Tuesday, April 3, 2018

Superstar

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.

36 comments:

  1. A fine bit of background, insightful analysis, and spot-on review, Neil.

    I assume you and most of your own band of followers here at EGD already read this Richard Roeper column from last week. But for any who haven't, it offers the young Catholic listeners' version of your very interesting Jewish guy's experience with JCS. Which certainly resonated with a former altar boy, around the same age as Roeper, such as myself.
    "…it has often been derided as schlocky, sacrilegious, middlebrow claptrap. I don't care. I'm a major disciple of 'Jesus Christ Superstar.'"

    https://chicago.suntimes.com/entertainment/in-praise-of-jesus-christ-superstar-a-generations-cool-take-on-the-gospels/

    As for the TV version Sunday night, John Legend actually seemed like the weak link to me. Most of the rest of the cast were excellent, with Judas and Mary Magdalene being the standouts. Alice Cooper played Alice Cooper, as far as I could tell, but that didn't matter much, given the nature of his role. My wife and I have never watched any of the NBC live musicals before, but we love "Superstar" and I'm glad we decided to give this one a shot. Though the number, timing and duration of the commercials were excruciating, I gotta say.

    I thought it was very well done, indeed, and the staging of the scene on the cross was just spectacular.

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  2. When I was younger, TV was how the day ended, in front of the electronic embers. I was practically formed by the glowing tube. Nowadays I barely watch television - too many more satisfying options. Entire TV series come and go before I even hear of them, much less watch them.

    So I didn't know Jesus Christ Superstar was on. I would have enjoyed watching it - so thanks for the overview. It is hard to imagine, in this day and age, what a phenomena JCS was when it came out. Many people were outraged, others were drawn into the Jesus story for the first time. It was scandalous when a teacher in my school played it in a speech class. It was a rare instance in our school of examining something of cultural relevance in a thoughtful way.

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  3. My kids learned the bible stories from watching Veggietales and Webber musicals, and still every year, Jesus Christ Superstar is played. I was pleasantly surprised by how good this production was. I'd seen bits of the past live musicals and changed the channel after a few minutes. This one I watched to the end. John Legend was just a bit too smooth and it seemed like he was afraid of the high notes in Gethsemane, definitely not enough angst. Dixon was amazing, his Judas would have done Carl Anderson proud I think. Alice Cooper was Alice Cooper, I wish he'd have camped it up a bit, but the choreography was a nice nod to the original production. The sound did have its problems and I wish the audience was throttled a bit, especially when the cheers erupted during Judas's death scene, but overall it was a very enjoyable production. I'm tempted to grab it when it comes out on DVD.

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  4. 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 been my understanding that Jesus considered himself to be the Jewish Messiah, which made the centuries of subsequent persecution of Jews by Christians all the more bitterly ironic. So Jesus wasn't rebelling against the Jewish religion so much as against those who were administering it at the time.

    Of course, if you're an atheist, as I am, that's probably a distinction without a difference.

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    1. I think you're confusing what Jesus thought he was doing with what the Jewish authorities thought he was doing. Yes, Jesus considered himself to be the messiah. But did the Pharisees? I don't think so.

      Does that help?

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  5. I'm a bit surprised to hear that Jewish children get nothing about Jesus in their religious teaching. I've heard that he is revered as one of the prophets by Moslems.

    And, of course, he was a Jew, although as Archie Bunker memorably observed, "only on his mothers side."

    Tom

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    1. I'm not following this logic. The Koran name-checks Jesus, which is something the Torah doesn't do. And Sandy Koufax was a Jew, but they don't teach about him in Sunday school. Remember, when I talk about my religious training, I'm talking 45 years ago. Not such a big-tent time.

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    2. Apparently Jesus was mentioned during Philip Roth's religious training as a kid, if his early short story "The Conversion of the Jews" is in any way autobiographical.

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    3. I guess I should talk. Don't remember learning anything really important about Christian theology in Sunday School. I remember confounding the Reverend by asking him to explain predestination. Just wondered how such an unavoidably important religious figure was explained: an apostate Jew? a nut case?

      Tom

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    4. Sunday school might have been more interesting if they taught us about Sandy Koufax

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    5. If your religious training 45 years ago wasn't "big-tent time," mine 65 years ago was definitely sleeping-bag time -- the YMCA was verboten, my aunt was allowed only an abbreviated and outside-the-sacred-environs wedding to her Protestant husband, and we children were motivated to try to convert Jewish Marshal Kaminsky and Protestant Stevie Stout lest they spend eternity outside of the heaven that only Catholics were eligible to attain.

      john

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  6. Like Neil, I listened to the album over and over in my younger days, and I can sing along pretty accurately (if not well) to this day. I've never seen the movie, so Sunday's live performance was the first time I've had a visual outside of my own head. We were hanging out with family (my son got married the night before-yea!), and I was surprised how familiar my nieces were with the material. I do look forward to re-watching my recording when I get back home so I can hear it without all the background noise you're going to get with a bunch of late-teen /early-20's girls still exuberant from the festivities the night before.

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  7. As an aside, it's amazing my mother let us even own that album, as she was a very strict, traditional Catholic. I guess she was happy we were paying attention to anything remotely religious voluntarily. Also, she wasn't a fan of contemporary music so she never sat down and listened to it herself.

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    1. Coey,

      Congratulations on the wedding!

      Re: "it's amazing my mother let us even own that album" I was originally introduced to the album in some kind of presentation at my Catholic high school. "I guess she was happy we were paying attention to anything remotely religious voluntarily." I believe that was the thinking.

      I can certainly understand why it's considered sacrilegious. But there are many reasons and opportunities to question one's faith, which I've done plenty of. When it comes to "Superstar," I feel like it gave me a better and more spiritual appreciation of the events and definitely resulted in me at least thinking about them a heckuva lot more than I would have done otherwise. I've just always found both the music and the lyrics to be remarkably moving.

      This show was better than I expected, but Legend's performance doesn't come close to matching Ted Neeley's. However schlocky and '70sish the movie might be, I'm surprised that you've never sought it out. Nikki referred to "Gethsemane" above. That might be my favorite song in the show, and the movie version is just way, way better than this one. And I was actually laughing at how unconvincing Legend seemed in the "cleansing of the temple" scene. For whatever that's worth...

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    2. Honestly, I'd heard the movie wasn't all that good (i guess I associate with philistines), so I never took the opportunity to watch it. But I see, for the moment at least, it's available on demand, so I'll see if I can catch it when I get home.

      I, too, can see why it might be considered sacrilegious. But for me, it really brought home Jesus's humanity, which makes the Passion much more visceral.

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    3. And thank you for the wedding congrats. It was an indescribable joy!

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    4. Well, I'm sure I've oversold the movie version now, and you'll be disappointed. D'oh!

      With all the crap going on in the world these days, it's nice to hear that indescribable joy is still being experienced on a personal level. I'm happy for you.

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  8. In both musical and non-musical events,my wife would occasionally miss a word or a line. She didn't ask me "What's the buzz? Tell me what's a' happenin'", but she may as well have. So I began running the closed-captioning almost every time we watched television. It's become a habit that's hard to break. No more misheard lyrics or misunderstood jokes and punch lines on sitcoms and classics like MASH.

    Even if you aren't yet losing your hearing, CC is invaluable, once you get used to it and aren't distracted by it. A bonus: The unintentional hilarity when the CC typist mishears the dialogue or the lyrics. Like, say, calling West Virginia something else.

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    1. I'll often use CC for British shows. And sometimes for shows at the gym; there are very often mistakes for live TV, like the news, which is indeed rife with intended humor.

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    2. We have no hearing problems, yet have done this for years. It started with PBS shows from England, I think, trying to decipher that accent. The no-going-back point was when we watched "The Wire," which was actually years after it aired. I could have never kept up with that dialogue without the CC. Not only do "you get used to it and aren't distracted by it," you -- well, I -- *miss* it a lot when watching a movie in a theater or watching live theater.

      I'm sometimes amazed when I see some of the lyrics to songs that I either never knew, or "knew" the wrong words for.

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    3. Closed captioning is great if you're watching a movie like "Trainspotting," where the characters' thick, working class Scots accents are as comprehensible (to me) as Chinese.

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  9. I have never listened to the album or seen the movie. The only song I have heard from the album is I don't know how to love him. I was looking at the lyrics. What does the line where she sings I was used to running the show mean.

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    1. Mary Magdalene, who sings the song, was previously a prostitute. So, she's not used to a relationship that she doesn't understand the dynamics of. That's my interpretation, anyway.

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  10. I think the NBC presentation is going to whet the appetite for Lyric's version. Originally, it seemed bad luck for the Lyric that the two were not only in the same year, but scheduled so closely together. However, after the excellence of NBC's program (and I do agree with all your notes above), it seems like serendipity might pay off for Lyric.

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  11. I missed Sunday's performance, but I still play my JCS DVD every other year or so around the holidays. I think I learned more about Jesus from that film than any Sunday School lesson and I loved the music and great lyrics from Webber and Rice. As Judas said before he died:

    "He's a man - he's just a man.
    He's not a king - he's just the same
    As anyone I know
    He scares me so."

    Jesus was just a man, a prophet. I could live with that reasoning instead of the "Son of God" myth I had been taught.

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  12. I'm a bit puzzled how you learned much about the Easter story from JCS because that's the one thing which doesn't make an appearance in the show. Easter is all about the resurrection.

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  13. The truly devout catholics I knew preferred 'Godspell'. I liked JCS for the music and the Judas point of view. In our religious educations we are taught to believe, have faith, so when our reason takes hold we won't stray too far. But living off third hand accounts that strain credulity never did it for me. So, the question Judas asks, "Why'd you choose such a backward place and such a strange time" rather than the present with mass communication available, still
    begs an answer. If, as many ministers claim, God wants you to know his plan, why doesn't he use his omnipotence to accomplish that feat. Instead revelations come in situations not unlike UFO abductions stories. Maybe Webber/Rice quit before the resurrection because they find that part of the story too hard to believe.

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    1. I think the resurrection was displayed in the final song you referenced. Jesus changed from the beaten martyr to Christ, shining with divinity, in the original play/movie.

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    2. JP - How you could tell the difference between God dropping in to talk with you and an alien possessing a sufficiently advanced technology? If the message of the Bible isn't sufficient for you then I doubt a visit from the deity would make much of a difference either.

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    3. "If the message of the Bible isn't sufficient for you..."

      What about the fact that Jews, whose ancestors were *right there* in that backward place and during that strange time, think the message of the Bible ends with the Old Testament? How about the message of Buddha? What about the message of the Koran? How about the message of The Book of Mormon? What about the message of L. Ron Hubbard?

      Or the message of Tim Rice, to get back to the post...

      "But what is truth? Is truth unchanging law?
      We both have truths – are mine the same as yours?"

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    4. Jakash - where we differ apparently is in that I believe that ultimate truth is not relative and does not differ from person to person or time to time. I understand that Jesus' claim to be the only way to know God is offensive to many people. It always has been a source of contention. I can respect and support the right of others to reject that message but it is what it is. I also understand how Christians fall so short in their lives of measuring up to what is expected of us. The public spectacle of so many evangelicals embracing Trump in return for power discredits us and rightly so. May God have mercy on us.

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    5. An omnipotent and omniscient god could unambiguously get us to understand his message, if he wanted to ,as is claimed by many priests, ministers etc. We could be fooled by aliens, we are being fooled by humans as we live. Many of the holy books are inconsistent and obviously flawed to a logical person. Genesis is a childish story invented by a man ignorant of science. Exodus is an exaggeration at best, 600,000 people wander 40 years and leave no trace? Something happened but on a much smaller scale. God is a difficult topic to discuss because the very word is pre-loaded by indoctrination from our youth. There was a First Cause, that doesn't mean we can ever understand it or that it even cares about us. Sorry, that is what my reason tells me.

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    6. I've never seen Godspell, either, and the music definitely didn't catch on in the same way as JCS. I just looked at a list of the songs from it and only recognized two, Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord and Day By Day, both of which I found annoyingly repetitive, at least as stand-alone songs; perhaps they work better in the context of the show.

      I was still in grammar school when both came out, so I was more a dutiful than devout Catholic.

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    7. Mr. Graf,

      Well, if you're gonna go and be reasonable and willing to acknowledge the current state of a fair chunk of the Christian "brand," that's gonna really undercut my obnoxiousness. ; ) But, you're always reasonable, so there's no surprise there.

      "I believe that ultimate truth is not relative" I believe that, as well. What I have a big problem believing is that any human is actually provably in possession of the ultimate truth, particularly when it comes to religious folks. I've had many conversations with believers [a Catholic family and 16 years of Catholic school tend to surround one with them ; )] discussing faith, doubt, the Bible, etc. Where the conversations usually end up is that the reason one believes in the truth of the New Testament, rather than only the Old Testament, or the Koran, or none of the above, is because of faith. And that faith is a gift one has either received, or not. I've never thought that that's either very fair or remotely satisfying. But, it's certainly impossible to disprove!

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    8. Jakash - There is no way that I can adequately address your concerns in a comment. I have to agree with you regarding faith. The Bible says that faith involves not just believing there is a God but also believing that He will respond to those who diligently seek Him. If you conscientiously can't buy into either of those two statements, then I would not expect the message of the Bible to make any sense to you. I'm not going to insult your intelligence by saying that if you just read and studied the Bible harder that you would have faith. I do know that it also says that God wants all to be saved but I do not understand why some have the gift of faith and others do not. I trust that God will do what is right with not just those who believe but those like you who do not believe. I leave it in His hands because I know that I can trust Him even when I cannot trust myself.

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    9. Jakash, imagine the thousands of different faiths man has practiced. Which is more likely, that one is the true faith in the actual deity, or are they all wrong? I see the wonder of the incredibly vast and wondrous universe, where I am but a speck, finding it more compelling than the tiny one they claimed was created just for me.

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