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The many resurrections of Jesus Christ Superstar Add to ...

It's a testament to the power of Jesus Christ Superstar that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's creation is being staged at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, which isn't exactly known for rock operas.

This year, the festival is flexing its repertory muscles, mixing the Bard's works with productions as varied as John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, Michel Tremblay's Hosanna and Harold Pinter's The Homecoming. But of any show on the slate, it's Superstar that is closest to the heart of Des McAnuff, Stratford's artistic director.

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"I've wanted to do it for quite a while," says McAnuff who, as co-writer of The Who's Tommy and director of its original Broadway run, knows a thing or two about rock operas.

Not only is Superstar one of the greatest rock operas of all time, it's also an ideal theatre piece, he says. For one, it's got an incredibly powerful score. "It gets into people's blood," McAnuff says. But it's also a story most people are familiar with, one that easily lends itself to richly visual storytelling. "That," contends McAnuff, "creates a very hypnotic concoction."

No wonder audiences around the world have been mesmerized all these years.

1970s

1970 A 22-year-old Andrew Lloyd Webber and 26-year-old Tim Rice release Jesus Christ Superstar as a concept album.

1971 Jesus Christ Superstar opens on Broadway and runs for 703 performances. The show scores five Tony nominations, including best original score, and earns Andrew Lloyd Webber a Drama Desk Award for most promising composer.

1972 Superstar opens in London, and doesn't close for another eight years and 3,358 performances - at the time, the longest-running musical in West End history.

1973 Superstar gets the big-screen treatment in Canadian director Norman Jewison's film adaptation. While the cast included mostly actors from the Broadway show, the producers did consider David Cassidy for the role of Jesus.

1976 A Japanese production stars Takeshi Kaga as Jesus. (Today's TV viewers know the actor as Chairman Kaga on the Japanese version of Iron Chef.)

1980s

1980 The first national tour of Jesus Christ Superstar in the U.S. comes to an end after four years.

1981 Jesus Christ Superstar makes its South American debut in a production featuring a live rock band, an orchestra of 37 musicians, and a cast of 163 actors.

1982 An Australian production spends two years touring Australia and Southeast Asia.

1990s

1994 Amy Ray, from Indigo Girls, plays Jesus in a version titled Jesus Christ Superstar: Resurrection. Fellow band member Emily Saliers plays the role of Mary Magdalene.

1996 Australian theatre director Gale Edwards helms a London production, the success of which leads to a British tour.

2000s

In 2000, another revival of Superstar on Broadway stars Glenn Carter. The show runs for a mere 161 performances. A film of this stage version goes on to win an International Emmy.

2002 Canadian Sebastian Bach, best known as the singer from Skid Row, takes on the role of Jesus in a U.S. national tour. He's fired six months later.

2004 A group of musicians in Chile creates a heavy-metal version of the show called Jesucristo Metalstar. They perform it annually in Santiago.

2006 Ted Neeley, who played Jesus in the Jewison film, reprises the role for a U.S. tour that proves to be so successful it runs for more than five years and sees Corey Glover, the lead singer of Living Colour, playing Judas through 2008.

2008 American Idol contestant Carly Smithson performs the song Jesus Christ Superstar on the show.

2010 Peaches, the Canadian electroclash musician, performs a one-woman version of Superstar in Berlin.

2011 Jesus Christ Superstar is staged at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival.

2014 Universal Studios is rumoured to be developing a new film adaptation, slated to hit theatres three years from now and helmed by 500 Days of Summer director Marc Webb.

A heady first week at Stratford

When: Monday

What: The Merry Wives of Windsor by William Shakespeare

Buzz: In this comedy, festival favourite Geraint Wyn Davies plays the role he was conceived, gestated and born to play - Falstaff. Tony Award-winner Frank Galati directs.

When: Tuesday

What: Camelot by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe

Buzz: Directed by Chicago's Gary Griffin, whose West Side Story was the smash of 2009. Wyn Davies plays King Arthur, and there's strong buzz for festival newcomer Kaylee Harwood as Guenevere.

When: Wednesday

What: The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

Buzz: Frank Galati - him again - won Tonys for penning and directing this adaptation of the Steinbeck novel. Antoni Cimolino directs a powerhouse cast that includes Evan Buliung, Tom McCamus and Corner Gas's Janet Wright.

When: Thursday

What: Richard III by William Shakespeare

Buzz: In the latest sign of artistic director Des McAnuff's commitment to non-traditional casting, Festival star Seana McKenna plays the hunchback king. Her husband, Miles Potter, returns to the festival to direct after several years' absence.

Look for First Impression reviews online shortly after each cast takes its bows, and full reviews in The Globe and Mail two days later.

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J. Kelly Nestruck

 

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