NBC’s live broadcast of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR on Easter Sunday was terrific, my favorite one of these network musicals that have been popping up lately. (For me, it supplants as #1 Fox’s live production of GREASE two years ago. I loved the way they used the whole Warner Bros. lot, not just the soundstages, to keep the momentum pumped up.) NBC’s huge ratings success also underlines the fact that JCS is now part of the musical canon, safe enough to show on Christians’ holiest day. So it’s hard to get your mind around how transgressive this piece was when it first appeared.
It began as a “concept album” in 1970 (a single had been released in late 1969). The concept was right there in the title, smacking you in the face. When Andy Warhol popularized the word “superstar,” he gave us his most lasting legacy: the cult of celebrity for its own sake. But to place pop culture sequins upon holy scripture? As the kids say, Oh. My. God.
Not that it hadn’t been done. The composers, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, had already produced JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, brushing a similar contemporary glaze onto another biblical story. And soon to come would be Stephen Schwartz’s GODSPELL, which gave us a happy, hippie Pied Piper of a Jesus. But nothing else had the thunderous sonic power or sheer cheeky courage of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.
Just those three words and a little iconic symbol on the dark brown cover of the double-Lp set. No clue as to what was inside. But the first people who played it kept dragging others to a pair of speakers, and it wasn’t long before this record-album “musical” had basically become the new HAIR — without appearing on an actual stage. This British audio production had gathered vocalists from the theater and rock music (Murray Head and Ian Gillan, who sang the two leading roles, were an actual veteran of HAIR and the new lead singer of Deep Purple, respectively), and arranged the orchestration squarely in the pop idiom (the key players were from Joe Cocker’s Grease Band). No offense to The Who, whose TOMMY is thoughtful and inventive, but this was a real “rock” opera, a sung-through story with musical motifs clearly stated by an overture and recapitulated in ways new and wondrous to the FM-and-doobie crowd.
But of course, it wasn’t the music that caused JCS to be banned by the BBC and made it a generational flashpoint in God-fearing America. It was the subject matter.
Presuming to set the final days of Jesus to a pop score is only JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR’s initial salvo. If you’re a full-throated tenor and a director offers you any JCS part you want, you probably wouldn’t choose the title role. Because the real superstar of the musical is the Biblical Betrayer, the villain Christians love to hate, Judas H. Iscariot. The story is largely told from his perspective, and not without empathy. He believes in Christ’s teachings, has been an enthusiastic apostle. What worries him is the blind adoration of a mob attracted only by celebrity: “You’ve begun to matter more / Than the things you say.” Judas also doubts Jesus’s divinity: “You have set them all on fire / They think they’ve found the new Messiah / And they’ll hurt you when they find they’re wrong.” This is fairly provocative stuff for a culture whose idea of biblical drama has been formed by the reverent movie spectaculars of the Fifties — but Judas indeed has the showiest part and most of the best numbers, culminating in a rousing climax that he performs as a glitter-garbed ghost.
Jesus gets some good stuff too — his high point is probably the power ballad “Gethsemane,” in which he addresses God with his agonizing doubts (“Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die / You’re far too keen on where and how, but not so hot on why”) — but in much of the rest of the show he’s basically just reacting. Though you don’t pay any attention to Jesus at all when Herod taunts him with a snarky music-hall tune that comes out of nowhere (“Prove to me that you’re no fool / Walk across my swimming pool”). My main disappointment with the NBC show was Alice Cooper’s performance of “King Herod’s Song.” It was nice to see “Coop” again, but the boisterous incongruence of the piece — what Broadway pros call “the noise” — demands tons of over-the-top movement, evidently more than the seventyish star could muster. Josh Mostel did a better job in Norman Jewison’s 1973 movie.
Everything else about the NBC production was just great. This time “live” really meant something more than tiny flaws like the intruding shadow of a cameraman or the “Superstar” glitter girls visibly moving to their marks during a shot that was supposed to be pitch dark. Choosing to perform the show before a crowd of 1,500 at the cavernous Marcy Avenue Armory in Brooklyn was a masterstroke. It was stage-bound (unlike GREASE), but what a huge honking stage. Audience members were close enough to touch John Legend’s extended hand as Jesus made his entrance, but more importantly, you could hear and feel their presence, roaring for a beloved song and palpably revving up the actors throughout. There were two directors: one for the theatrical action onstage, and another for the army of fleet-footed techies following it around. About fifteen minutes in, I found myself thinking, if they can keep this up, they’ve got something special here.
By now, JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is considered as tame as anything by Rodgers & Hammerstein, but it wasn’t always so. I expect some people take that as evidence that we’ve coarsened as a culture. But maybe the music is compelling enough to not only do justice to its gutsy premise, but also become classic on its own merits. This broadcast said, amen to that.