Sing-Along Jesus Christ Superstar

Guestblogger Paul Spinrad is a freelance writer/editor with Catholic interests, and is Projects Editor for MAKE magazine. He is the author of The VJ Book and The Re/Search Guide to Bodily Fluids, and was an early contributor to bOING bOING when it was an online zine. He lives in San Francisco.

As a kid, I liked classical and easy listening music, not the rock or disco that other kids listened to. But at age 12 or 13, I was, for some reason, moved to tape Jesus Christ Superstar off of the radio. I played that cassette over and over again, memorized the whole show, then kept playing it and singing along whenever I got the chance. I played it loud, too, turning the volume up higher than I'd ever wanted to before. I was cranking JCS one evening when my dad came home from work. With an expression of curiosity, he asked me why I had the music up so loud. I said "I don't know," and then he asked if I'd gotten the idea from anywhere. I told him no, and he said, "Hmm– interesting!" He didn't disapprove, but I got the sense that he recognized something happening to me.

JCS taught me the story of Jesus, which as a jewish boy in Los Angeles, I never knew. It had a huge impact on me. Ever since, I've looked at the world in terms of Jesus vs. Rome, righteous rebellion vs. institutional power, hippie values vs. capitalist values, love vs. control. As far as I'm concerned, the "hippie Jesus" of the 1960s and early 1970s is the true Jesus (and centuries of art bear me out on this, at least superficially). "Jesus Was A Hippie" — that's the tagline for my imaginary ad campaign to take Christianity back from all the high-power imposters and restore it to its apolitical, communitarian roots.

Continued after the jump 

I've long outgrown my love for much music I used to like (Spyro Gyra, I'm talking to you), but never JCS. I was indignant when I flipped through the 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards and saw Ted Neeley picked for "Worst Performance As Jesus Christ" in the movie version. And I've always been attuned to other JCS-lovers, other people who know all the words. Mitchell Morris, professor of Musicology at UCLA, you probably don't remember me, but I'm a friend of your grad school colleague Steve. About 15 years ago, when we were all having lunch one day, JCS came up, and I know you know all the words too! Some BB readers may recall, which was the first website that had a new fun thing for me to read every day. One day on Suck, a cartoon character's speech balloon said, "Fools– you have no perception! The stakes we are gambling are frighteningly high!" This is a line sung by Caiaphas in the song "Jesus Must Die," and seeing it in such a different context (which I also liked) gave an explosive jolt to my soul-mate radar.

In more recent years, the rock band Skycastle performed the show around Easter every year at the Transmission Theater in San Francisco, staging it with costumed singers, minimal props, and no scenery. I went a couple of times (I think they stopped, unfortunately), and it was always a thrill. Pretty much everyone in the friendly audience of like-minded JCS-heads sing along to the whole thing. I imagine that outside of a gospel church, there is no feeling more righteous than that of screaming, "Die if you want to, you misguided martyr!" with 200 other people over wailing guitars and crashing cymbals. My friends John and Sophia say that a band in Boston used to do the same thing over there, with the same annual success.

Which brings me to my business proposition. I love karaoke and sing-alongs, and I've been pleased to see the success of subtitled, sing-along versions of The Sound Of Music, Grease, Mamma Mia and other favorite musical movies. So how about a sing-along Jesus Christ Superstar? It's a trivial job technically– just some time spent pasting lyrics into a video editor. I have the movie on DVD and I could do it bootleg, but I think it needs to be legal so that it could be advertised, shown in theaters and churches, and draw crowds. It would be good, clean fun– who could object? I understand that JCS was disliked by many religious leaders when it was new, but if they had just felt threatened by the hippie-ness of it, I'm sure that has since faded.  

So it's basically a rights and distribution issue. I've tried to track down who subtitled The Sound Of Music, but had no success. I've asked two entertainment lawyers that I know where I might start with something like this, and they don't know. So: does anyone in Boingboing-land know how I might do this, or how much it would cost? Does anyone want to invest in the project? Did I just blow it by posting this, thereby possibly signaling the rights owner to inflate their price or do it themselves? I don't care– as long as somebody gets it out there.