Jesus Christ Superstar (2018)

Jesus Christ Superstar (2018) April 2, 2018

I wasn’t sure whether I’d end up blogging about the live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC before watching it. But numerous people took to Facebook to comment on it, asking who else was watching. One was a former student, Jill Howard, who specifically said she’d be looking for a blog post with my thoughts and comments about it in relation to the historical Jesus. Another was fellow New Testament scholar Mark Goodacre, whose Facebook post became a lively place of discussion while the musical was still airing. I shared some thoughts there, as did others, but it still seemed worth drawing those thoughts together into a blog post (even if that means, since I’ve moved to trying to blog once a day and save anything else for the next day, that my blog post about the Popular Culture Association conference will have to wait until tomorrow. After all, this is a pop culture event, and I am offering academic commentary and reflections on it, and so surely that should take priority, right?).

I will only comment on a few points that particularly struck me, since otherwise this post will be way too long. To begin with, I thought the symbolism of Jesus holding a bottle in his hand while expressing himself to God in Gethsemane was poignant. We tend not to think about the wine consumption just prior to what happens in Gethsemane when reading the Gospels! That puts an interesting spin on the sleepiness of the disciples, and on Jesus’ anguish as well. In the arrest scene, I loved the use of the point of view of the news cameras, and the addition of people taking photos with their phones – including that setting off Peter in the courtyard of the high priest’s house!

Jesus Christ Superstar on the whole does better than the Gospels when it comes to the role of Jewish and Roman leaders. Caiaphas articulates the realities of the political situation well, and Pilate mocking the newfound allegiance to Rome of the Jewish leaders who have brought Jesus to him reminds me of David Rensberger’s interpretation of what is going on in the Gospel of John – but it never occurred to me until today that Rensberger might have been inspired by Tim Rice’s lyrics! The same point also goes for Herod. “Hello, Jerusalem! I am your king!” Need I say more?

I hope that Mark Goodacre won’t mind my mentioning and quoting his point, which this performance proved, namely that “curtain calls in live productions means you end up with an effective resurrection moment.” The very fact that they aired this at Easter seems to cohere with that viewpoint. If Jesus Christ Superstar leaves post-crucifixion historical questions unanswered, any telling from Judas’ point of view must by definition do that to a very large extent, if not necessarily entirely. But the symbolism of the ending could very easily be understood in liberal Christian terms, of Jesus “rising into the church,” rising into the experience of faith of those who continue to encounter him in a variety of ways. And while the symbolism of the ending could easily be interpreted as Jesus fading into the background in relation to the church, it can also be understood as a merging of the two, with his light continuing to shine through that which Paul described as his body, making the view of the church as “the resurrection body of Jesus” not as unfitting as might first appear.

I must say as well that I failed to register the frescoes that were higher up the walls the entire time, making it all the more striking when the down to earth crucifixion elevates to become a crucifix in a church. Read more about the real-life architectural inspiration behind the set design, which I think corroborates the way that I have understood its role in shaping the audience’s understanding of the ending.

I thought the performers did a great job and that the staging was superb, but I’ve already gone on long enough. What did you think of this performance of Jesus Christ Superstar?

 

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  • Rick

    I have been a fan of JCS since I was in high school , and cast for a few different parts in a local theater production in my hometown in the 80’s. As a Catholic, though excited to perform, I found myself questioning the show as potential blaspheme, and wondered if this would affect my religious beliefs. In the end, it had a most profound effect on my theology, as I was able to peer through those parts that were religiously marginal and farcical, and I began to see the human side of Jesus, something that most people really do not take the time to understand. The show last night was spot-on. I wondered if John Legend could live up to the standards set by previous actors, and I knew from a personality standpoint that he would pull it off. I doubt no more. The show was cast perfectly. It was done so well, the music was haunting and I actually shed a tear or two at the end. I downright loved the ending, as it kind of played into many of the Catholic teachings in one fell swoop: crucifixion, death, and ascension into heaven. As the apostles and others watched him disappear, they stood, gazing into the sky with long, wistful, but satisfied looks, almost like they finally realized that what he preached had just come true. The fact that he ascended on a cross through a cross speaks volumes to the fact that the small cross was just a small portion of the larger plan that God has for us, then and now. The cross closing up upon his exit is symbolic of completion and the closing window of time that is upon us as an earthly people. Bottom line: well done and the actors should be proud of what they accomplished, bringing this classic to a new generation of people. But my hope is that they all walked away with a new appreciation of what our Lord went through and maybe they, like me, feel a lot closer to him, now that they walked with him on his final days.

    • Re blasphemy: I’ve always thought that the choice of framing it in Judas’ POV is significant in this regard. He’s an unreliable narrator.

      I am fascinated that so many people seem to miss or ignore that.

  • I still wanted a scene after the Crucifixion with the disciples scared and hiding and then a final scene with Mary Magdalene and Jesus on Sunday
    morning. The modern artistic renditions seem to want to end with the death and not the resurrection. It’s leaving the climax out of the story.

    • What did you think of my suggestion that, at least in the case of this story told from Judas’ perspective, it was appropriate to not bring the resurrection into it?

      I also wonder whether the ongoing voice of Judas at the end, asking further questions, could not be construed as hinting at an afterlife for him, as also for Jesus through other symbolism in this particular performance…

      • The sad thing with Judas is that he didn’t think he could be forgiven. I would have liked to see that contrasted with Peter`s denial and subsequent forgiveness in a post resurrection scene.

        • Gary

          Curious that the Gospel of Judas and the Jesus Christ Superstar play both came about in the 70’s. I wonder if the “Judas perspective” has any connection, as in influencing the play’s writers. Or just coincidence. Don’t know if the Gospel of Judas was translated then, or not. Being Gnostic, the resurrection wasn’t of that much importance.

    • But it’s clearly a Passion Play, so ending with the Cruxifixion is appropriate, yes?

  • Nica

    Though I’m very glad that this “resurrection” of JCS brings a fresh audience to the show & perhaps to a deeper reflection on the life of Jesus, I was mildly disappointed in the production itself. Disclaimer: As a non-cable subscriber, I only watched clips today of certain key numbers: “Gethsemane”, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”, “Heaven on Their Minds”, “Herod’s” song, “Pilate’s Dream”, with other moments here & there. So I couldn’t experience any narrative sense. On the other hand, I imprinted on the 1971 stage & ’73 film versions as a teen, & have the entire Rock Opera memorized. So …

    Oddly, I failed to notice the bottle in John Legend’s hand, so intent was I in immersing myself in my favorite, “Gethsesame”. Of course, running through the entire Last Supper sequence is the disciples’ “sinking in a gentle pool of wine”, so the notion of them lulled by it to sleep is not surprising. But I associate this w/ the seder’s several cups of wine &, naturally, w/ a “this is my blood” typology. I suppose this number was to me the greatest failure of all, since it is Jesus’ song of despair, anguish, confusion, anger, & all the other human emotions we rarely find in the gospels. Ted Neeley & several others who played Jesus embodied this raw visceral moment that highlights the whole show. John Legend sang it, but didn’t emote it. Just as Jesus perhaps sought the Divine to fill the void he’s experiencing in the Garden, I felt my own void in seeking to feel Jesus just then; I felt nothing at all.

    Similarly, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalen left me empty. She sang beautifully, but lacked the depth of Yvonne Elliman’s rendition & her acting. Ben Daniels as Pontius Pilate was very good, but no one at all can top the recently late Barry Dennen’s combination of superciliousness with glimpses of empathy. Dennen rocked that part. Carl Anderson’s Judas in the 1973 film, again, perhaps cannot be topped. Though Brandon Victor Dixon’s voice is superb, his “Heaven” is merely sung, not lived. And lastly, Herod. I have never found a performer who can pull this off. Alice Cooper was okay, but the best I can say is that he didn’t indulge in the worst possible excesses & antics of the part.

    The crucifixion scene I viewed on YouTube missed the theatrics you & others describe. I wish I had seen that. What it did show was Jesus on the cross, w/ an elaborated exposition of “The Seven Last Words” that the original wisely truncated. Listening to a hurried rendering of this belabored version, w/ its strange 3x-emphasis on thirsting, made me want to toss a vinager-soaked sponge at someone, anyone!

    I really wanted this production to work. Glad to read lots of happy & even superlative reviews of the show. But, again, for me it couldn’t capture the sense of spirituality I always find in the 1970s enactments. I hope some new viewers will go out & rent other versions, because it’s a great re-telling of Jesus’ final week.

    • Cooper was good as Herod, but my favorite will always be Mosel in the film. He just does the whole mocking tone and facial expressions really well! (And omg the costumes of his entourage!!)

  • I missed the first half and will hopefully see it somewhere soon. I loved the set and it was especially great to see JESUS in large graffiti on national TV persist in the background. I also loved the design of the crucifixion scene. It would have been cool if Webber/Rice had continued the story through “doubting” Thomas (although he was just obeying Jesus’s instructions not to believe people when they say “Yo, there he is” even in the inner circle) touching the wounds and Jesus then walking through a wall, etc. But i agree with your comment or question that it’s probably fitting to end it there through Judas’s eyes and leave it to the audience to address the questions posed by the title song at the end.

    I’m glad they included “Could We Start Again Please?” which is my favorite softer song from the show and doesn’t seem to always be included. I thought that John Legend was not really up to the part, especially Gesthemane; i don’t think i’ve ever heard anyone who didn’t blow him away on that song, including non-English versions. His visible effort at breathing before singing many of the lines was distracting as well. He is a great singer but that type of performance just really isn’t his style.

    Overall i still prefer the version Jesucristo Metalstar performed by a group in Chile. 🙂

    • The best Gesthemane will always be Ian Gillan’s. But then, it’s almost like the song was written for him, no? 😉

  • Bill Scudder

    Would not reccomend anyone to see it. And the almost nude dancers close to the end was blaspemy but that could be expected from the world

    • I am confused bycyour comment. You think that from a historical perspective, Herod Antipas would not have employed dancing girls? Or you think that, despite what the Gospel of Luke depicts, Herod was a pious figure who approached Jesus with reverence? I am truly puzzled why someone who knows the Gospels would raise the objections that you do. Could you perhaps explain your reasonining?

  • jcarpenter

    I too noticed these things mentioned by McGrath; I appreciated especially the mob-as-paparazzi interpretation and the symbolic staging at the end–Jesus becoming a suspended crucifix among frescoed walls, then absorbed/disappearing into the cruciform gap into sun-and-sky eternity. The typical final response to Superstar is that there is no resurrection; viewing a celebratory, dancing, joyous ensemble-mixed-with crowd at show’s end, including Legend, suggests Resurrection to me. Love wins, granted amid Judas’s (and ours) continued doubt.

  • ashpenaz

    It would be interesting to compare it to The Passion–a movie which I thought was pretty terrible. Or compare it to God’s Not Dead 2. Or I Can Only Imagine. Or Paul-Apostle of Christ. This production is so good, so filled with the Holy Spirit, so wonderfully performed–it is way out of the league of so-called “Christian” movies. This musical reached more people with the meaning of the Gospel and Jesus’ suffering than any weak and obviously evangelical attempts. And the half-nude dancers–great! It was hot in Israel, remember. And Jesus hung out with the bikers, the sluts, and the tattooed masses. And they all had dark skins–unlike most evangelical churches today. I would go to church to spend time with this Jesus. And with this Judas. And with this Mary. This is the place and the people I want to be around when I’m looking for God.

  • What I particularly appreciated was that they changed up the look of the disciples – they’ve always been intended to represent the counterculture and a lot of recent productions seem to think that the counterculture stopped evolving somewhere in the mid-80s.

    • I recently re-watched the 1973 film and was struck by how diverse the cast was. And how that might have been a strange (even provocative?) thing in 1973.

      • And in going down the Wikipedia rabbit hole, I discovered that the actor who played Peter in the film went on to become an award-winning porn actor and director.

  • Publishingpam

    Amazing production! My parents introduced me to the show as a child, and seeing it again with performers I know and love was truly moving. I also thought the same thing about the wine and the sleepy disciples! The set design was phenomenal and multi-layered. So many things to ponder. Loved it.

  • Shirley Blake

    Thanks for your thoughts it deepens and reflects the spiritual experience of the show. I had heard of but never seen JCS. I was admittedly greatly excited to see the production mostly due to the presence of John Legend and Alice Cooper. However, I found myself living the story of Jesus in the production, my heart was once again broken by this beautiful story and my tears turned to joy. I hope they continue this as an Easter tradition.

  • Ivan T. Errible

    There is no god.

    • I always wonder what motivates people to write comments like this. To religious believers it will simply convey the impression that atheists are dogmatists with no case to make for their views. To other atheists, it will look like you don’t have the common sense to realize that you convey that impression and thus are harming rather than helping the cause. And so perhaps you would care to explain why anyone would write a comment like this?

  • Well for my wife and myself, we were a tad disappointed. This was our first experience with JCS, as we were both raised evangelical and had missed it’s first go-around. I expected to hear more of Jesus’ teaching and the missed resurrection robs the story of most of the symbolism of rebirth and the future consumption of all things. However, we were probably expecting too much from a secular view of Jesus. It didn’t help that the sound was indistinct and muffled and that Judas screeched a lot. We missed quite a bit of what was being said or sung. Perhaps better in concert?
    On the other hand, I found the song “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” very moving and central to the human response to God and to the man Jesus himself. We still dont know how to love him. We still struggle to find meaning in his death and how to live life selflessly as he did.

    • I do think that looking at the words is worthwhile. I sometimes recommend putting on the closed caption subtitles while watching/listening to make sure not to miss anything. I think that paying close attention to the words makes a difference – although I suspect that if someone were to listen without knowing that it is supposed to be the story told from Judas’ perspective, many things would still be surprising or even shocking!

      • Agreed. We should have turned captioning on. We do that every Friday when my 94 year old mother comes for dinner.

    • Ron McPherson

      “On the other hand, I found the song “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” very moving and central to the human response to God and to the man Jesus himself. We still dont know how to love him. We still struggle to find meaning in his death and how to live life selflessly as he did.”

      Beautifully said! By the way, every time I hear that song on the radio while driving, I have to pull off on the side of the road lol. Very emotional song

  • PEM 1501

    Okay, against my better judgment I’m going to weigh in here. Summary: I thought this was the best production of JCS I’ve ever seen. I hadn’t heard the music for a long time and had forgotten how great it is. I was also completely unaware of the racial backgrounds of the performers…. they were simply all wonderful artists playing a part, and their race never even registered with me.

    The Theology of JCS is of tremendous value to me. It emphasizes the humanness of Jesus, his struggles to bring his message, and his frustration with how it is misunderstood and misrepresented. This stands in contrast to the deification of Jesus which so many Christian sects and denominations seem to emphasize.

    Let me explain. In my opinion Jesus accomplished three critical things in his ministry:

    1. He encouraged an individual relationship with God. Prior to this, the relationship was between God and the Children of Israel. Individuals didn’t matter. What you did as an individual either supported or jeopardized Israel’s relationship with God. The laws of Leviticus, the hierarchy of the priesthood, the Holy of Holies were all aimed at a societal serving relationship with God. If you sinned, you had to atone in order to heal the relationship between God and Israel. If your sin was great enough, you were expelled or stoned, because your presence in the society put the society’s relationship with God at risk. Jesus instead encouraged an individual relationship with God, and the burdens of this relationship were to be accepted by the individual as his or her own choice and commitment. You chose to make God the top priority in your life, it was not forced upon you.

    2. He expanded the set of people who could take on this commitment to God. You didn’t have to be a Jew. You didn’t have to be born into the commitment. It didn’t matter what your background, sex, status, or nationality was. You could accept the commitment, or not, as your own choice. You could seek to develop your individual relationship with God (or not) as you saw fit. This is a tremendous change from the closed society of believers that was Biblical Israel.

    3. He set the example of how to “operationalize” this commitment and individual relationship with God. He demonstrated priorities and how to make choices in conflicting and difficult situations. He demonstrated by his death just how far the commitment extends. “Pick up my Cross and follow me,” he says. “None come to the Father except by ‘following my example,” is another way of putting it. No one else had ever done this before. Previous prophets simply said, “stop sinning and follow God’s teachings.” Jesus showed HOW to do it.

    In my opinion, Jesus’s humanness is what sets him apart from God’s omnipotence. HIs is a call that each of us can attempt to follow. It is not some appeal to a Greater Power to intervene in life’s struggles on our behalf. That is the job of God. The deification of Jesus, or merging Jesus with God detracts from the message of individual commitment by all people to serve and prioritize God first in our lives by following the human example Jesus sets. At least in my opinion.

    This is what is truly great about Jesus Christ Superstar. By emphasizing the humanness, struggles, uncertainty, and ultimate commitment of Jesus in a truly dramatic sense allows the viewer to see his message in renewed clarity.

  • Susan Smith-stefaniuk

    I am someone who has loved the film version of JCS for 30 years, and first was introduced to the score in college, as a passionate evangelical.It has been my personal tradition to listen to the score and watch the movie every Easter for many years, and I was eagerly anticipating the show. There were several aspects of the show which I appreciated : the set, the way the orchestra became part of the chorus. But I found some things unrealistic: the blatantly sexual overtone in the dancing was unnecessary and distracting. I was also disappointed by the interpretations that the principal singers brought to their roles. I will continue to watch the original film every year.

  • Larry TheKeyboardist Blake

    John Legend wouldn’t have been my first pick to play Jesus, but Brandon Victor Dixon and Alice Cooper were stellar as Judas and King Herod respectively.

  • Eileen Douglas

    Much to my amazement, I tremendously enjoyed this version. After having watched the Carrie Underwood production of The Sound of Music, I wasn’t even going to watch it, but at the last moment I thought I’d at least check out the opening. Well, it was outstanding, Ahead of time I couldn’t imagine Jon Legend as Jesus, but he did a decent job. Judas stole the show as he outsang and outperformed the rest of the cast. Mary Magdalene was adequate, though not very passionate as she sang. Alice Cooper killed it!

    I didn’t sink too deeply in it theologically, but I didn’t think there was anything offensive to the production. The blended audience, orchestra and cast made me feel as though I were there with them, and I appreciated the diversity of the cast, especially having a person of color as Jesus. The updates in the set and staging also brought this production alive. I loved it!