Random thoughts about one of the hardest tenor solos of all time.

Jesus Christ Superstar is one of my favorite musicals.  I’m feeling better today, so what better way to treat exhausted vocal chords than singing music out of my voice type, right?  I’ve had JCS on all day.

I was reminded that Tim Minchin was recently on tour as Judas in the show so I looked up some vids of him.  Holy crap, Tim can belt a high B natural.  Not bad, Mr. Minchin.  Not bad.

The staple song from the show, at least in my eyes, remains Gethsemane.  This is one of the most difficult songs in all of musical theater to navigate.  The problem, to me, is in navigating Jesus’ key high note.  It’s clearly written into the music as a tonal shout as Jesus reaches the zenith of his pain with the decision to die.  It’s a powerful moment, but the note is so difficult to sing with power, so many singers flip to falsetto.  This would be fine, but the note is surrounded on both side by high belt patterns.  In that context, the falsetto really takes away from the moment.

Take Glenn Carter’s version in the 2000 movie.  Powerfully acted, but there’s just nothing to be done when he goes for the high note.  The strength falls off and then it’s right back to power vocals.

Ben Forster, the Jesus in the Minchin cast, despite a very solid voice, does likewise.

Ted Neely, perhaps the most famous Jesus ever, kind of manages it with the help of a studio recording (in live performances it has less punch).

This is not a knock on any of these singers.  The passage itself is just virtually impossible to get through otherwise.  It’s a handful of singers that can even manage it at all.

Ian Gillan (yes, the lead singer/songwriter for Deep Purple) in the original UK recording gets it but, again, with the help of a studio.  Having seen some of his live performances, I doubt he could replicate that sound live.  Steve Balsamo (perhaps the second most famous Jesus) comes as close as I’ve ever heard to matching Gillan’s studio sound while singing live.  He’s easily the second best live singer I’ve seen do this.

Another tactic singers will try is just to sing the G an octave lower.  Even legendary musical theater tenor Colm Wilkinson did this.  Even lauded tenor Michael Crawford (ever heard the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack?  He was the Phantom) sang it an octave down.  This allows the singer to keep the power in their voice, but it takes away from the feeling of Jesus being strained to his limit (which, to me, is the heart of the song).  I once heard a very good tenor, who I know has high C#s in head chest mix, do the same thing when playing Jesus.

When a song so flummoxes some of the best voices in the biz, you know you have a composer with a Wagnerian disdain for his singers.  :P

The only person I’ve really seen completely bury this wonderful moment is Australia’s John Farnham.  Behold (if you want to skip ahead to the money note, click here):

That!  Moments like that are why we all get into music.  That is just…phenomenal.

Of course, I can’t come close to any of these people.  However, maybe I’ll record a version of me butchering this song to raise money for Skepticon or something…

What made performing special for me - bringing the unreal to life.
MORNING HAPPINESS: Ten year old Valjean.
Piano tutorial for viral gospel song "I Am More Determined."
MORNING HAPPINESS: Singing the music that speaks to you.
About JT Eberhard

When not defending the planet from inevitable apocalypse at the rotting hands of the undead, JT is a writer and public speaker about atheism, gay rights, and more. He spent two and a half years with the Secular Student Alliance as their first high school organizer. During that time he built the SSA’s high school program and oversaw the development of groups nationwide. JT is also the co-founder of the popular Skepticon conference and served as the events lead organizer during its first three years.


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