How Bob Dylan Inspired ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’
Bob Dylan is one of the most acclaimed artists of his time. He continues to influence major stars to this day. He even influenced one of the most famous Broadway musicals ever: Jesus Christ Superstar.
Dylan is known for mentioning famous figures in his songs. He sang about everyone from the Beatles to Ma Rainey. Biblical lyrics from one of his songs provided the creative spark for Jesus Christ Superstar.
The Bob Dylan lyrics which inspired a musical phenomenon
Jesus Christ Superstar is perhaps the most famous musical about Jesus. Unlike your typical Sunday school pageant, Superstar portrays Judas Iscariot in a sympathetic light. As a result, the musical upset many Christians when it first premiered in the 1970s.
Superstar’s portrayal of Judas was inspired by lyrics in Dylan’s classic song “With God on Our Side.” “With God on Our Side” is primarily an anti-war song. In it, Dylan discussed how many armies have felt God was on their side. Likewise, he notes how any bad person can think they have God’s favor.
In addition to its anti-war lyrics, the song takes a biblical turn. In “With God on Our Side,” Dylan sings “Jesus Christ was/Betrayed by a kiss/But I can’t think for you/You’ll have to decide/Whether Judas Iscariot/Had God on his side.” This verse inspired Tim Rice, the lyricist for Jesus Christ Superstar. Like “With God on Our Side,” Superstar questions the biblical portrayal of Judas.
The composer behind the music of Superstar was Andrew Lloyd Webber. Like Dylan in ‘With God on Our Side,” Lloyd Webber had an unorthodox view of Judas. According to Mental Floss, he said “Clearly Iscariot was not an unintelligent man, and how much was the whole thing in the end an accident of what was necessary given the politics of the day?”
Why ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ was such a risk
Lloyd Webber said the musicals’ ambivalence regarding Christian dogma about Jesus reflects his views and Rice’s. Lloyd Webber told The New York Times “We were simply trying to express our feelings about Christ at the time, trying to tell His story and make suggestions for the gaps, We weren’t trying to make comment. Who are we to make a comment? The whole thing is summed up in Judas’s lyrics… Don’t you get me wrong — I only want to know.”
Making a musical that portrayed Judas sympathetically and questioned Jesus’ divinity was certainly a risk. Lloyd Webber was aware of this. In the same vein, Rice said “In several respects, it has gotten out of proportion.” Rice bemoaned how so many people interpreted Superstar in ways he and Lloyd Webber hadn’t intended. Some worried the play could stoke religious tensions.
The risk paid off. The Superstar album sold well. In addition, the 1970s and 2010s film versions of the musical are well-regarded by fans. It’s amazing that a Dyan lyric led to one of Broadway’s most iconic musicals!