Review: Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert

I'm posting this hastily, while NBC continues to show the rock opera on the web and on its app. Alternatively, you can watch the individual songs at YouTube or listen to the album, but this is definitely a video worth watching when it is eventually released.

This is a multicultural production - think Hamilton, but with biblical characters. The emotional impact of seeing a black Jesus walk out of a stream of light is not to be underestimated.

R&B singer John Legend (to be known henceforth as He With The Heavenly Voice) is Jesus. He said in an interview that he wanted to do a good job on the Gethsemane scene, which is the emotional heart of Jesus Christ Superstar. Despite Mr. Legend's limited acting abilities, and despite having a voice not quite high enough to sustain the highest note for long, he nails that scene.

Brandon Victor Dixon was best known until now as the Hamilton actor who delivered an impromptu speech on social justice to Vice President Mike Pence. I suspect that he'll be known henceforth for his powerful portrayal of Judas.

Sara Bareilles is Mary Magdalene. One reviewer said that, if she didn't know better, she would have thought this was a musical about a charismatic cult leader whose girlfriend and boyfriend keep fighting over him. Actually, it's Judas and Jesus who are the disputants, while Mary plays the role of peacemaker. The script doesn't provide Ms. Bareilles with much to do, but what she is allowed to do, she does well. Thanks to Ms. Bareilles, I actually cared about the Mary in this production.

What's remarkable about this production is how many of the lesser roles are stand-out performances. Neil Meron as Caiaphas does a superb job of conveying menace. And Erik Grönwall, a Swedish hard rocker, proved to be an apt choice for Simon, the revolutionary Zealot.

There's one other case in this production of genius casting, which I'll discuss below. If you've seen the production, you already know who I'm talking about.

Such a good job was done on the costumes and sets - the last scene alone was breathtaking - that I can imagine this production starting a trend for teleplays filmed live in front of audiences. The decision to include the musicians in the action, as well as the decision to include the audience in the characters, heightened the drama. (Said one reviewer who was in the audience, "John Legend was really high up there - high enough for us to question the wisdom of dangling a national treasure from wires that far off the ground during a live telecast.") Again, more about that below.

If I say little about Andrew Lloyd Webber's music, it's not because I lack appreciation of it. (I swear, at one point, the music changes key four times in the space of two lines.) It's simply that I don't know enough about music to say anything educated. I can say a few words, though, about Tim Rice's script and the treatment of it.


RACE

As one reviewer put it, "The casting of John Legend as a black Jesus lent the familiar events of the Passion a stark new edge, as the sight of his lashed and bloodied body, even just the look of him hunched in cuffs, could not help but set off alarm bells." Stage director David Leveaux said that they didn't want to do anything simplistic like give the Roman soldiers riot shields, but honestly, the modern parallel lies in the script itself. A chill went down my back when I heard these lines:


Listen, Jesus, do you care for your race?
Don't you see we must keep in our place?
We are occupied - have you forgotten how put down we are?
I am frightened by the crowd,
For we are getting much too loud,
And they'll crush us if we go too far.



This is a story (not only in the rock opera, but in the Gospels themselves) of a man whose people are oppressed by tyranny, who is being urged on the one hand to take up arms against the oppressor, and who is being urged on the other hand to not rock the boat, lest he bring trouble to his people. He chooses instead to engage in nonviolent resistance, which causes his downfall. Really, you don't need to look deep to see the parallel with today's world.


GENDER

Regarding the casting, one of the creators (I forget which one) said he wanted the production to look like America today. He succeeded where skin color was concerned; gender is another matter entirely.

No doubt Mr. Rice and Mr. Webber felt justly proud of themselves in the 1970s for granting Mary Magdalene a prominent role in their rock opera. Unfortunately, gender is one area in which Jesus Christ Superstar really shows its age. Despite the production's efforts to include as many actresses as possible, the fact is that only one actress plays a role in the storyline, and all that she does is try to comfort men. This is a male-centric rock opera - even more male-centric than the male-written Gospels.

However, I will say that, within the context of this rendition of the story, Jesus' fatal flaw strikes me as his not making Mary Magdalene one of the twelve apostles. Thanks to Mary's peacemaking efforts, the storyline is angsty but reasonably stable till Mary goes offstage during the Last Supper. I can picture her going off to wash a few dishes, then arriving back to discover that disaster has fallen. "But I only left for a few minutes!" she'd cry in anguish.


CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

I keep coming across online criticisms that Jesus Christ Superstar offers too sympathetic a portrayal of Judas. I keep rolling my eyes. Partly this is because such criticisms lack historical context; Dorothy L. Sayers's excellent 1941 radio play The Man Born to Be King provides far more positive motives for Judas than Jesus Christ Superstar does.

But I'll confess I'm also a bit worried about the state of those critics' ethical sense. Is it really possible that they've missed noticing Judas's essential villainy in the rock opera?

To me, it's hard to miss. Here's a summary of Judas's final speech/song:

1) Jesus has been horribly harmed because I betrayed him!

2) My reputation will never survive this.

3) It's all God's fault.

4) I'm the victim.

Then he goes off and hangs himself. It's one of the most damning portrayals of self-pitying villainy I've ever seen.

Mr. Rice doesn't do quite as good a job at showing Jesus' complexity, but it's hard for any scriptwriter to do justice to a man who (according to the Gospels) gently welcomes children into his midst, then heads off to flay a few money-changers, then refuses to resist arrest when he knows he's about to be killed by prolonged torture. At least Mr. Rice manages to bring out what so many portrayals of "Jesus, meek and mild" fail to do: that Jesus spends an awful lot of his time yelling at people.

The third really complex character in the Gospels is Pontius Pilate. Mr. Rice sticks largely to the biblical text here, which is wise of him. Alas, even though actor Ben Daniels does a nice job at the haunting song Pilate's Dream, he doesn't offer us enough insight into how a thoughtful man ended up throwing Jesus to the mob.

That leaves the final bit of genius casting I mentioned above: Alice Cooper as Herod.

Really, all that Alice Cooper had to do was walk onstage, and he'd have accomplished what was needed. Alice Cooper has lived his life playing Herod. (As one reviewer put it, "He probably brought the skull-head cane from home.")

But there was an oh-so-clever moment that went by so quickly that I'd hate for anyone to have missed noticing its implications. The moment is in the song I linked to above. The moment is this:


Herod (addressing the audience): "Hello, Jerusalem! I am your king!"

(*Audience roars in appreciation.*)



Alice Cooper is a Christian. I'm guessing - if only from the fact that he broke character at one point and showed modesty in accepting the crowd's applause - that he understood the implications of that interchange. I suspect that most of the audience members didn't. (The above-mentioned reviewer dryly referred to the audience's reaction as "unironic.") I'll spell it out.

Jesus Christ Superstar takes its name from a narrative thread that Mr. Rice has lifted from the Gospels: the fact that people who engage in uncritical hero-worship may end up turning on their hero if he fails to live up to their standards for him.

What we see occurring in this scene - unironically - is a famous singer, representing goodness, being mercilessly mocked and demeaned by a second famous singer, representing the worst in humanity.

And the concert audience, seeing the famous singer they love address them, cheers Herod. The societal conditions that helped create that first-century tragedy have not changed.

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June 2018

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