Most of the cast members performing "Jesus Christ Superstar" have no idea about the controversy that swirled around it when it was released.

It was 1970. Most of them weren't born yet.

This weekend's production at Decatur's Lincoln Square Theatre is one of hundreds that will be staged around the country this year. But its beginnings were at once much smaller and much larger than what the rock opera has since become.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" wasn't the first rock opera. That honor goes to The Pretty Things' 1969 album "S.F. Sorrow," although The Who likes to make the claim with 1969's "Tommy." And "Jesus Christ Superstar" creators Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice conceived, wrote and performed portions of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" the year before the original "Jesus Christ Superstar" recording was released.

But it was the opera that will be performed this weekend that caused all the troubles.

(If you're a "Joseph" fan, that's fine, but in terms of controversy, "Joseph" is Justin Bieber and "Jesus Christ Superstar" is Christina Aguilera flubbing the national anthem before the Super Bowl.)

In the months after the album's 1970 release, "Jesus Christ Superstar" couldn't escape the attention of anyone who was awake. Religious figures argued its significance and its place in society. (And sometimes critiqued the music as well. One Catholic newspaper observed in 1971 that "the music often sounds like howls from Hell!")

Released in January 1971, the single of "Superstar" by Murray Head (Judas in the original recording) made it to the top 15. A month later, Helen Reddy's version of "I Don't Know How To Love Him" - her first hit single - also reached the top 15. The recording of the same song by Yvonne Elliman from the original album released as a single in April 1971 made the top 30.

The album spent close to two years on the charts, including three weeks at No. 1 in 1971. Other No. 1 albums that year included George Harrison's "All Things Must Pass," Janis Joplin's "Pearl," "Four Way Street" (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young), John Lennon's "Imagine," "Sticky Fingers" by The Rolling Stones and Carole King's "Tapestry."

Jesus was running in pretty elite pop culture territory at the time.

But if you were a youngster just trying to enjoy the album and maybe delve a little bit from it, you were assailed from all sides. Since the music was about a religious figure, it couldn't be "cool," one side would argue. Another would insist the music was fantastic. Some said it was distorted, twisting a two-millennia-old story to fit 1970s mores. Some called it preachy.

(Someone standing in a pulpit and accusing a piece of art of being "preachy"? Let's just say the irony didn't escape a tweener in southeastern Minnesota.)

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Lost in the controversy over the content and interpretation of "Jesus Christ Superstar" is how important it turned out to be in the musical education of thousands, if not millions, of young listeners at the time of its release and since.

Let's face it: Attracting the interest of a youngster is difficult for opera. It's often sung in a different language, the excellent singers are doing things difficult for the average listener to imagine or replicate, and the stories are sometimes over the heads of the listeners.

But a Bible story? Sung in English by rock singers, led by the lead vocalist for Deep Purple? Now THAT was something youngsters could grasp.

Like "Tommy" a year earlier, "Jesus Christ Superstar" used a number of standard opera motifs, readjusted slightly for rock audiences. Changes in tempo and mood: check. A tragic central figure punished just for being who he is: check. (Tommy may be the most Christlike fictional character created in the history of music.) Repeated motifs and callbacks in lyrics, music and tone: check.

The writers may have been young punks with little respect for their elders, but they also clearly had studied the masters of their art.

"Jesus Christ Superstar" upped the ante with unlikely time signatures as well. While many pop songs are written in 3/4 or 4/4 time, "Heaven on Their Minds" - the first song in "Jesus Christ Superstar" - includes a section in 7/4, and "Everything's Alright" is in 5/4.

Decades of listening have continued to allow new treats to be unveiled. When the 1995 touring production starring "Jesus Christ Superstar" film star Ted Neely played at Millikin, the priests at the conclusion of "This Jesus Must Die" emphasized the similarity between the music in the title line and the singing of the name "Figaro" from "The Barber of Seville" was hilarious.

(Yes, that was me laughing on the right side of the balcony. Sorry about that.)

"Jesus Christ Superstar" was such a fixture in the life of me and many contemporaries that it's strange now to be around people who don't know the work. When Jim Vorel went to the Lincoln last week to work on his preview story, he said he didn't know the opera but was able to place what was happening onstage because of his knowledge of the Bible.

This isn't intended as a discussion about how tough we had it listening to "Jesus Christ Superstar" in the early 1970s, or a condemnation of those who don't know the opera or its history. It's more an expression of surprise that something once so controversial seems to have slowly glided into the mainstream.

We never would have guessed.

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