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…

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.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Eileenmcano Eileen Cano

    Blasphemy. Just plain Blasphemy. The 25th anniversary tour of JC Superstar… Neeley’s Gethsemane was insane. I have never FELT a voice so incredibly before in my life. You might be hearing him differently these days, he has been doing it for forty years now, but his Gethsamane was probably the closest thing to a religious experience I’ve ever had.

  • otrame

    What do you think of Daniel Boys’ version available on Youtube. I know precisely nothing about voice, and I know you hear things in these performances that I will never hear (unless I were to study voice for a long time) but I’m curious about your opinion.

    • http://www.facebook.com/jt.eberhard JT Eberhard

      Can you link me?

      • otrame
        • http://www.facebook.com/jt.eberhard JT Eberhard

          He um…really squeals the high note. He doesn’t support it well at all and so he has to cut the note short and wait for the music to catch up. :( Not my favorite version (but thank you for sharing it!)

          • otrame

            That’s what I mean by you hearing things I can’t. Reminds me of watching a performance of Tchaicovski’s Violin Concerto in D by Itzak Perlman with a friend, who commented that we couldn’t even hear what he was working on while he played.

  • nichevo

    i’ve always wanted to hear someone with a really good low register do the caiphas role. i’ve heard it live and recorded, but to me the voices i heard lose musicality and almost talk certain parts in order to get the low notes. what do you think?

    • otrame

      I agree about Caiphas. Great part, but it needs a genuine bass, not a baritone singing at the bottom of his register to sing that.

  • Aliasalpha

    Hmm, wonder if Bruce Dickinson or Rob Halford have ever done the song, I’d be interested in hearing them give it a bash

  • http://natehevens.wordpress.com/ Nathan Hevenstone

    I actually own the British tour with Minchin as Judas and it is probably the best version of the show I’ve ever seen (with the only major exception being how they picked Jesus and the use of autotune, most noticeable on Tim… why couldn’t they just get him a coach?… with a little training Tim would have been perfect without the autotune… and I’d be surprised if Tim wouldn’t agree to it). It helps that Andrew Lloyd Webber was essentially the mastermind behind the whole thing and it’s his favorite version of the show, as well… :D

    I’ve always wanted to be in the show, in fact. When I was younger (between the ages of 13 and 18) I could hit that note in Gethsemane, Gillian-style, without blinking (it actually wasn’t even the top of my range… close, but I had one or two notes above it).

    Unfortunately, now, at 26, I couldn’t come anywhere near close to that note if you held a gun to my head and put my balls in a tight-clamp.

    I’ve switched from wanting to be Jesus to wanting to be Judas. Honestly, I think Judas is the better character (and I think Minchin nailed him, BTW). Part of me thinks that, with a good voice teacher, I could learn to hit that note in Gethsemane again (but as powerful screaming instead of falsetto… if going falsetto is the only way to do it, then I’d rather not do it at all), but it’s likely that it was a result of my then raw and largely unchanged voice as opposed to any lack of specific training.

    As to Ian Gillian… in point of fact, there wasn’t much to help voices in the studio in the 70′s. Even Autotune’s precursor didn’t come into wide use until the late 70′s, early 80′s. So Gillian’s and Neeley’s efforts were pretty much unprocessed. Gillian, when he recorded that, could, in fact, hit those notes. There’s a few bootleg recordings of Gillian pre-Purple and close to the time he recorded JCS that show that he could hit such notes live. Sadly, it didn’t last long, but those kinds of voices rarely, if ever, do (Robert Plant, anybody?).

    As to Neeley, I could be wrong, but didn’t he only start doing it live in the 80′s? I can’t find a single recording of him doing Gethsemane in the 70′s outside of the movie itself. If that’s the case, it’s possible that the semi-loss of power in his voice was a function of aging more than anything.