“It happens that we don’t see Christ as God, but simply the right man at the right time at the right place.” – Tim Rice
Jesus Christ Superstar, the rock-opera penned by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber seems an odd choice to be a lingering success in an increasingly secular world; not that the stories don’t have lasting appeal, but that in the light of other Broadway spectaculars, this relatively un-spectacular show still draws in the crowds.
It’s campy and it’s dated, but the show still holds punters in their seats and keeps on being (ironically) revived for different productions the world over, and has become one of the Broadway shows that slips into even the most lay of laymen’s knowledge of musical theatre.
This is probably testament in equal parts to the show’s writing, and the freedom any production has to use its flexibility to their advantage, and also to the lasting power of the show’s fandom, always eager to see how it might play out another way.
Short of popping down to your local theatre and hoping for a community performance, the easiest way to access the show is through one of the three versions released to the home market: Norman Jewison’s 1973 motion picture, the filmed-stage-production version from 2000, and the most recent adaptation of the “Concert Arena Spectacular” in 2012.
For the uninitiated, the plot:
Jesus of Nazareth has been growing in popularity with his talk of new ways of living and believing. He’s amassed a crowd of followers, and the talk of uprising is starting to grow. Judas, Jesus’ right hand man, is growing fearful of Jesus’ popularity – they’re in lands occupied by the Roman Empire, and the Romans don’t tend to take too kindly to people shaking up the general order of things. Furthermore, Judas asserts that the crowd think Jesus is planning a revolution against the Romans, and when they find out they’re wrong, they’ll turn against him.
Jesus and his followers ride into Jerusalem to much praise from the people, but the local priests identify him as a risk that jeopardises them all – the Romans won’t just take care of Jesus, they’ll punish any who are remotely connected to him, such as all the other Jews, even those who don’t follow Jesus. Jesus makes more of a scene at a temple, throwing an epic tantrum to overturn the table of all the people who have made the sacred temple a place to peddle their wares.
He has a nightmare in which he’s confronted by a colony of lepers and beggars all pleading with him to heal them – he becomes overwhelmed by their numbers, and screams at them to heal themselves. When he wakes, Mary Magdalene is by his side to comfort him, and (as she’s been doing throughout the story) try to get closer to him; she sings about her love for this man, and she doesn’t understand it.
Judas, now resentful of the place Mary Magdalene has taken in Jesus’ life, and growing more and more worried about the impending threat of the Roman suppression, goes to the priests and betrays Jesus.
Jesus is captured and taken to Pontius Pilate, who has already dreamt of the coming downfall of Rome if Jesus is killed – wanting to distance himself from the decision declares Jesus to not be his problem and sends him to King Herod. Herod, one jazzy Charleston-y number later, declares that Jesus is a fraud and sends him back to Pilate.
Judas comes to the realisation of what he’s done, and guilt-ridden, hangs himself.
Pilate tries as he can to get Jesus to downplay his claims of divinity, tries to paint Jesus as a madman, and tries to persuade the crowd that he should be set free. The crowd, having all turned against Jesus now, demand he be crucified. Things reach a frenzy point and Pilate washes his hands of the situation, telling Jesus that he can’t help him if he won’t do anything to help himself.
Jesus is crucified, and while he hangs on the cross, a vision of Judas comes to him and asks if this had all been part of his plan, bringing us the title track of the show.
The play was met with controversy and condemnation from several religious groups. The questioning of Jesus’ divinity, as well as the humanising of Judas wasn’t received warmly, nor was the complete lack of Jesus’ resurrection (i.e. the entire point of Christianity).
Elsewhere, audiences loved the show and made it the lasting hit it has become today.
The success to this is that the story gets removed from the context of the religious dirge that anyone who went to a Catholic school can attest to, and revitalises it with a focus on the interactions of the characters and their setting. This is not so much a story of Jesus-Son-of-God as it is a look at the political ramifications of being Jesus and claiming to be the Son of God.
This is helped with the deliberately anachronistic production values – most shows use a mix of modern costuming and props to highlight the allegory of the story. Jesus Christ Superstar is not only about the events that happened a few thousand years ago, but also the same sort of things that keep happening now. The “superstar” of the title can easily be transferred to the treatment and rejection the public gives modern stars of any given field, the politics of the play can be transferred to pretty much any moment of turmoil in the news, or it can be simply read as an adaptation of the passion play.
The success of the show is that takes a religious tale and presents it in a way where, funnily enough, the religious side of it is the least important. Anyone who grew up with the simplified liturgical readings of “Jesus = pure good, Judas = evil badman” should appreciate the depth given to their characters, the suggestions that Judas wasn’t a selfish traitor, and that Jesus might have not wanted the burden of dying for a cause he hadn’t fully realised.
There is of course the appeal of the music itself – although very definitely showing its age these days (the rockin’ twang of electric guitars that serves as the foundation for the score is surprisingly not timeless) there is still a lot of love to have for the soundtrack. The opening ‘Heaven on their Minds,’ in which Judas lays out his fears and apprehensions about the state of things, as well as his and Jesus’ relationship is a shining beacon of groovy beats and masterfully laid out exposition. ‘Trial Before Pilate’ is my personal favourite, with the build up of dread heaping on Pilate before he finally breaks down in the song’s melodramatic climax. There are many great tunes, and the only misfire is the show’s most well known number. ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ is a turgid, bloated monstrosity of a song that somehow managed to become a breakaway hit.
As for the home-market-available adaptations?
The 1973 film has probably dated the most (what with it being the oldest and all – shocking, I know) but this is largely due to the framing device. Whereas most stage shows of Jesus Christ Superstar present their anachronisms as part of the set design, the 1973 film uses the conceit that a busload of hippies went out into the desert and put on the show. Spectacular on-location photography abounds, just as much as the cheesecloth and Combi-van sensibility of 1970s. There’s nothing wrong with this per se, but it does definitely mark the film as being from a specific era, which can affect the show’s ability to remain timeless.
Carl Anderson brings home the bacon as Judas, playing him with a ferocity and intensity that drives home the complexity of his character. He’s not a selfish man by any means, just driven to making some decisions due to the increasingly different circumstances.
Ted Neeley turns in a fine performance as Jesus, although (and this is more to do with the show’s writing than it is his performance) it’s hard to not be stunned by some of the notes he hits without any prior warning, and that stun often devolves into giggling. Neeley’s performance of ‘Gethsemane’ remains the best, showing the disillusionment and fear of what’s to come, and never letting it become a display of histrionic anguish.
Barry Dennen’s turn as Pontius Pilate is wonderfully camp, although he also manages a fair crack of sinister menace in his first scenes with Jesus, before ramping up the desperation with which he tries to save Jesus to save himself.
The 2000 production rejects the earlier film’s devotion to wide open spaces and beautiful location photography, instead making its production design a mix of concrete, steel and leather. This is often known as the “gay bar” version, and for good reason. It’s certainly not helped by the homoeroticism between Judas and Jesus being so overplayed that you end up wondering if it’s not meant to be a full on love triangle between the two of them and Mary Magdalene.
Judas (Jérôme Pradon) is intense though too effete to make the character seem anything less than a parody. Glenn Carter’s Jesus has the personality and appeal of a cheeseless water-cracker.
And is clearly a graduate of the Osmond School of Dentistry
The priests fare better however, in that they’re made to be convincingly menacing and threatening (it’s hard to take the 1973 priests seriously with their silly hats) although for every strength they gain, it becomes obvious they’re a pallid imitation of The Strangers from Dark City.
Rik Mayall shows up for a cameo as Herod, and while you would think that might make things interesting for a moment, he, as well as the audience, is desperately bored by the time Herod’s song comes around.
If there is one saving grace for the 2000 version, and it’s certainly not deliberate, it’s the stunningly misguided casting of Pilate as a muscle-god in Nazi-fetishising uniform. Fred Johanson looks an impressive behemoth in the role, but whereas Barry Dennen’s performance was centred with desperation around not wanting Jesus’ blood on his hands, Johanson’s is a tantrum-throwing spectacle of histrionics. It’s certainly not helped by the production decision to have Jesus’ flogging represented by the crowd bitch slapping him with fingerpaint, but Johanson’s performance is so over the top it manages to lap itself from underneath. It’s included below so you can see it in all its captivating amazingness.
“Die if you want to, you innocent Papaya!”
The 2012 adaptation is presented as a concert spectacular, and so does away with the idea of multiple sets or even trying to present it as a self-contained story – it’s a concert we’re viewing, and a damned good one at that.
Whereas the other versions of the film play up the militaristic view of the story, without ever alluding to any one specific conflict, the 2012 version ramps up the “superstar” aspect. This is about the fame Jesus gathers and how quickly it’s used to frame him in the opposite light once things go bad.
Tim Minchin turns up as Judas, and although he mightn’t have the voice you’d traditionally think goes hand-in-hand with musical theatre, he gives a performance that’s suitably intense and conflicted (despite the ridiculousness of the DVD producers autotuning his voice). It’s not just a rehash of Anderson’s character-defining performance, but something else. His performance of ‘Judas’ Death’ is amazing, and the way his voice cracks and breaks really drives it home.
Ben Forster makes an adequate Jesus, using a much more traditionally “rockstar” voice, that has the downside of every now and then making him sound a bit like he’s whingeing instead of dealing with an inner conflict.
The best surprise of the 2012 version is seeing former Sporty Spice Melanie Chisholm turn up as Mary Magdalene. I usually find her an incredibly boring character, but Mel C manages to give her a warmth and depth that held my interest. Also, given that her voice rubs a lot of people the wrong way, it’s interesting to see how much better she can make ‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’ just off the strength of being different with it.
Ultimately though, different though the different versions are, the show’s biggest strength, and the deciding factor on how good any production is, is in how good its Judas is. While the 2000 version is clearly the weakest, there’s really too much difference between the 1973 and 2012 version to single one out as better. Minchin’s Judas comes across as a little more self-serving than Andersons, though never becoming as simplistic as one-note. Anderson’s Judas has a fire and intensity to him, but is undeniably hampered by the now-dated style of the film but also the performances in it.
Take your pick with the Judases. Both are better for different reasons, and my reasoning isn’t going to line up with other people’s perception. I do think that the 2012 version, while great, doesn’t quite match up to the spectacle of the 1973 version. Perhaps its due to filming in Israel and having a great bizarre mix of centuries-old location mixed with incredibly time-specific costuming and props, but it seems to be the version that works as a whole. The 2000 version is not wholly terrible, it’s just overblown and over styled to the point of being a bit ridiculous.
With the exception of a fine performance from M. Bison.
Alternatively, see whatever production of the show pops up near you – it seems you can’t go more than a few months without it showing up somewhere nearby. At the very least, it’s really worth seeing if you ever grew up being told the same version of the rise and fall of Jesus and grew tired of it – perhaps schools should start brining in an electric guitar to make it more interesting.