Tim Rice, the legendary Broadway lyricist, likes to insist that his “lucky break” came with his first big failure: Having theater producers spurn the idea for a rock musical about the final weeks in the life of Jesus Christ, as seen through the eyes of Judas Iscariot, that he’d begun to write with Andrew Lloyd Webber. That rejection led Rice and Lloyd Webber to instead create a concept album of the show they’d been envisioning. That turn of events, Rice says, changed the style and feel of their idea, with the focus on making the songs radio- and record-friendly. The double album, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” launched to massive success in America, twice topping the album charts in 1971, with Yvonne Elliman’s ballad “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” becoming a Top 30 hit. The record’s success helped propel it to Broadway in 1971 and then to a film adaptation in 1973.
Now, a 50th-anniversary tour of the show, in an acclaimed production that won the 2017 Olivier Award for best musical revival, arrives at the Emerson Colonial Theatre Jan. 4-16. Rice, 77, went on to write “Evita” with Lloyd Webber, “Chess” with ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus, “The Lion King” with Elton John, and “Beauty and the Beast” with Alan Menken. In a phone interview from the United Kingdom, Rice spoke to the Globe about the genesis of “Superstar,” the controversy it stoked a half-century ago, and its enduring appeal.
Q. “Superstar” started as a concept album after theater producers rebuffed the idea when it was pitched to them. You’ve long said that was your unintentional big break. How so?
A. I think if it had been staged [as a theater piece] before the album, we would’ve had a pretty short career because it would’ve gone out to some regional theater [outside London or New York], which in 1970 wouldn’t have had the equipment, facilities, and forces to stage anything that was rock. We’d planned to have a book, i.e., dialogue, which would’ve been pretentious and fatal to the show. [”Jesus Christ Superstar” is sung through.] So it would’ve been rather like a slightly dodgy nativity play. Instead, we were spared any risk in the theater until after we’d established the work. We were hailed as marketing geniuses at the time, but really it was something people forced upon us. I’m grateful that we didn’t go straight to theater because [the show] would’ve been a different animal. With a record, we were able to do what we wanted with the work and turned it into something so much better.
Q. How does it feel looking back on “Jesus Christ Superstar” 50 years after its Broadway premiere?
A. In some respects, it seems like the other day when we wrote it. But then suddenly you realize it’s been half a century. When we wrote it, we just thought we were doing something that might help our ambitions to get into the theater world and the music world. We hadn’t had any previous success, but we thought if anything, it would be a calling card for something else. Then it turned out to be a huge hit, mainly in America. And I’m always very grateful to the American public for buying the album because in England it didn’t do much of anything. We obviously hoped it could become a stage show, but when we were recording it we were just focused on making a great album.
Q. Why do you think the show continues to endure?
A. The short answer is that firstly, it’s got a great score, if I may say so. But the key thing is that the story of Jesus is a cornerstone of Western culture. So we were just telling a well-established story in what we hoped was a vaguely original way. The story means a lot to people. Everybody has a reaction to it, even if it’s not their religion. Even if you’re indifferent to the story of Jesus, it’s still interesting because so many people are not indifferent, and you think, well, why is he so popular? Why is he such an influence? So in a way, it’s a story that actually has resonance for almost everybody.
Q. In “Superstar,” Judas is the audience’s point of identification. The show explores his relationship with Jesus, along with the dynamics and dangers of religious and political fanaticism. He loves Jesus, who’s a revolutionary at the time, but he also struggles with doubt about his true nature and his fears about Jesus’s growing messiah complex.
A. It’s interesting for audiences to put themselves in the position of somebody like Judas Iscariot, who didn’t quite know what to believe about Jesus’s divinity, whether he was the son of God. It really struck a chord. Judas doesn’t get a lot of lines in the Bible, which is great if you’re writing about him because you can make it up. But he’s viewed as the bad guy. I wasn’t particularly religious, but I just always thought that’s weird, how did it happen, that Judas, who is a key figure to the whole establishment of Christianity, doesn’t really say anything in the Bible? He’s just there as a cutout figure of evil. Even when I was 15, I thought I’m not sure that can be right. We don’t understand his motivation or point of view.
Q. “Hair” debuted on Broadway in 1968, but “Superstar” was also a forerunner in terms of bringing the sound of rock ‘n’ roll to musical theater.
A. Yes, it built on “Hair,” which was definitely an influence. The Broadway audience in 1970-71 and the rock audience were much more separate than they are now. Very few people who were Broadway fanatics would’ve liked rock. And ditto most rock fans, who wouldn’t have been seen dead on Broadway. We were rock, but we also needed other elements. So we were slightly groundbreaking in that way. But nowadays when you see “Superstar,” the production values and the technology is so brilliant, it gives you a chance to hear it. We had more trouble being accepted immediately in the theater than we did on record. But the audience now, 80-year-olds, grew up with rock, so they understand it.
Q. When the show opened on Broadway, it sparked protests by Christians who objected to Judas being depicted as a hero and the suggestion that Jesus and Mary Magdalene had a physical relationship. What was your reaction to the controversy?
A. I think when we were working on the show, it never crossed our mind that it would be well enough known to get people to moan about it. But when we began getting some criticism, usually from people who hadn’t even seen it, it tended to be very black-and-white and fundamentalist. They would say that we were denying that [Christ’s] resurrection happened because the resurrection wasn’t in the show. There wasn’t much of an intellectual argument to be had with these people. But I think most people in the church thought, oh, this is something that can get through to the people in a way that maybe the church doesn’t always achieve. There was a cartoon in The New Yorker, which had a couple of priests chatting in the vestry, looking a bit miserable. And one of them said to the other, “‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ has grossed $13 million. Where did we go wrong?” [Laughs]
Q. And your producer Robert Stigwood wasn’t necessarily unhappy with the picketers.
A. That’s true! He was quite pleased to see people protesting outside the theater. He would say, “Well, that’s great because we’ll be on page one of the newspaper tomorrow!”
Interview has been edited and condensed. Christopher Wallenberg can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR
Presented by Broadway in Boston. At Emerson Colonial Theatre, Jan. 4-16. Tickets from $44.50. 888-616-0272, www.BroadwayInBoston.com