In the beginning were Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber and they begat `Joseph' and `Joseph' begat `Jesus Christ Superstar'. And Robert Stigwood heard it and saw it could be cloned to the thousandth generation. And yea, two decades and a few hundred millioion pounds later it has returned to the West End. See it and wonder. By David Lister
In the winter of 1969 John Lennon played a charity gig with the Plastic Ono Band at the Lyceum Ballroom in London, coincidentally the venue that tonight sees the first West End revival of Jesus Christ Superstar since its original run ended two decades ago.

While there, Lennon was told that a musical about Jesus was being written. He, like everyone else, had barely heard of the two ex-public schoolboy writers, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. But he was tickled at the idea of playing the lead role just three years after claiming that The Beatles were bigger than Jesus.

The 21-year-old Lloyd Webber and the 25-year-old pop fanatic Rice, tucked away in a Herefordshire hotel composing the score, could barely believe their luck. And then Lennon made one stipulation. The part of Mary Magdalene must be played by Yoko Ono. Thank God it never happened.

Tim Rice didn't actually want to write a show about Jesus at all. The star was meant to be Judas Iscariot, with Jesus just having a walk-on part. And the show wasn't even a show at first, it was a pop single. Soon it was to graduate into a rock opera album.

Only later, when the Australian impresario Robert Stigwood, manager of The Bee Gees, took an interest, did it become a stage musical. And under Stigwood's management, a score that was not Lloyd Webber's best, or his most popular, was to change musicals for ever. The foyer at London's Palace Theatre sprouted Jesus Christ merchandising - everything from Jesus mugs to Jesus bikinis. Under Stigwood, JCS was cloned. The London production was to be the "master", licensed around the world, but under the strictest contractual conditions.

The young Lloyd-Webber watched and learnt. When I asked him recently about Stigwood, he replied that they had "an up-and-down relationship", but added graciously: "He did show me one vitally important thing, that it was possible to clone a show." The millions of pounds generated since by Identikit productions of Cats, Evita, Phantom of the Opera and Sunset Boulevard bear lavish witness to this lesson.

But in 1969, the two young friends had few pennies to rub together. Lloyd Webber had dropped out of Oxford determined to compose a musical with Rice, an apprentice record producer at EMI Records. A year before, they had struck fame - in Hammersmith - when another friend, who taught at Colet Court, the preparatory school for St Paul's, asked them to compose something for a school performance. A 15-minute pop cantata, "Joseph and his Amazing Technicolour Dream Coat", was the lively result, and a concert, extended to half an hour, at St Paul's cathedral followed. Later still there was an album.

Associates and particularly clergymen friends of Lloyd Webber prevailed upon the pair to do another biblical story. Rice, though, had drawn up a list of historical figures who had short but eventful lives: John F Kennedy, Robin Hood, Richard the Lionheart and (possibly in jest) Adolf Hitler all made appearances on it. But it was Judas Iscariot he was most excited about.

Still intending the musical to be about Judas, the pair composed the single "Superstar", which failed to make the Top 20 in either England or America, but became cult listening on some late-night American radio stations and in an Amsterdam gay bar; it began to notch up some sales in the United States and the record company demanded an album. On a tight deadline, Rice and Lloyd Webber decamped to the Herefordshire village of Stoke Edith and completed a double album rock opera.

The 1970 release of the album in Britain flopped. But that November it was released in the US, and Time Magazine intervened, deciding it had spotted a trend. Putting together, with no great logic, the "Superstar" recording, Simon and Garfunkel's "Bridge Over Troubled Water", Bob Dylan's "New Morning", Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" and The Beatles' "Let It Be", Time decided "a quasi-religious revival is stirring in pop music" and pronounced that Rice and Lloyd Webber had created "a modern- day passion play". Record stores in New York started selling out of the album, and back in England Robert Stigwood became interested.

Jonathan Mantle, who wrote the incisive unauthorised biography of Andrew Lloyd Webber, Fanfare, has no doubts that Stigwood has had a lasting effect on the Lloyd Webber psyche. "The main motivation behind Andrew's business success," he says, "was to get even with Stigwood and outdo him. Stigwood effectively bought Lloyd Webber and Rice for several years, and Andrew resented it for a long time, even though Stigwood made them both very rich.

"At that time," says Mantle, "Rice and Lloyd Webber had enormous charisma. They were very pretty boys, very young and very talented," which would have appealed to Stigwood, and they and their management were somewhat out of their depth. Not so Stigwood. He negotiated, virtually over dinner, a deal that gave him a 51 per cent share in the management company looking after Rice and Lloyd Webber and the rights of 25 per cent of the pair's earnings over the next five years, including all rights to stage and film productions of their works in the English-speaking world.

The next year, 1971, while 23-year-old Lloyd Webber was marrying his 18-year-old sweetheart, Sarah Hugill, Stigwood was using court orders to stop pirate performances of Jesus Christ Superstar, even threatening action against a group of nuns singing it for charity in Australia. Stigwood's spokesman explained memorably: "Like all Christians, these nuns believe Jesus Christ is theirs. What they are forgetting is there is such a thing as copyright."

Back in New York, Stigwood at last opened his own production with a former director of Hair, who planned and thankfully decided against having Jesus crucified on the handlebars of a Harley Davidson motorcycle. But to Lloyd Webber's horror, he did not decide against having Judas in silver jockey shorts and Pontius Pilate in lipstick and full drag.

The show had advance takings of $1m, a tour across America made millions more, and Universal Pictures announced that it was to make the film, directed in Israel by Norman Jewison.

In August 1972, the show, with a different director from the Broadway production, opened at the Palace Theatre, London, with Paul Nicholas as Jesus and Dana Gillespie as Mary Magdalene. Again Lloyd Webber had little control over the production, but the London version, which cost only pounds 120,000 to mount, ran for eight years and grossed pounds 7.5m. The album sold four million copies. Cloned versions of the show appeared in Australia, Tokyo, Paris and Berlin, Greece and Kenya. Total licence income was nearly pounds 92m.

As for Lloyd Webber and Rice, they emerged from the Seventies Superstar richer and, thanks to Stigwood, considerably more financially astute men. Lloyd Webber even bought the Palace Theatre.

In the aftermath of the triumph, Rice was enjoying jetting across the world seeing new (or rather cloned) productions of their hit. But his younger, more earnest colleague nagged irritably at him to strike while the iron was hot and start on another joint venture. So Rice went back to his list of people with short, dramatic and over-emotional lives. In those pre-feminist days, the long list contained only one woman: Eva Peron

`Jesus Christ Superstar' opens tonight at the Lyceum Theatre, London WC2.