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Journey to the Stage: Revisiting Tom O’Horgan’s Radical 1971 Broadway Production

Ellis Nassour • March 2020Theater History • February 26, 2020

In these excerpts from Nassour’s forthcoming book, Superstar: Jesus Christ Superstar: Landmark Rock Opera to Worldwide Phenomenon, he looks at the road to getting it on stage.

MCA Records backed the October 1970 launch of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar with a campaign that could elect a president and an initial pressing of 100,000 copies [which would hopefully gross $1-million in sales]. In spite of much critical praise, it was a hard sell. …

… Months earlier, Lloyd Webber approached music mogul Robert Stigwood of Bee Gees fame for his help in fulfilling his dream of a stage production. He wasn’t interested. However, the morning after the New York launch, Stigwood, who’d missed “The Last Supper” presentation at an Upper East Side church, made a call to MCA that was forwarded to the label’s director of artist relations. He wanted to locate the composers. The executive promised he’d get a message to them.

Stigwood wasted no time giving “the boys” the royal treatment. He would now back a stage production. Within days, contracts were signed. Though it was a slow path, Jesus Christ Superstar, mainly thanks to FM radio programming, was finding favor with young audiences. … 

… The album was suddenly enjoying worldwide sales. In fact, it was on its way to becoming, for a time, the best-selling album of all time. Stigwood found that a good omen and wanted to open on Broadway as soon as possible.

Stigwood was desperately in need of a savvy, fast-paced director. Lloyd Webber was thrilled to learn Hal Prince expressed a desire to meet. That was of no interest to the producer, who was now in complete control. He had his ace in the hole: avant-garde director Tom O’Horgan, who was riding high as a result of his total reboot of the Public Theater’s Hair into a Broadway smash. Stigwood licensed that show to present on the West End, where it was a huge hit.

O’Horgan met Stigwood, associate Peter Brown [whom he knew working with the Beatles following Brian Epstein’s death], and Lloyd Webber in November 1970. Old friend and Hair set designer Robin Wagner, accompanied the director. “Stigy and Brown grilled him about what his concept would be,” recalls Wagner, “but Tom said, ‘I couldn’t tell you, even if I knew. I have to see the material and go from there.’” Stigwood informed him time was of the essence. O’Horgan replied, “I’ve got my design team in place and ready to go.”

He would have Wagner, a veteran of numerous Off Broadway shows and an assistant to 10-time Tony-winning designer Oliver Smith on shows such as My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Hello, Dolly, and Camelot, do sets; and, for lighting, Jules Fisher, then 34 and already the preeminent lighting designer Off- and on-Broadway. O’Horgan was high on the eclectic style of young Cuban costumer Randy Barcelo, whom he worked with at La MaMa and who’d be designing costumes for his upcoming Broadway production of Lenny. “Randy can go from funk to sexy to Upper East Side elegance in a flash.” 

Marc Cohen, O’Horgan’s young partner, personal assistant, part-time stage manager, and, when needed, actor, recalls, “When Stigwood and Brown couldn’t get what they wanted, the meeting abruptly ended.”… 

…. Suddenly, letters on how he’d stage the musical arrived from Frank Corsaro, acclaimed for his opera stagings and librettos which varied from traditional to avant garde; and, like O’Horgan, wasn’t averse to raising eyebrows.  Stigwood and Brown met with him over several dinners. …

… Stigwood couldn’t get O’Horgan, but after Corsaro agreed, he hired Wagner, Barcelo, and Fisher. …

… Corsaro was on payroll and working with Rice and Lloyd Webber, but without a contract, or any announcement he’d be directing. By the end of January 1971 he put pressure on Stigwood to produce one or he’d walk. 

It was never resolved. Corsaro offered his resignation on Friday, July 30. Stigwood assured him the contract would be in the mail the next day. That afternoon, heading to his weekend home, Corsaro was involved in a head-on collision which left him hospitalized with numerous injuries, including a broken leg. “I notified Stigwood I was in the hospital,” said the director. “I never heard a word – not even a ‘hello’ or ‘hope you’re better soon.’ He’d be out two months. The producer decided he couldn’t wait. “The next thing I heard,” said Corsaro, “was O’Horgan was taking over.” …

… O’Horgan listened to the album over and over, but had no idea of what to do. With his reputation as the reigning king of avant-garde, the show couldn’t be a straight-tale of the passion. …

… Rehearsals began in late August. As they did, O’Horgan was signed to coproduce and direct Inner City, a musical about the pratfalls of New York living, set to start rehearsals mid October. Stigwood moved up the Superstar premiere. That gave O’Horgan a short six weeks to put a production together. Wagner was given only three weeks to blueprint new set designs.  There were all-night sessions. Barcelo, a fast study, returned daily with dozens of new sketches. O’Horgan, his mind on the new show, came up with zilch.

Even Wagner, long aware of the director’s way of working, was getting antsy. Arrangements had to be made with prop and scenery shops. Stigwood and Universal Pictures, part of MCA and now a co-producer, wanted to see storyboards. O’Horgan’s rebuffed, “I don’t use storyboards. It’s all in my head.” It wasn’t.

Looking for inspiration, he went back to the music, devouring the lyrics and even using the album’s libretto insert as script. Nothing came to him. His stage manager Galen McKinley suggested they go to see a French sci-fi documentary The Hellstrom Chronicle (Des Insectes Des Hommes), which was drawing crowds. O’Horgan couldn’t find the time. Cohen and McKinley went. The next day they raved about it, describing it as the scariest horror film.

In it, Dr. Hellstrom, in incredible visual detail, explains how the savagery and efficiency of the insect world could result in their supremacy of the planet. “It was insects v. humans,” says Cohen, “The stunning cinematography was interspersed with clips from horror films to achieve dramatic effect.” That night O’Horgan and Wagner went and were equally blown away.

Exiting the cinema, O’Horgan blurted, “Robin, what about this as our concept? Insects are a super race who take over the world and put on the passion play.” Wagner, not quite sure what O’Horgan had in mind or how there’d be a parallel to Christ’s passion, replied, “Sure, Tom, I’ll see what I can come up with.” He was certain a new day would bring other ideas. It didn’t.

Wagner’s sketch for the Hosanna parade

However, they went to the Museum of Natural History to catch an exhibit of giant protozoa. After much thought, O’Horgan turned to Wagner and exclaimed, “Robin, how’s this? Reflect nature in the sets. I’ll get with Randy, too. For ‘Hosanna,’ I want the company carrying poles with all manner of protozoa as they dance into Jerusalem.” Wagner replied as before.

O’Horgan, Wagner, and Barcelo found inspiration for the swirls of color which became Jesus Christ Superstar in David Bindman’s The Complete Graphic Works of William Blake. An 18th Century poet and painter, Blake had enormous influence on the 1950s beat poets and 1960s counterculture; and was a leading proponent of the Free Love movement.

Wagner notes some ideas also came from Joseph Handler’s two-volume Encyclopedia of the Mind, Body and Health, which is filled with surreal illustrations. Finally, a concept was in the works. …

… “He wanted the stage to be a window for audiences to look at Christ’s passion from the point of view of 10,000 years into the future. When you would, you’d have it mixed up with the 70s. The sets and costumes would deliver meaning, be part of the message.” …

… Wagner, who hadn’t given up his day job as a draftsman, revealed how they worked. “I’d come up with an idea that would enhance one of Tom’s, then we’d sit and wait for a third idea. We’d sit and look at each other until it happened. We were constantly brainstorming. I called a lot of our ideas nightmares. I can’t tell you which were mine and which were his. There were times when I wanted to kick myself. I kept asking, ‘What the hell have I gotten myself into?’ It all looked terrific on paper, but it became a gigantic headache. I wondered ‘Why did we have to be so different?’”… 

… September 13, the company moved into the Mark Hellinger Theatre, where the stage, still a beehive of construction, was only partly usable. O’Horgan rehearsed in the lobby …

… Wagner noted, “it was far from smooth sailing. Everything talked well, but if you can think of something that didn’t go wrong, let me know what it was!”

Wagners’s sketch of
the Dragon Head

His dragon head, a background prop for King Herod’s entrance, arrived at the theatre where there was no wing space to store it and was returned to the scenic shop and made smaller. “When pieces were too large, we brought them through the lobby, otherwise they had to be junked and remade. It would have helped if we’d thought to measure the load-in door!”

Wagner spent most days trying to figure a way around hurdles. The Hellinger stage proved to be the biggest obstacle. It wasn’t fitted with traps that could be removed. Two sequences involved Jeff, ascending through the floor. Wagner cut through it only to find an ancient turntable from the musical Coco with huge steel I-beams. Holes had to be blasted. With the hydraulic machinery in place, there was another problem. The fire sprinkler system hung too low in the basement. A false ceiling was the temporary fix.

Previews approached. The huge butterfly wings for Judas’ Descent from the flies for the “Superstar” number, the flying bone bridge used for the high priests, and the stunning gold proscenium-wide fan that would descend over the cast during curtain calls weren’t finished.

For the crucifixion, Wagner designed an effect that baffled everyone. Using a mechanism secured to the back wall, a thin, ultra strong pin propelled Fenholt on the cross with through the “Eye of God” cut into the scrim. To audiences, it appeared to be floating in air.

New pieces arrived daily. Some didn’t fit, such as the hydraulic piston lifts that would raise the stage for the opening sequence to become a 30’ wall – then, lower during the overture.

“I continued making changes right up until the last minute,” notes Wagner. “I’m never ready to open until three days after the show opens. “Money was going down a bottomless hole. For a show adapted from a hugely-successful sung-through record, much was expected. …

… Opening night, backstage and onstage chaos and tension reigned. Stagehands, prop masters, and electricians were here, there, everywhere. Wagner, five minutes prior to curtain, was on a ladder making finishing touches. …

… The budget was an estimated $750,000, setting a record for the 70s. Scene design topped $129,000, with costs for costumes reported to be $80,000. … 

[Ed. Note- Jesus Christ Superstar opened October 12, 1971. It received 5 Tony Award nominations including Scenic, Lighting and Costume Design. The show ran for 13 previews and 711 performances before closing on July 01, 1973.] 

Nassour’s new writing revisits his previous 1973 book about the show

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