Eric Idle’s warmly received reprise of “Always Look On The Bright Side of Life” (the crucifixion song from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian) at the 2012 Olympic Games closing ceremony showed how easily yesterday’s blasphemy row can become tomorrow’s moment of communion. And the virtually unanimous acclaim which has greeted Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s hit Broadway musical The Book of Mormon testifies to the potential rewards of playing fast and loose with beliefs others hold dear. But it doesn’t always work out that way. In advance of the West End opening of the South Park creators’ “Atheists’ love letter to religion”, Ben Thompson picks five key landmarks in the evolution of the faith musical. .
Widely considered to be the fons et origo of religious musicals, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s brazenly melodious adaptation of chapters 37-47 of the book of Genesis was first released as a concept album in 1969. In its developmental stages Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat had benefited from the patronage of Lloyd Webber’s father William – celebrated composer, organist, and director of the London College of Music - and the completed version would be the subject of more than 20,000 different school and college productions, the lead role ultimately becoming a rite of passage for a flotilla of erstwhile teen-pop dreamboats including David Cassidy, Jason Donovan, Donny Osmond, Stephen Gateley and Gareth Gates.
When Ben Stiller is surprised by a request to say a Christian grace in the film Meet the Parents, he recites the lyrics to the Godspell song “Day by Day” – a fitting tribute to the inclusiveness of John-Michael Tebelak and Stephen Schwartz’s free-flowing and reverently carnivalesque 1971 adaptation of a series of gospel parables. This missing link between Hair and Jesus Christ Superstar started life as a masters thesis at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, and the fact that Godspell’s first London production (starring David Essex, Julie Covington, Jeremy Irons and Marti Webb) was staged at hippie mecca the Chalk Farm Roundhouse was testament to its counter-cultural cachet.
3. Bernadette – The People’s Musical
Written by husband-and-wife school teachers Gwyn and Maureen Hughes, this clunkily didactic musical adaptation of the story of Bernadette Soubirous – the French peasant girl whose visions of the Virgin Mary are commemorated at the shrine of Lourdes – was an early (and spectacularly unsuccessful) experiment in crowd-sourcing. More than 2,500 investors, or “Angels” – including among their number Johnny Briggs (aka Coronation Street’s Mike Baldwin) coughed up the requisite seven-figure sum. The pope blessed the cast, but sadly the show’s Dominion Theatre run ended just three weeks after its July 1990 opening night.
4. Jerry Springer, The Opera
Ostensibly a playful high cultural assault on the low-culture hegemony of a US talk show host, Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee’s mid-noughties satirical tour de force trespassed on more controversial territory in its third act. The complex Manichean underpinnings of a fantasy sequence in which Jesus appears in the guise of a diaper fetishist called Montel were lost on the evangelical pressure group Christian Voice, which mobilised more than 50,000 complaints about a late night TV broadcast, but failed in its attempt to prosecute the BBC’s director-general for blasphemy.
5. Jesus Christ Superstar
Still the daddy of them all 43 years after its initial album release (on which Deep Purple’s vocal powerhouse Ian Gillan essayed the title role), and banned in Belarus only last year, Rice and Lloyd Webber’s Passion play rock opera is currently back in stadiums with Chris Moyles enjoyably typecast as King Herod. Theological arguments still rage about the propriety or otherwise of host Amanda Holden telling successful contestants they “could still be Jesus” in the knockout rounds of Superstar – last year’s ITV “search for a musical messiah” talent quest.