Why ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ was live TV at its best

John Legend in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ (photo: NBC)

Why did “Jesus Christ Superstar” work so much better on TV on Easter Sunday night than I have ever seen it work onstage? (I include, perhaps unfairly, the Brophy College Preparatory production of the mid-1980s, in which I appeared as a disciple.) We have to give credit to the cast, of course—John Legend as a silky, sulky Jesus, Sara Bareilles as a sensitive Mary Magdalene, Brandon Victor Dixon as an anguished Judas—and to the director, David Leveaux, who staged the show on a multileveled runway between scaffolds in a Brooklyn warehouse, making maximum use of the setting in three interlocking guises: as concert stage, theatrical playing area and live television studio.

Why did “Jesus Christ Superstar” work so much better on TV than onstage?

Advertisement

But inspired casting and savvy staging aren’t sufficient to explain this “Superstar”’s uncanny immediacy on the small screen. I would say it has something to do with the material itself. Written in 1971, in the wake of The Who’s concept album “Tommy,” Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera reimagines the Passion as a similar story: of a pop messiah who can’t control his message and whose followers turn on him. It is not just the pulsing rock score that makes the show’s Biblical characters seem like 20th-century media figures; there are also clues throughout to indicate that Rice and Lloyd Webber see this partly as a story of public relations and mass hysteria—of the TV age, in short. As Jesus is being led by centurions from Gethsemane, he is besieged by reporters with microphones asking him, “Tell me Christ how you feel tonight!” (Sunday’s broadcast added a new touch: citizen journalists equipped with smartphone video.) And in the climactic title number, Judas gives Jesus some unsolicited advice on media strategy: “If you’d come today, you could have reached a whole nation/ Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication.”

America in 2018 suffers no such scarcity, though the glut of media in our lives has not noticeably improved our civic or spiritual health. It does mean that the message of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” not to mention Jesus Christ, can now reach nearly unlimited eyes and hearts—nearly 10 million tuned into the broadcast on Sunday. So what came through this latest transmission? Here are four revelations, one for each Gospel.

Nearly 10 million tuned into the broadcast on Sunday. So what came through this latest transmission?

1. The universal now. It almost does not deserve comment in the age of “Hamilton,” and yet it does bear noting that while Judas was played by an African-American in the original Broadway production, the film version and here, 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. (His vocal take on Jesus’ songs was also refreshingly soulful and human-scaled, in contrast to the hair-metal screech of previous performers in the role.) These resonances fit neatly into the show’s contemporizing, universal spirit; while it is no longer radical for long-haired hippies with electric guitars to reclaim the Jesus narrative, in 2018 it is a welcome statement to make a Bible story look like today’s multiracial America.

2. Too big for theater. I have seldom cottoned to Lloyd Webber’s work onstage; it has always felt pseudo-operatic in the worst way, aspiring to the heights of extreme emotion but with music that, for all its tuneful invention, fell far short of the task, as if he were trying to score “Tosca” with commercial jingles. But there is something about his and Tim Rice’s primary-colors approach to this life-or-death devotional drama that matches the artificially raised stakes of the broadcast-event format, the last vestige of appointment television on the major TV networks, which gives us “American Idol,” the Super Bowl, various and sundry awards shows, and live musicals from “The Sound of Music” to “The Wiz.” In our fragmented age of on-demand video and social media, these hyped TV events are what is left of our digital town square.

In our fragmented age of on-demand video and social media, these hyped TV events are what is left of our digital town square.

And it is not just the thematic connections that make “Superstar” a TV natural. Both the tightrope heights of Lloyd Webber’s score—the freak-out songs no singer can avoid screaming, like “Judas’s Death,” or the hilarious high/low ranges of the Sanhedrin’s tunes—and the searching, overwrought soliloquies for the three leads and for Pontius Pilate (a tightly wound Ben Daniels) make for spectacular concertizing, and not coincidentally for the kind of can’t-look-away kitsch scientifically known as “good TV.”

Alice Cooper in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ (photo: NBC)
Alice Cooper in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ (photo: NBC)

3. The old razzle dazzle. Lest all this sound as if “Superstar” was simply an inevitable outcome of the right material in the right venue, kudos must go not only to Leveaux, the director, but to producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan, who have been behind efforts to bring the musical-theater canon to TV audiences since 1993’s “Gypsy” with Bette Midler. Throwbacks to the 1950s and ’60s era, when musical theater was still mainstream pop culture, Meron and Zadan have both proven there is a wide audience hungry for musicals.

I am not sure we can assign credit for the smart casting of “Superstar” to them, but one example suffices to demonstrate what I think of as producerial wisdom: In the single-song role of Herod, glam-rock icon Alice Cooper simply had to show up in a flame-orange suit and sing every sneering word of his song directly to Jesus for the song to kill. Some superfluous chorus girls arrived to Charleston along, but this was another case of the medium being the message, and vice versa.

There is simply no ignoring the elemental power of seeing Jesus’ death depicted, earnestly and largely reverently, on national TV.

4. The Resurrection will not be televised. At the center of all this song and dance, of course, is a version of Christ’s suffering and death, and there is simply no ignoring the elemental power of seeing that story depicted, earnestly and largely reverently, on a large scale on national TV. I have often thought of “Superstar” as the apocryphal Gospel of Judas: It is his skepticism about Jesus’ mission drift, from social rebellion to a more internal and eternal kind of transformation, that drives the first part of the play’s action, and drives Judas into the arms of the plotting Sanhedrin. But in the second half he, along with the rest of the characters, feels the pull of larger forces following a preordained script they cannot diverge from, try as they might.

No one, not even this Jesus, quite understands what the story’s unhappy ending portends, with Jesus asking God, “Why should I die?” and the disciples imploring, “Can we start again, please?” While Christians have largely embraced the once-heterodox “Jesus Christ Superstar,” it has been a consistent criticism of the show that it doesn’t depict the Resurrection. Well, the Gospel of Mark barely did either. And Leveaux’s final image, accompanied by some of Lloyd Webber’s most genuinely lovely music, of the actual bloody crucifix receding into a cross-shaped light as his followers stare at it worshipfully, was a (literally) brilliant solution, easily interpretable as a vision of life after life—or just a vision.

Either way, whether its viewers were convinced anew that Jesus Christ is alive, this “Superstar” partook freely of the cup that gives theater its fundamental power: It was undeniably live.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Joseph Grote
2 weeks 2 days ago

I was enthralled from the opening song. The closing song coupled with the departure of Jesus through the opening of the cross was a perfect ending. I DVR'D it and have already watched the ending twice.

KATHY MARTIN
2 weeks 2 days ago

Although I thoroughly enjoyed the performances, I felt the production was marred by the constant commercial breaks. I'm old enough to remember the days when such special TV events would be prefaced by a notice that the program was "being brought to you commercial free courtesy of" followed by a list of the sponsors.

Maureen Winnegar
2 weeks 2 days ago

I love the play. I first saw it when I was 16 and enthralled by life in general but seriously so, my faith life, wrapped in prayer meetings and the Christian Awakening retreats in Brooklyn. This was a wonderful production but unlike the writer and the comments, I missed the "live, in person" intimacy of the theatre. I missed the "being there" the theatre affords. But, I did DVR it and am so grateful that so many people had the opportunity to view this incredible production.

Rhett Segall
2 weeks 2 days ago

I loved the musical. Weber, Rice, and the "performers" did speak to me of that awakening and hope that must have been present in the "Jesus experience". Of particular poignancy was the portrayal of the devastation the disciples experienced at Jesus arrest and death. But here's the rub: the power of the lyrics/music/performances does entice us to a level of comfort with the misrepresentations of the Gospel's Jesus. The eroticism (not used pejoratively) of Mary Magdalene, the confusion and ambiguity of Jesus, the goodness of Judas, are not of the Christians' Gospel . I know that's been said before but it is still important to say it again. Let the play and its power be a point of discussion for aesthetics, certainly, but also for Christology.

Mike Theman
2 weeks 2 days ago

The original sound recording and movie had casts of virtual unknowns who had the singing chops to hit the wide range of notes in the score. It's a shame that big names were chosen over the many singers who could actually have sung the parts as originally written. For those familiar with the original, the vocal performances were somewhat disappointing, at least on the upper and lower ends of the vocal ranges.

But show biz is money biz, and big names are bigger draws than talent. All that said, I still loved it.

Jim Lein
2 weeks 2 days ago

I agree. In my mind's ear, the voices on the old album were stronger, more solid, more moving. That could be due to the speakers, which were huge compared to those somewhere on our flat screen. I'll have to get it out and replay it after all these years. And, yes, the commercials were distracting. But like you, my wife and I still loved it.

Matt Wilson
2 weeks 2 days ago

I agree as well, but the only cast members who I thought struggled with the range were Legend (Jesus) and Lewis (Caiaphas). Live TV is a difficult platform, and i thought the rest of the cast shone brightly, but those two fell short.

Rita Houlihan
2 weeks ago

I am sorely disappointed that America did not include a statement about the real Mary Magdalene of scripture and reminding readers that she is misrepresented in "Superstar." The songs were written around 1970. It was just in 1969 that the Catholic church accepted that their conflation of her with Luke's "sinner from the city" and Mary of Bethany was wrong. So it's understandable that Rice and Webber used the old view of her. But America's editors and all of our Bishops should stand up for Mary Magdalene. She's been slandered since the late 6th century; women have been silenced, shamed and worse in her name. America's April 1, 2013 editorial for Easter noted that from the time Jesus sent Mary Magdalene to proclaim his Resurrection until she shared it with the other disciples "she was the church." It would be great to see an update to Rob's review with a note from the editors describing the Mary Magdalene of scripture. We need to honor her courageous faith and love, a faith that gave her the courage to face the darkness of the cross and the tomb and a faith that allowed her to hear Jesus' Resurrection message.

rose-ellen caminer
1 week 6 days ago

I loved this production as much as I did the movie. The 70's hippie acting and garb has given way to the more austere monochromatic all black intensity of hipsters. I love both. The songs and acting and dancing were just as awesome to listen to, But this version was more provocative. That scene with Jesus getting 39 whips was too excruciating [I had to tune out] .But the songs and acting and dance were rendered just as powerful and spiritual. felt like Jesus was right there with the actors. I thought the ending was beautiful and sublime.

Rhett Segall
1 week 5 days ago

As mentioned in an earlier posting I too love the musical. But like Ms. Houlihan, whose point on Magdalene cannot be gainsaid, I have serious Christological objections to the presentation. A question to the respondents: Would you use "Superstar" as a first introduction to Jesus?

rose-ellen caminer
1 week 3 days ago

Yes, why not; better then most children's bibles. Even though Mary Magdalene maybe is being depicted as a prostitute in the play, none of us knows what her seven demons were that Jesus removed from her.Fill in the blanks, that is called license. They could have been the seven deadly sins as Pope Gregory suggested[sixth century]or, they could simply have been her Johns[lol]. If the seven demons merely caused madness, witnesses would still call her "a woman of her kind"! In any event her songs are the best in the play and will not, nor should not be changed.

Rhett Segall
1 week 1 day ago

Pope Gregory's connection of the seven devils with the seven deadly sins is astute! Thanks for sharing. I've passed it on.

Steven Reynolds
1 week 5 days ago

As the author mentioned it is not orthodoxy in theology, but this TV presentation was beautifully done. Fortunately, I taped it so could avoid the many commercials. The ending was very creative and yes lets you interpret it as the Resurrection missing from the original play.

Advertisement
More: Theater / TV / Scripture

Don't miss the best from America

Sign up for our Newsletter to get the Jesuit perspective on news, faith and culture.

The latest from america

Immigrants just released from detention via a U.S. immigration policy known as "catch and release" stand at a bus station April 11 before being taken to the Catholic Charities relief center in McAllen, Texas. (CNS photo/Loren Elliott, Reuters)
The Legal Orientation Program, which President George W. Bush put into place in 2003, helps detained immigrants know their rights and legal options.
J.D. Long-GarcíaApril 19, 2018
French President Emmanuel Macron listens to speeches at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on April 17. (AP Photo/Jean Francois Badias)
President Emmanuel Macron scandalized secularists by praising Catholic contributions to French public life, but he has yet to work toward religious liberty.
Pascal-Emmanuel GobryApril 18, 2018
When someone “becomes our cross,” the Father is asking us to become their Christ.
Terrance KleinApril 18, 2018
Father Gabriele Amorth performing an excorism in ‘The Devil and Father Amorth’
In “The Devil and Father Amorth,” William Friedkin turns to reality.
John AndersonApril 18, 2018