|The Crucifixion by Gerard David (Metropolitan Museum)|
During NBC's broadcast of "Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert" Sunday night, my wife would occasionally miss a lyric in one of the songs and turn to me with an inquiring look.
"'What's the buzz? Tell me what's a' happenin'" I'd say, or whatever the passage in question happened to be. Not because my ears are any better than hers. But because as a teen I memorized the entire double album, not intentionally, but by listening to it over and over again and, if I recall with a cringe, singing along. That sort of thing stays with you.
I'd be hard-pressed to explain why. Maybe because of the electrifying music. Maybe because of the appeal that a story of a bunch of radical young people changing the world; that would certainly speak to a young person who wanted to at least make a dent.
Maybe because the plot was new, to me. Being raised Jewish, I'd never encountered the narrative before—that surprised people when I told them. They had trouble believing I learned the details of the Easter story from "Jesus Christ Superstar." But really, where else would I get it? Not like they taught it in synagogue.
So Pilate and Herod and Judas and, for the most part, Jesus, were all fresh characters. I bought the double album that everybody bought, with Murray Head and Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene, and also saw it on stage, during its record-setting run at the London Palace in 1977.
So while I have an almost 100 percent consistency avoiding all must-see television, I was on the couch, in position, 10 minutes early. My wife required no prodding, showed up before the first note. The event seemed a throwback to an earlier era, when the nation would pause to watch some vaunted musical event. (The show drew 9.4 million viewers; so not quite the whole nation, more like 3 percent. But close enough to make it the most popular show of the evening, beating "American Idol" and "Sixty Minutes," if only by a hair).
The cold opening was a little unexpected—no intro, no throat-clearing, just cue the music and begin. And for a live production it went flawlessly after an initial glitch with the sound.
How does "Jesus Christ Superstar" hold up?
Surprisingly well. What "Superstar" did that was so unsettling to the powers-that-be in 1970 was to wrench Jesus away from the clutches of the grim church elders who had kept him prisoner for centuries, and hand the would-be Savior back to the people who first surrounded him, the apostles, particularly Judas.
"Superstar" tells the Passion story form the point of view of the man who betrayed Jesus, a twist on a classic narrative that would become standard in musical drama in musicals like "Wicked" where the villain gets his (or her) due. So it was in a sense apt that Brandon Victor Dixon was a far more engaging performer as Judas than John Legend was as Jesus. Christ here is a softer role to begin with, but at times Legend seemed half asleep. It was as if they cast Ben Carson in the role. (I later learned that Legend produced the special, which would certainly explain how he landed the role).
Sara Bareilles, an impressive Mary Magdalene, would not be accused of somnambulism. With pre-Raphaelite beauty and a bell-clear voice, she stole the show from the Son of God as she worked through her conflicted feelings toward him (I'm tempted to say "toward Him," out of respect, but don't want to pander).
I'm enough out-of-the-swim, culturally, that I had never heard of either Dixon—Aaron Burr in "Hamilton" and with TV, movie and Broadway credits, or Bareilles, who has sold millions of records, er, downloads. I was barely familiar with Legend: a pop singer of some sort.
Alice Cooper I recognized, though he was a stiff Herod, upstaged by his orange suit, with none of the leering, porcine dissipation I'd expect in the role—they'd have done better casting John Lovitz, though I suppose he wouldn't be as big of a draw.
At a time when interpersonal agita far outstrips doctrinal orthodoxy, "Superstar" feels right, where what Jesus taught is a murmur compared to the hopes and complaints of who he taught it to, not to forget his own hopes and complaints. Nothing stood out in a bad way from the nearly half century-old libretto, though I did pause in "Everything's Alright" to wonder at Judas' complaint about Mary Magdalene using "brand new and expensive" oil on Jesus' feet, when it could have raised "300 silver pieces or more" to aid the poor. That must be some high-end oil.
What really made the show, for me, was the ensemble, the look, feel and energy of the production. The Roman ruins arching overhead, the multi-level orchestra on scaffolding. I liked the hip haircuts, the tattoos, the dancing. The costumes were eye-catching, particularly the black quilted robes of the Pharisees.
Speaking of which: I never agreed with those who accused "Superstar" of being anti-Semitic. Yes, the role of the Jews in the condemnation of Christ has been a pretext for anti-Semitism for millennia; no, that doesn't mean every artistic endeavor has to try to correct that real-life wrong. Their villainy is intrinsic to the plot; someone has to start the ball rolling for Jesus' downfall, and the leaders of the religion he's rebelling against are the obvious candidates. It's always a mistake to pretend that haters hate you for a reason. The hate comes first, the reasons afterward, and "Superstar" could portray the rabbinic court condemning Jesus as Yoda and the Jedi Council acting reluctantly out of love and compassion and a desire to execute God's plan and it wouldn't make a bit of difference on 4chan.
Sunday night set a high bar for Lyric Opera of Chicago's "Jesus Christ Superstar," opening at the end of April, this year's example of classic musical theater inhabiting the opera house. I was just wondering whether NBC's live production will dampen Chicago's appetite for more "Superstar" or whet it, and my wife, as if to answer the question asked, "We have our tickets, right?"
I thought hard.
"Yes we do," I said.