Jesus Christ Superstar Live

April 6th, 2018

After the Easter church crowds had headed off to brunch, after the lilies and the dresses, after the Alleluias and the He is Risens, this particular minister settled on the couch with a glass of wine and a few friends and family members to take in NBC’s live production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical Jesus Christ Superstar, starring John Legend as Jesus and Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene. I suppose that even on Easter, I just cannot get enough Jesus.

More rock opera than musical, the show debuted on Broadway in 1971, and the 1973 film increasing the show’s reach. As with many portrayals of the crucifixion, the show takes us through an amalgamation of the Gospels’ telling of Jesus’ last week, or what the church commemorates in our observance of Holy Week, beginning with Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem. It includes Jesus cleansing the temple, Judas’ betrayal, the Last Supper, and Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Controversially, the show ends there, without an empty tomb or a risen Christ to be found.

Based on comments on social media, people had difficulty distinguishing between the show as it is written and the decisions that the production team made. For example, Tim Rice, the lyricist, chose to portray Mary Magdalene as a prostitute, which is a trope that has come down through tradition as a result of conflating Mary Magdalene with the unnamed sinner who anoints Jesus feet in Luke 7:36-50 but is not explicitly biblical. While this perpetuates an annoying falsehood, it’s a fault with the musical itself and not this particular production.

The production definitely updated the setting to appeal to the audience of 2018. Some people compared the set to Mad Max or Rent, another musical. In one of the opening scenes, a cast member spray paints Jesus on some industrial-looking doors. The chief priests’ costumes looked like something out of The Matrix, Pontius Pilate was outfitted like the ringmaster of a circus, and Alice Cooper as King Herod was dressed like, well, Alice Cooper. The noticeably diverse cast was also refreshing.

To me, despite its title, Jesus Christ Superstar is really the story of Judas, and Brandon Victor Dixon delivered in his role. His questioning of and concern for Jesus’ antagonistic posture towards the religious and political authorities are presented in a way that is disturbingly sympathetic. A few lines made me wince at my own tendency to prefer keeping the peace rather than ruffle feathers in pursuit of justice.

While many of my friends were as enthralled by the show as I was, I also wondered to whom NBC was trying to appeal. John Legend and Sara Bareilles provided the star power to draw in popular music fans. Though edgy in the 1970s, perhaps more conservative Christians had softened to the show. Or maybe there are enough progressive Christians who enjoy musical theater for us to have our own demographic. Either way, it did feel remarkable, even on Easter Sunday, for a major network to devote time and resources to such an undertaking that was distinctly religious.

Despite the musical’s conflicts with the biblical text, seeing something like this broadcast into the homes of families on a Sunday night gave me hope for the gospel message. Perhaps those who had never heard the story or at least not encountered it in this way might be driven to seek out more, either on their own or through a faith community. Maybe some who were unable to get to church on Sunday due to life circumstances were still able to participate in a communal activity through watching this production. Or, even for those of us who know the story well, this production might have compelled us to view the story from another angle, to see the Judas and the Peter and the Mary Magdalene within our own hearts, all desperately and achingly in need of the grace and love of God.

I have no doubt that Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert was market-researched and rehearsed within an inch of its life to appeal to a vast audience, and even still, the truth of the biblical narrative, the charisma and draw of Jesus, and the love of God shown through.

comments powered by Disqus