By George Basler

Pat Foti can remember the controversy that surrounded Jesus Christ Superstar when it first opened on Broadway five decades ago. Some religious groups attacked it as sacrilegious, and New York critics didn’t much like it either, calling it gaudy and vulgar. “My father hated it,” Foti said, with a laugh.

But, more than half century later, the musical has proven to have long-lasting appeal. It is still being performed all over the world, and some of its songs – notably “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” — have become pop music standards.

“Every three to five years, we bring it back because it’s such a popular show,” said Foti, who is artistic director at the Endicott Performing Arts Center. The latest production, performed by the EPAC Repertory Company and directed by Foti, will open Thursday (April 7) at the Robert Eckert Theater, 102 Washington Ave., Endicott, and run through the weekend.

Jesus Christ Superstar is a rock opera with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. Based loosely on the Gospels’ account of the Passion, it focuses on the week leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, told from the perspective of his betrayer, Judas.

First released as a concept album, the musical debuted on Broadway in 1971 and in London a year later. At the time, it was considered revolutionary because it was one of the first shows to introduce rock ‘n’ roll to the Broadway stage, Foti said.

The musical debuted at an opportune time. Christian rock was beginning to emerge in the United States, and the musical also fit with the counterculture sentiments of the 1960s and early 1970s.

Now, 51 years later, the initial controversy has largely disappeared. The musical is performed in churches, as well at theaters, Foti said, Even the Vatican, which originally criticized the musical for portraying Jesus as too human, has now given its stamp of approval and deemed the show an appropriate spectacle for Christian pilgrims.

“The strongest part (of the show) has got to be the music. The second thing is just the story itself,” Foti said. “Whether you’re looking at it from a religious point of view or an artistic point of view, it appeals to a lot of people.”

The EPAC production will feature a cast of 37 performers and a set with scaffolding on different levels that gives “an edgy feel” to the musical, Foti said. A live rock band will accompany the performers.

“Definitely the music is the main attraction. It’s a rock opera that’s different from the traditional (Broadway) music,” said Joe Foti (Foti’s son), who is playing the role of Jesus in the new production.

The younger Foti is working to keep his interpretation of Jesus a traditional one. While he calls Jesus Christ Superstar “a purely theatrical piece,” he’s aware some audience members are attracted to its spiritual message.

Fellow cast member Cathy Russo, who is playing Mary Magdalene, called the part her “dream role.” The music is beautiful and fun to sing, and performing with a five-piece rock band adds excitement and energy, she explained.

In the original Broadway production, Jesus and Mary Magdalene came across as romantically involved, according to the 1971 New York Times review. But don’t expect to see that in the EPAC production. “I think she was a devoted follower of Jesus, who sees something bigger than herself in what He represents,” Russo said. “But I don’t think she had any relations with Jesus.”

The EPAC production will keep the focus on Jesus as an historical person and religious figure, Pat Foti said. The first act will have “a hippie feel,” appropriate to the era in which it was first staged, he noted. The second act will have a more conventional feel.

“For someone who is not religious, this is definitely a theatrical experience. For someone who is religious, I hope they’re going to walk away with a religious experience as well as a theatrical experience,” Pat Foti said.

IF YOU GO: The Endicott Repertory Company will present Jesus Christ Superstar April 7-10 at EPAC, 102 Washington Ave., Endicott. Thursday through Saturday performances are at 8 p.m. The Sunday matinee is at 3 p.m. Reserved seating tickets are available for purchase online through the EPAC website,, and in person at the EPAC box office. Tickets are $22 (seniors and students, $20).

EPAC will also live stream the production across all four dates for anyone who cannot attend in person. Information on how to access the live stream is on EPAC’s website. Please consider the date, number of people watching and how many devices will be needed when purchasing the live stream.