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‘A magical time.’ When the big show played in Southold

It sounds unlikely. A cast and crew of Southold High School students beating Broadway to the punch, performing what is recognized as the first theatrical production of the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” in the United States.

That’s what happened, though, in June of 1971.

And, to add some spice — and mystery — a lingering question remains: Was that Paul McCartney, a little over a year after the breakup of The Beatles, in attendance for one of those four shows at Southold High School?

Unlikely? Perhaps.

Beyond the realm of possibility? Certainly not.

And then there is this intriguing nugget: A rare sound recording of one of the “Jesus Christ Superstar” performances in Southold was found and posted last month on Facebook, triggering memories and questions about the impactful production 49 years later.

Two months ago Jim Wacker, a senior in 1971 who played the piano and organ in the production, made quite a discovery. He found a recording of one of those live performances on a worn-out audio cassette sitting in a drawer among piles of other cassettes. When he prepared to listen to it, he feared his fond memories of that time might be stained by the reality of what he was about to hear. It turned out he liked what he heard.

“We actually nailed it,” he said.

The “Jesus Christ Superstar” performances were a Southold High School humanities class project, the product of a half-year of work. It generated a great deal of interest and excitement, not to mention some controversy and drama.

The cassette was dated June 12, 1971.

“It actually was a pretty big deal,” said Mr. Wacker, who undertook the complicated, laborious task in 1971 of putting music from the “Jesus Christ Superstar” album, released in 1970 under the Decca/MCA Decca Broadway label, onto paper. What made that even more impressive was Mr. Wacker said he couldn’t read music at the time.

“That’s insane,” said his brother, Jon Wacker, a drummer in the show who now teaches music at East Carolina University.

Tryouts were held, parts were won, including by some people who had never sung publicly before. Southold’s rock opera, performed on successive weekends, had not one but two Jesuses, Tom O’Connor and Steve Kaczorowski. The program explained that “due to the tremendous vocal strain required to do this role two consecutive nights, it was decided to alternate singers.” Also among the leading players were Mark Volinski (Judas), Donna Hoffman (Mary Magdalene) and Mike Rogers (Pontius Pilate).

“We probably were too young or too naive to really realize how momentous this really was,” said Mr. Volinski, a longtime Mattituck resident. “We knew that there was going to be some controversy involved in it.”

And there was. At the time, concerns were raised that “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which deals with the final week of Jesus’ life, was sacrilegious.

Jon Wacker said: “There was concern that this was sacrilegious, but if you go back and really study the lyrics, there’s nothing in it that is sacrilegious and isn’t straight out of the Bible … I don’t really think there’s anything sacrilegious in it.”

Clergy members from various churches were called in at the time to listen to the album. “Almost to a one, they all were in favor of it except for the Catholic priest,” Mr. Volinski said. “The very traditional Catholic church just did not want to see that.”

The show had the blessing of the Rev. Ben Burns, then of Southold United Methodist Church, who served as vocal director.

Then there was another potential roadblock, this time of a legal variety. Weeks before the curtain was to be raised, the school heard from the company that produced the album. Jon Wacker said: “They called us and said, ‘Guys, what do you think you’re doing? You don’t have the rights to put this show on. Shut it down.’ ”

A school delegation met with the record producers and managed to reach an agreement whereby tickets would not be sold for the shows (although about $700 was reportedly raised in donations for the senior class). Free tickets were issued for seating capacity reasons.

The shows would go on!

With some 200 hours of rehearsals behind them, all four shows were held in the old Southold High School auditorium, which was also used as a gym. The free tickets weren’t easy to come by. By a number of accounts, the house was packed each time.

“It was a huge event in Southold,” said Jon Wacker.

It was claimed that Mr. McCartney attended one of those performances, perhaps along with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, the producers of the 1970 album.

The Suffolk Times reported on June 17, 1971, that Mr. McCartney and Mr. Rice were among the estimated 3,000 people who saw the show over the two weekends. Press reports in 2016 stated that Southold students working on a museum display “discovered” that both Mr. McCartney and Mr. Webber attended one of the performances. A Suffolk Times story attributes that to a school district press release.

So, what was the story?

“Now, I don’t know,” Jim Wacker said. “These are both stories that we can choose to believe or not. I’m not sure who was there. I thought I actually saw McCartney. That sounds a little far-fetched in retrospect … I remember seeing a guy all dressed in black that looked kind of tall. I think somebody said, ‘Paul McCartney’s here!’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I think I saw him.’ ”

Jesus Christ Superstar at Neil Simon Theater on Broadway in 2012. (Credit: Dennis Beck / Broadway Tour)

Said Jon Wacker: “The story that I heard was that McCartney did show up and because it was already packed — there were no seats available — the class president, Jay Jernick, turned him away. Because this was Paul McCartney in the ’70s, people knew him better than they knew the president, you know, and apparently he was somewhat incognito, a hat and sunglasses or whatnot, and I think the story I heard was that Jernick told this person: ‘I’m sorry, we’re sold out completely. We can’t let you in.’ And the guy pulled him aside and said: ‘Listen, I’m Paul McCartney. I came here from London. Please let me find [a seat].’ And Jernick found him a seat or something like that. That was the story that I heard. Can I attest to it in factuality? No.”

What does Dr. Jernick, who was an assistant director of the shows and is now a professor of medicine at Stanford University, have to say?

His recollection is he told someone, “I’m sorry, you can’t come in the side door.”

After that, Dr. Jernick said, someone asked him, “Do you realize who you turned away?” before telling him it was Mr. McCartney.

Questions directed to both Mr. McCartney and Mr. Webber by a reporter via social media last week, asking if they were present at one of the Southold shows, were not answered.

Whether it’s true or not, it has become a Southold legend and makes for a good tale.

Mr. Volinski said that not only was Hank Cheney, the producer and humanities teacher, nervously twisting on a coat hanger on opening night, but he felt butterflies himself since he had the opening vocal number. “I was nervous,” he said, “but I just plowed on through, and I guess there’s enough of a ham in me to kind of realize, ‘Hey, these people are here to hear me sing, so I better do a good job.’ ”

The shows, performed four months before the original Broadway production opened, were well-received. Assistant director Judy Polatnick told The Suffolk Times in 1971 that the cast had received a six-minute standing ovation.

“We put our heart into that thing,” said Jim Wacker, a professional musician who has played for about 35 years for Chubby Checker. “It was very special, yes. I would have to say, in all likelihood, it was probably what made me decide to be a musician.”

“Jesus Christ Superstar” launched Mr. Volinski’s career in local productions. “It was a great gathering of creative people, some of whom had the courage and the intestinal fortitude to do something that nobody thought was really possible,” he said. “I think it allowed students that didn’t think they had the talent to get up before a group of people and sing and act their hearts out. It’s something I’m going to remember the rest of my life.”

Dr. Jernick said: “It was a magical time. There are certain crystal times in your life that crystallize, that seem to not vary or change much when you remember it. I think if you talk to a lot of the people that were a part of that, I think they’ll say that this was one of the times in their life that that was.”