Loser’s Lounge revives classic rock opera
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., March 25, 2004) – While it wasn’t planned that way, the Loser’s Lounge concert version of the lighthearted, irreverent, rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Mass MoCA on Saturday at 8 might be just the tonic the doctor ordered for these “Passion”-obsessed times.

“We planned the show last year so we had no idea about the Mel Gibson movie,” said Joe McGinty, the founder and musical director of the loose musical cooperative of New York singers and musicians that is Loser’s Lounge, in a recent phone interview from his Brooklyn apartment. “It is sort of a lucky coincidence.”

Recounting the last week in the life of Jesus from the point of view of Judas, the musical was as controversial in its time for its portrayal of Jesus and the apostles as countercultural figures as Mel Gibson’s “Passion” is today. It paints a picture of Judas’ gradual disillusionment -- disturbed by Jesus’ relationship with Mary Magdalene, upset with his temper tantrum over moneylenders in the temple, and eventually moved to betray him over his belief that Jesus was a “sellout” fooled into believing his own press.

Released first as an LP in 1970, the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical was a huge cult hit before it was even staged on Broadway the next year. But neither the Broadway show, which starred Ben Vereen as Judas, nor the subsequent, instantly forgettable 1973 film version directed by Norman Jewison, had the impact that the original recording had on a generation of listeners emerging out of the haze and disappointments of the Sixties ready to explore spirituality with zest in the Seventies.

McGinty, who was 10 when the original recording came out and who remembers memorizing the entire opera, said that when he first produced a concert version of the musical in 1995, it became readily apparent that among his peers, either you knew the entire thing or you didn’t know it at all.

This all-or-nothing approach characterizes much of the work of Loser’s Lounge, which began 10 years ago as a one-off tribute to songwriter Burt Bacharach, in which a group of downtown New York musicians performed loyal, loving versions of hits by one of the most popular songwriters of the 1960s and ‘70s.

That original show was such a popular success that since then, with only a few dark intervals, Loser’s Lounge has maintained a once-per-month schedule of tributes at the New York nightclub Fez honoring various singers and songwriters from the 1960s and ‘70s, with a few themed-based shows – such as themes from James Bond movies -- thrown in for variety’s sake.

“We’ve got a house band that’s pretty regular, and we have a revolving cast of singers, sometimes up to twenty different singers in the course of an evening,” said McGinty, previously a member of the rock band Psychedelic Furs, who has also worked with Ryan Adams, Steve Wynn and the Ramones among others.

Because the Loser’s Lounge – which staged an original rock opera, “People Are Wrong,” at Mass MoCA last summer -- tends to honor artists who are out of critical favor – people like Elton John, Paul McCartney and Neil Diamond and groups like Abba and the Zombies – it’s not always clear if the tribute concerts are sincere or ironic.

“I wouldn’t say we’re making fun of them, but we’re having fun with the show,” said McGinty. “There is a little of a ‘guilty pleasure’ aspect to it, but we’re sincere in our appreciation for these people.”

“When we first did the Burt Bacharach tribute ten years ago, nobody was admitting the fact that they liked Burt Bacharach,” said McGinty. “He wasn’t cool. Then about five years ago or so he became part of the cultural consciousness again. We help people appreciate songs they wouldn’t ordinarily.”

The core band of Loser’s Lounge consists of McGinty on keyboards, Jeremy Chatzky on bass, Clem Waldmann on drums, and Kris Woolsey and Jon Spurney on guitars. The revolving cast of singers includes Sean Altman of Rockapella, Dave Foster, Anney Fresh, Robin Goldwasser, Tiffany Randol, Patti Rothberg, John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants, and David Driver of “Rent” fame.

For “Superstar,” Driver will sing the lead role (which is Judas, not Jesus), Jedediah Parish will sing the title role, and Debbie Schwartz will sing Pontius Pilate. Altman will handle the role of Simon Zealots and lead the chorus.

“I see it as groundbreaking rock opera,” said McGinty, explaining the show’s enduring appeal after 30-odd years. “The fact that it’s English helps. [The Who’s] ‘Tommy’ laid the groundwork, but there really wasn’t anything like it before. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were in their twenties. They’d just done one other musical. The music was totally inspired and there was something really monumental about it

“Obviously both went on to really successful careers. I don’t really care for their other stuff. ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ rocks harder than other rock musicals, maybe with the exception of ‘Tommy,’ but more than ‘Godspell’ and ‘Hair.’ The original cast recording had Ian Gillan of Deep Purple in it. It was definitely a very rock album.”

For reservations call 413-662-2111.

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on March 26, 2004. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2004. All rights reserved.]

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