biblical theme, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolored Dreamcoat, had a promising start in a 20-minute “cantata” [that gradually grew and grew to eventually became a hit stage show and recording].
What to do next?
Rice and Lloyd Webber considered a musical about President John F. Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis, which never went beyond discussions. Lloyd Webber recalled that in a conversation with a minister while at the Royal College a suggestion was floated that he write a musical on Christ's life. “Not the standard fare,” relayed Lloyd Webber, “but a composition that modern youth could identify with.” He reacted was laughter, stating, "What a terrible idea! It'll never sell." When the topic was broached with Rice, he wasn’t enthusiastic.
They musicalized the Richard the Lion-Hearted legend under the title Come Back, Richard, Your Country Needs You. It had one performance, but the only thing to come of it was the title song for a single on the RCA label.
In a meeting Rice had with Mike Leander, a record producer with the likes of the Beatles, Tom Jones, Marianne Faithful, and Donavan and now A&R head of MCA-UK. Leander, in an ironic happenstance if there ever was one, inquired whatever happened to the musical he and Lloyd Webber were working on, “the one that presented Jesus as a flesh-and- blood man.” Rice was flummoxed, as he had no recollection of mentioning it.
He raised the subject with Lloyd Webber, who thought with the passage of time and their lack of successful projects, “Maybe it’s not such a bad idea.” What might have been too controversial a couple of years ago, felt Rice, “might be more palatable now since people had become more liberal and more intelligent.” It also dawned on both a Biblical story had been their biggest success. Rice admitted they were entering uncharted, sensitive territory, and though they had no wish to offend any religion, controversial territory. The motivation for wanting to do a musical on Jesus's life, Lloyd Webber explained in an interview, "was that if one had had religion sort of rammed down one's throat when one was in school, it was inevitable that Jesus would be one of the first subjects one would choose for a project of this nature.”
They felt out others. Most thought it was a foolish idea. Undaunted, he said, “We didn't give up. It was a chance we decided to take.”
“We knew we had to be different to be interesting and exciting," explained Rice. The duo decided to set their story in the final days leading up to Jesus’ passion and crucifixion. "With my background, we considered rock; and, with Andrew’s knowledge of the classics, opera. Then we had this idea, 'Why not combine the two?' The Who had caused quite a stir by calling their Tommy a rock opera. That's how it all came about." “We had been well-coached in the mechanics of Christianity,” reported Rice. “It had been drummed into us at school. They treated Christ the legend, so we decided to treat the bloke as a man.”
“Superstar,” the duo’s first tune from their rock opera, was intended as a tirade for Judas. It was originally called “Judas’ Song.” Lloyd Webber came up with a simple three-chord structure, embellishing it with a chorus from a short-lived musical idea on King David.
Lloyd Webber discussed the project with Dean Martin Sullivan of St. Paul's Cathedral, who stated their approach “would be acceptable to any Christian who welcomed an honest challenge.” However, his support came with a warning: “It might ruffle some feathers and rekindle anti-Semitic feelings.” It was as if he had ESP.
The team is assembled to record Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera.End of Part One.
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