A large part of the plot focuses on the character of Judas who is depicted as a confused, tragic figure who is not satisfied with what he views as Jesus's lack of planning, and alarmed by the relatively recent claims of his divinity.
Recognizing that Jesus is irritated by the badgering from his followers, Mary Magdalene helps Jesus relax by him with ointment. However, Judas expresses concern over the fact that Jesus is associating himself with Mary (a prostitute). Judas says that by associating with her, he (Jesus) is contradicting everything that he says and this, in turn, will be used against him and his followers ("Strange Thing Mystifying"). Jesus gets angry and tells Judas that unless he is without sin himself, he should not be judging the character of others. Jesus then reproaches his apostles of being "shallow, thick and slow," and exclaims that not a single man among them cares about him.
Mary Magdalene tries to assure Jesus that everything will be all right and attempts to relax him with more ointment ("Everything's Alright"). In response, Judas angrily insists that the money used to obtain the ointment should have been used for more to help the poor. Jesus sadly explains that he and his followers do not have the resources to help every poor person.
Meanwhile, Caiaphas, Annas and other high-ranking proud Jewish priests meet to discuss Jesus and his movement. At this point, his followers continue to grow by the thousands, so much that even the higher order is aware of the hype. Given the size of Jesus' movement and the fact that the movement consists of Jews who are unwilling to accept the Romans as their kings (in contrast to the high Jewish priests), the priests believe that he is becoming a threat to the Roman Empire. And if the Roman Empire is threatened, then many Jews will suffer – perhaps even those who are not following Jesus. As all of the priests attempt to solve the problem of Jesus and his followers, Caiaphas states that the only real solution is to kill Jesus ("This Jesus Must Die").
As Jesus and his followers arrive in Jerusalem, they are confronted by Caiaphas, who demands that Jesus disband them. However, Jesus replies that putting an end to the hysteria is impossible ("Hosanna"). Afterwards, Jesus is approached by his apostle Simon Zealotes. Realizing the popularity that Jesus has attained, Simon suggests that he (Jesus) lead his mob in a war against Rome and gain absolute power ("Simon Zealotes"). But Jesus vehemently rejects this suggestion, stating that none of his followers understand what true power is nor do they understand his true message ("Poor Jerusalem").
Meanwhile, Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea, reveals that he has dreamed of meeting with Jesus and seen the aftermath of Jesus' death, where he, Pilate receives all of the blame. However, Pilate is not entirely clear of the meaning of his dream ("Pilate's Dream").
Jesus arrives at the temple in Jerusalem and finds that it is being used for selling everything from weapons to prostitutes and drugs. When Jesus arrives, he is furious and demands that the merchants and money changers leave the temple ("The Temple"). Angry and tired, Jesus wanders off and gets confronted by a mob of lepers, cripples, and beggars, all wanting to be healed. However, the mob is too large and Jesus gets overwhelmed. Unable to solve everyone's problems for them, Jesus tells the crowd to heal themselves.
After the mob leaves, Mary Magdalene finds Jesus upset. Mary tells him to rest. ("Everything's Alright-Reprise") While Jesus is asleep, Mary reflects on the fact that while she is in love with Jesus, he is unlike any man that she has loved before. As a result, Mary does not know how to cope with her feelings ("I Don't Know How to Love Him").
Meanwhile, Judas worries more and more about Jesus' ever growing movement. He promises to help the priests against Jesus, while emphasizing that he is acting with unselfish motives ("Damned for All Time"). Caiaphas demands that Judas should reveal the whereabouts of Jesus, so that the authorities can apprehend him and imprison him. In exchange for the information, Judas is offered money. Judas initially turns down the offer, as it raises some ethical concerns within him. But he eventually obliges when Caiaphas tells of charities that he can give the money to. Judas decides that it would be better to turn Jesus in before his movement gets any bigger, which would thus lead to the deaths of not only him, but all of his followers as well. Thus, presumably to save the thousands of followers and himself, Judas reveals that on Thursday night, Jesus will be at the garden of Gethsemane ("Blood Money").Act II On Thursday, Jesus meets with his twelve apostles for the Last Supper. Jesus realizes, unbeknownst to the apostles, that this will be his last supper with them. As Jesus passes bread and pours wine for his dining partners, he reminds them that they should remember him during supper by thinking of the wine as his blood and the bread as his body. Upon reflection, he angrily exclaims that nobody will even remember him after he dies and that two of his closest friends will betray and deny him. Jesus then reveals that Peter will be the one who denies him, not once, but three times. Before Jesus says another word, Judas reveals to everyone that he is the person who will make the betrayal, but Jesus allows him to go. Judas attempts to explain why he will do it, but Jesus refuses to listen. This makes Judas angry and he blames Jesus for all the trouble that has occurred up until this point. Upset, Judas leaves to find the Roman soldiers and bring them to Jesus ("The Last Supper").
After his apostles go to sleep, Jesus speaks to God, addressing him as "father." Jesus questions God as to why he must be the one to die and what his death will mean in the grand scheme of things. But Jesus recognizes that he cannot go against God's divine plan – whether he knows what his death will mean or not – and agrees to die in accordance with the plan ("Gethsemane").
Judas arrives with the soldiers and, in order to point Jesus out to them, kisses him on the cheek. Afterwards, Jesus gets arrested. As his apostles wake up, they attempt to fight the authorities in order to free their Messiah, but Jesus asks them to put their swords away and let the authorities take him to Caiaphas. As the Roman soldiers take him to Caiaphas, a mob, imitating newsreporters, asks Jesus what he plans to do, but Jesus declines to comment. When Jesus meets with Caiaphas, Caiaphas asks if he is the son of God. Jesus responds: "That's what you say, you say that I am." This answer provides enough justification for the high priests to send Jesus to Pontius Pilate ("The Arrest").
Meanwhile, Jesus' apostle Peter is confronted by an old man, a soldier, and a maid by a fire. Each state that they remember seeing him with Jesus, but to all three people, Peter denies that he knows him. Peter's denial is witnessed by Mary, who, after the three people leave, asks Peter why he denied Jesus. Peter responds that he had to do it in order to save himself, since he would possibly be arrested and prosecuted if it is discovered that he is a close friend of Jesus. Mary wonders how Jesus knew ahead of time that Peter would deny him ("Peter's Denial").
When Jesus is brought to Pilate, Pilate mocks him. When Pilate asks Jesus if he is the son of God, Jesus gives Pilate the same answer that he gave Caiaphas: "that's what YOU said" (in the original recording). Pilate is unsatisfied with his answer, but eventually comments that since Jesus is from Galilee he is not under his jurisdiction, and sends him to King Herod ("Pilate and Christ"). While Jesus is being dragged away the chorus asks where his power has gone; they ask him "where is it now?" ("Hosana (Reprise)").
King Herod has heard all the hype about Jesus and is excited to finally meet him. He asks him lots of things - "Change my water into wine" - "Walk across my swimming pool", but Jesus ignores him. Herod decides that Jesus is just another phony messiah and does not even want to take the time to prosecute him. Herod sends him back to Pilate ("King Herod's Song").
In a scene added for the Broadway production, the apostles and Mary Magdalene wistfully remember the beginnings of their movement and solemnly wish that they could just start again ("Could We Start Again Please?").
At this point, Judas has seen Jesus, beaten and battered by the authorities. Feeling extreme guilt, he meets again with the high priests and expresses regret over what he has done. Judas feels that in the aftermath, he will be blamed for the death of Jesus and will forever be remembered as a traitor. Caiaphas states that Judas has nothing to be ashamed of and that what he has done will save everyone. However, this does nothing to rid Judas of his guilt. As Judas is left alone, he feels betrayed by God for having chosen him, within the divine plan, to be the one to betray Jesus. Judas blames God for murdering him and hangs himself ("Judas' Death").
Jesus is brought back to Pilate for his trial. Pilate asks Jesus to defend himself, but Jesus barely speaks. Pilate asks the crowd if they would crucify their king, to which the crowd declares "We have no king but Caesar!". (In the Broadway production, a stanza is added where Pilate admonishes the crowd for their sudden respect for Caesar, as well as how they "produce Messiahs by the sackful". Pilate goes on to declare that while Jesus is not mentally stable, and should be imprisoned, he (Jesus) does not deserve to die, and demands that the crowd give him a reason to do so. The crowd breaks into an improvised pep rally style cheer about how Jesus has defied Rome. Pilate calls the crowd hypocrites, for their hatred of Rome is far greater than that of Jesus.) Reluctant to kill Jesus, Pilate attempts to satisfy the crowd's bloodlust by flogging him. After 39 lashes, however, the crowd is still unsatisfied. At this point, Jesus is so badly beaten that Pilate cannot handle the guilt. Hoping that he can somehow free Jesus, Pilate pleads with him to defend himself. But once again, Jesus refrains from any such defense. With the crowd screaming for Jesus' crucifixion and with Jesus refusing to give a reason for Pilate not to kill him, Pilate reluctantly agrees to crucify him. Pilate declares that if Jesus won't defend himself, Pilate now "washes his hands" of his death ("Trial Before Pilate").
As Jesus prepares to be crucified, he is met by the spirit of Judas. Judas questions why Jesus chose to arrive in the manner that he did and if what happened to him was really part of a divine plan ("Superstar").
Jesus slowly dies on the cross ("The Crucifixion"). The play ends with an orchestral piece, "John 19:41." The title is a reference to a verse in the Bible about Jesus being laid in the tomb (Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulchre, wherein was never man yet laid )
The opera was first heard as an album before being staged on Broadway and later in London's West End. On the original album, the part of Jesus was sung by Ian Gillan, the lead singer of Deep Purple who later also worked with Black Sabbath and others, and that of Judas by Murray Head. The future Gary Glitter had a one-liner as a priest and Michael d'Abo appeared as King Herod. The title song, "Superstar", sung by Judas, and "I Don't Know How to Love Him", sung by Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman) about her relationship with Jesus, were both big hits. A cover of the latter song, recorded by singer Helen Reddy, would also reach the top 15 on the U.S. pop singles charts in early 1971.
The original album has a strong and often very aggressive rock flavor that is very different from Webber's later work. This is in part due to the emotive singing of Murray Head and Ian Gillan and the playing of well-known rock session musicians such as guitarists Neil Hubbard and Chris Spedding, bassist Alan Spenner and drummer Bruce Rowland. The musical arrangements are often multi-layered, featuring rock and classical elements, and contain many abruptly shifting dynamics and time signatures.
The play was banned in South Africa for being "irreligious.
Jesus Christ Superstar was performed in 1971 in Hungary. The performance was based on the original studio version, and the band and orchestra parts were transcribed to a five piece rockband. The group, Korong, whose Tibor Miklós wrote the Hungarian lyrics, was, after a few enormously successful performances in Budapest's university clubs, banned from performing it.
Superstar opened at the Palace Theatre in London in 1972, starring Paul Nicholas as Jesus and Stephen Tate as Judas. This production was much more successful, running for eight years and becoming the United Kingdom's longest-running musical at the time (it was later surpassed by other works but remains the fifth longest-running). During its 20th anniversary, the production featured Paul Nicholas from the original cast as Jesus.
In May 1972 the original Australian production opened at the Capitol Theatre, Sydney, later moving to the Palais Theatre in Melbourne. Directed by Jim Sharman, the cast featured Trevor White as Jesus, Jon English as Judas and Marcia Hines as Mary Magdalene (the first black woman to play this role); other cast members included Reg Livermore, Doug Parkinson, John Paul Young and Stevie Wright. It ran until February 1974.
In 1976, Jesus Christ Superstar began its first U.S. national tour with a company managed by Laura Shapiro Kramer. The tour continued until 1980. In 1977, the musical was performed at the first annual Illinois High School Theater Festival. Jesus was portrayed, in this rendition, by an African American woman.
A 1992 Australian concert cast, starred John Farnham as Jesus, Jon Stevens as Judas and Kate Ceberano as Mary Magdalene. The Australian production was produced by the entrepreneur Harry M. Miller Garry Van Egmond and International Management Group.
A concert version was performed on November 15 and 16, 1998 to launch the Rubicon Theatre Company in Ventura, California. Three performances were given, starring Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson and the company from the AD Anniversary Tour. All three shows were sold out, and RTC is now in its 9th Season as a theatre company in Ventura, CA.
In 1994, a New Zealand production (also produced by Harry M. Miller Garry Van Egmond and International Management Group) saw changes in production style, such as the rock guitar solo introducing the show played by a guitarist on a spotlighted, elevated platform, and costuming which included a complete lack of sandals. Jesus was played by Darryl Lovegrove; Caiaphas by Frankie Stevens, elder brother of Jon Stevens (the two played together on stage when the production toured Australia, with Jon in his previous role as Judas); and Judas by the stage, television and cinema star Jay Laga'aia. Red laser was used to represent the whip during the scourging; similarly lasers were used for the wounds of the crucifixion. The show closed with an expanding cone of green laser, centered on Jesus' crucified corpse, shining through mist to eventually envelop the whole audience.
Also in 1994, a stage version titled Jesus Christ Superstar: A Resurrection was produced and performed in Atlanta, Austin and Seattle. This version featured many musicians from the Atlanta alternative scene, including the Indigo Girls members Amy Ray as Jesus and Emily Saliers as Mary Magdalene, and fellow guitarist Michael Lorant as Judas.
In 1996, Superstar was revived in London. Directed by Gale Edwards, this version of Superstar was updated to appeal to a new generation of fans. It starred Steve Balsamo and Zubin Varla as Jesus and Judas. Referred to as the "Lyceum Production," it was relatively successful. This eventually led Gale Edwards to restage the show for a UK tour, followed by a video starring Glenn Carter as Jesus and Jerome Pradon as Judas. This "new" interpretation of the show was revived on Broadway in 2000 again starring Carter, but a last minute change made Tony Vincent, who had played Simon in the video, step into the role of Judas. It opened to mixed reviews and closed quickly. It was more popular in its UK/European run; it opened in 1998 and closed around 2001.
In August 2004 a new national UK tour began, directed by Bill Kenwright. Originally scheduled to end in December, the tour's success resulted in a longer run, and it continued through August 2005. Glenn Carter reprised his role as Jesus and British pop singer James Fox played Judas, with Emma Dears as Mary Magdalene.
A live-in-concert, one-night only, performance of JCS took place at The Ricardo Montalban Theatre in Los Angeles, CA on August 13, 2006, reuniting Ted Neeley, Yvonne Elliman and Barry Dennen from the 1973 film, Broadway and Los Angeles productions of the show, as well as Ben Vereen (the original Judas on Broadway), and Jack Black as Herod. The performance also featured Larry Friedman as Annas, Chris Carey as Caiaphas, and Chuck DiMaria as one of the priests. All three were featured performers in the AD Anniversary Tour between 1993 and 1997, as well as the world-famous Agape Choir. The performance benefitted YouTHeatre-America!, and The Ricardo Montalban Theatre.
Also in 2006, a tour (originally billed as "The Ted Neeley Farewell Tour", now billed as the new "A.D. Tour") starring Ted Neeley reprising his role as Jesus and Corey Glover (of rock band Living Colour) as Judas, began in September and has played over 120 venues to date. This production offers an instructive contrast with the earliest productions: the hip attitudes and radical posturing having been replaced by 'biblical' stylings combined with costuming and sets which owe more to Catholicism than Carnaby Street. The tour is slated to run through 2009, but now is reportedly set to run indefinitely depending upon audience and critical reception. Carl Anderson was set to reprise his role as Judas before his death.
On the 20th and 21st of March 2008, Drew Sarich, who had previously done several performances of the show (as Jesus and Judas), reprised his role as Jesus opposite former castmate Serkan Kaya as Judas in Vienna, Austria.
In January of 2009, Atlanta's Alliance Theatre will bring a new Gospel version of Superstar to the stage. This new version was conceived by Louis St. Louis of Smokey Joe's Cafe fame and will be directed by Tony Award winning director Susan V. Booth.
In 1994, a studio recording under the name of "Jesus Christ Superstar: A Resurrection" was released and starred various artists including the Indigo Girls. A video recording of their performance at SXSW in Austin was released as well but went out of print after only a few months. Bootleg copies still remain.
In a 1996 radio production for BBC Radio 2, Jesus was played by Tony Hadley, Judas by Roger Daltrey and Mary Magdalene by Frances Ruffelle.
In 1997, the band Bigtop released a cover of "Pilate and Christ" (under the title "The 39 Lashes") on their album "On the Rise." The track also included some sampled dialog by Samuel L. Jackson from the film Pulp Fiction.
Around 1999/2000, an Italian performance of Jesus Christ Superstar was broadcast on radio. The cast starred Paride Acacia as Jesus, Egidio La Gioia as Judas and Olivia Cinquemani as Mary. Carl Anderson appeared on this recording as well, singing the song Superstar. In 2000 a national tour began which was directed by Carl Anderson and starred many of the same cast members from the radio broadcast.
In 2005 the first Dutch national tour of Jesus Christ Superstar began in The Netherlands. Produced by Joop van den Ende the production starred Dieter Troubleyn as Jesus, Martin van der Starre as Judas and Casey Francisco as Mary. Jamai Loman who previously won the Dutch version of Idols played Simon. The tour was a great success and ran for 2 years straight.
In November 2007 the band Queensrÿche released "Heaven On Their Minds" on the album "Take Cover". Queensrÿche guitarist Mike Stone states in the liner notes "It's getting hot in the kitchen, and Judas can't take the heat. This is one of my favorite songs from J.C. Superstar. I have always wanted to hear a rocked-up version of this tune...and now I can!"
On 22 April 2008, the song "Superstar" was performed on American Idol by contestant Carly Smithson, before getting eliminated the following day.
A further film adaptation was released in 2000, starring Glenn Carter as Jesus, Jérôme Pradon as Judas and Rik Mayall as Herod. The film was directed by Gale Edwards and Nick Morris, and won an Emmy in 2001 for Best Performing Arts film. The style of the film is more like the stage version than the location-based 1973 adaptation, and used many of the ideas from the tour from around that time. Most of the film's cast later went on tour on Broadway after shooting the film.