The show opened on Broadway in 1971 to mixed reviews. Many religious groups protested outside the theatre claiming that the show portrayed Jesus Christ as a mere man. The show starred Jeff Fenholt and Ben Vereen.
The movie (filmed on location in Israel, directed by Norman Jewison in 1973) failed to emulate the success of the stage show. The title song, sung by Judas, and the song "I Don't Know How to Love Him", sung by the Mary Magdalene character about her relationship with Jesus, were both big hits. On the other hand, the movie was also controversial, causing another religious group to bomb a theater at which it was playing.
On the original album, the part of Jesus was sung by Ian Gillan and that of Judas by Murray Head. The future Gary Glitter had a one-liner as a priest. None of the album's cast appeared in the West End show. Only two of the album cast, Yvonne Elliman and Barry Dennen (Pontius Pilate) made it into the film version, which starred Ted Neeley.
The play sparked a great deal of controversy for its rather unorthodox take on the Passion which Christian protesters called sacriligeous. By the turn of the century, the furor over the play had died down so completely that it is now often performed by church groups.
In 2002, the show began a national tour starring 80s rock star Sebastian Bach as Jesus, Carl Anderson as Judas (reprising his film role) and Natalie Toro as Mary Magdalene. In April 2003, following a disagreement with the director, Bach was replaced with Eric Kunze.