One of the many controversial things my mom, coming of age as she did in the 1970s, experienced somewhat firsthand was the premiere of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s and Tim Rice’s (in)famous rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. I vaguely remember, at some point in my young adulthood, discussing this musical depiction of the last days of Jesus with my mom. Way back in the day, she was a practicing Catholic, and by the time I came around, she was a devout Presbyterian, and so she was able to give me both some idea of the original controversy surrounding the musical’s release as well as the dubious theology inherent to the musical.
So, when I discovered, about an hour before it was due to air, that NBC’s latest contribution to the live TV musical fad was Jesus Christ Superstar, I of course watched it.
First, to start with the good, I have few, if any, technical criticisms. To give an over-obvious compliment, Webber knows how to compose music, and Rice knows how to write lyrics. I’ve still got the tune and rhyme of “Everything’s Alright” stuck in my head 24 hours later. The stage design of this production was impressive, and performance-wise I don’t really have any complaints. This was a star-studded cast, with vocals from John Legend as “Jesus” (quotes quite intentional) and Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene of course magnificent, and shout out to Norm Lewis’ fantastic baritone as Caiaphas. The relatively unknown Brandon Victor Dixon completely stole the show as Judas Iscariot (fun side fact, Dixon apparently recently played another famous villain/arguable anti-hero, portraying Aaron Burr in Hamilton).
In fact, “Damned for All Time/Blood Money,” Judas’ desperate attempt to justify his betrayal of Jesus, was one of the truly stand-out numbers to me. Dixon’s mounting despair as he begs Caiaphas, “I have no thought at all about my own reward/I really didn’t come here of my own accord/Just don’t say I’m/damned for all time” was palpable even through the distance of a TV screen. It was certainly a dramatization – and at odds with the Biblical portrait of Judas as a man who routinely stole and deceived – but, well, it was good theater. Sorry, Mom.
However, this brings me to the not-so-good elements of Jesus Christ Superstar. True to my half-formed impression of its reputation, the musical contains many, many elements that could, charitably, be described as “troubling.” There’s a lot of speculative relationship dynamics between Jesus and his followers, including, mostly famously, the maybe-one-sided-on-her-side but definitely-not-platonic feelings between Mary Magdalene and Jesus, as vocalized in the hit “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” But this, what I saw to be more of an interlude, didn’t really affect my feelings towards the overall plot, so to speak. What very much did was this: Jesus Christ Superstar is distinctly uncomfortable with the idea of a divine Jesus, ethereal light show at the culmination of the crucifixion notwithstanding.
I think the musical was trying to be all ambiguous about what exactly Jesus was, allowing some vaguely supernatural elements, but it really just ended up avoiding its own question: “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ/Who are you? What have you sacrificed?/Jesus Christ Superstar/Do you think you’re what they say you are?” And this, in turn, is because the musical, at odds with the long-ago angel’s question, is attempting to seek the living among the dead, so to speak. For, in this musical, Jesus dies, and there is no resurrection.
Interestingly, I find that Godspell, another musical depiction of Jesus and his apostles, also debuting on stage in 1971 – apparently this sort of thing was in vogue at the time? – to be, despite its hippy sensibilities, a more overtly religious and thus slightly more accurate adaptation of the gospel story. As Jesus is on the “cross” (it’s very artsy, guys), he cries “Oh God, I’m dying.” To which the chorus echos: “Oh God, you’re dying.” Emphasis mine, for the switch in pronouns is very important here. Of course, afterwards Godspell doesn’t have a resurrection either, instead giving in and just sayin’ that it’s all about love, regardless of why that love exists, and that we should just let the little light of Jesus shine on through us. Although why the light of a dead man should mean anything to us is likewise not really answered – we are once again left to seek life in death, full stop.
But back to Jesus Christ Superstar. There are those who would argue that it’s a great tool for evangelism, and I’m certainly not saying that it could never be used as such. From my cursory scanning of the internet’s reactions, apparently non-believers found the crucifixion depiction to be somewhat affecting. Yet I would imagine that the musical would be better used as just that, a tool, rather than a complete text. For what these non-believers are reacting to is, as Mary herself sings, “just a man,” with Rice and Webber making heavy use of Jesus’ more cryptic answer to the question of his divinity, “That’s who you say I am,” rather than his many absolute statements, e.g.: “I am the way, the truth, and the life.”
Of course, NBC’s production almost, though I think unintentionally, produced a complete ending. Jesus dies, his apostles reflect (sort of), the musical ended, almost all the cast came out for their bows, and then, with a blaze of light and heraldry, Legend – still dressed as Jesus – emerged from behind stone-looking doors for his solo curtain call. We can argue about any inherent heresy in artistic depictions of God at another date, but I think if it had then been proclaimed: “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things,” then, well, maybe…
Eh, who am I kidding. Jesus Christ Superstar would still be a very iffy depiction of the gospel, and, like my mom told me, for very good reasons (this short little blog post actually doesn’t touch half of them). But I might have more unreservedly recommended this latest production as a highly flawed dramatization, rather than how I ended up putting it to Mom yesterday: “I mean, [watch it] if you want to watch it. There were some rockin’ moments, not gonna lie. Technically great, spiritually barren. Alice Cooper was Herod, though.”