That same old story : Jesus Christ Superstar
Updated: Nov 13, 2020
What's The Buzz? Why does the rock opera telling of the Easter story endure so?
When I was a young boy the enormity of Easter manifested itself in one simple revelation. Our priest overheard us choirboys talking about how important Christmas was. Of course Christmas is massive to children, a midwinter birthday bonanza for all, what could be more important? He calmly interjected and said the most important celebration of the year was Easter. This left us somewhat confused. Ok, chocolate eggs and some time off school was cool, but, having to go to Church multiple times in one long weekend and the maudlin story of brutal death and sacrifice, it seemed absurd to our tiny minds that this could be more important in our Christian calendar, but the seed was planted.
It was the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice musical that brought the drama and enormity of the story home to me. I understood the mechanics of the Easter week story, I knew the events, but the story and it's significance did not move me in the way it should, until I saw Jesus wrestle with the horror of his fate, in blistering, heart wrenching, gut busting falsetto. Alone, in the dark, awaiting his preordained betrayal and arrest, the Bible tells us that Jesus prayed while he waited that night. In the musical he rages at his God, demands an answer as to why it must be such a brutal and agonising end, uncertain as to what his reward is to be if he takes "this cup of poison". Ted Neeley's heart breaking rendition as the Messiah wrestling with doubt is just one of the ways Jesus Christ Superstar gets under your skin.
The premise of the production could be summarised in the Bob Dylan line, "Did Judas Iscariot have God on his side?" Tim Rice had long held a fascination with the personality of Judas, what was the motivation that led a dedicated follower to betray the friend he loved so much. After the Overture, the musical opens with Judas setting the scene. "Heaven on their Minds" presents us with a Judas in doubt. "I remember when this whole thing began, no talk of God then, we called you a man" he sings, "You're starting to believe the things they say of you, You're starting to believe this talk of God is true". He is racked with uncertainty and fright that Jesus and his followers will be turned upon. "I am frightened by the crowd, for we are getting much too loud."
The very act of allowing an exploration of the motivations and tribulations of Judas was enough to bring the ire of Christian groups. He is, in many ways, the principle lead of the show, not only does he sing the opening number but he gets the big spectacular titular number as well. "Jesus Christ Superstar" has Judas returning from the dead (in the original film version as a glam Angel, in other versions as a devil) to ask Jesus if he knew his "messy death would be a record breaker?" It is a daring and fascinating angle to approach the well known tale, and serves as a cipher for all Christians. There is an uncomfortable dichotomy in the subject of Judas. If Jesus died for all our sins, then surely he did so for Judas as well? The musical also explores whether Judas was required to carry out his role by God, just how much free will was involved in the decision. It is not a sympathetic portrayal as such, but an honest one.
This angle continues with other villains in the tale. Pontus Pilate is portrayed as a man heavy with the weight of power he cannot control. The trial is a powerful scene in itself, but in the Jesus Christ Superstar version Pilate looks for any escape from the hand he has been dealt. He resists the baying crowd, to no avail. The brutality and fragility of his position is honed by the musical.
"I'll agree he's mad. Ought to be locked up, But that is not a reason to destroy him. He's a sad little man. Not a King or God. Not a thief, I need a crime!"
The cast of characters given the chance to be explored in their humanity and failings continues. Mary Magdalene sings the astonishingly touching "I don't know how to love him" as a protest at the complexity of her relationship with Jesus. The insinuation of a physical relationship between her and Jesus again raised anger from Christian groups, but the work was always intended to focus on the human nature of the events. Lloyd Webber once stated “We did not set out to portray Jesus Christ as God,” Rice added, “He had to be human, he had to be a man with human failings or else the story doesn’t mean anything. If he was just a god, or if he knew he was God, then what’s the suffering? What’s the agony? Where’s the dilemma? Where’s the sacrifice?” The greatest success of the work is in the portrayal of Jesus himself. He is ephemeral, profound, still and solemn. Pained and uneasy, wrestling with the inevitability of the horror that awaits him. The Gospels tell us that Jesus cried out on the cross, asking why he had been abandoned by his Father. Jesus Christ Superstar merely explores that doubt and pain.
Easter is the time of year where Christians re examine that supreme sacrifice. The mystery of a gift so infinite delivered through a destruction so horrendous should have us asking just how do we understand the depth of a love so forgiving and all powerful. "Show me there's a reason for you wanting me to die. Far too keen on where and how, but not so hot on why!" Jesus berates his creator in the Garden, as he awaits his tormentors.
It was not just Christian groups that reacted to Jesus Christ Superstar with hostility back in the 70's. Jewish campaign groups criticised the production for exacerbating anti-semitic sentiment in portraying the Jews as responsible for Jesus' death. The Jewish holy book, The Talmud makes a direct reference to the historical fact of the execution of Jesus. The role of Caiaphas and his priest class in the death of Jesus is undeniable, Jesus was a threat to their power base, and as ever, the musical presents their decision in a careful light. There is analysis of how they reached their decision. "He is dangerous" Caiaphas and Annas sing with the Pharisees as Jesus enters Jerusalem. Caiaphas is clear in his concerns: "Jesus is important, we've let him go his way before, and while he starts a major war, we theorize and chatter." Yes the pair are presented as a near pantomime pair of villains, a deep bass and contralto Tenor, Jewish groups could be much more scathing of the representation of Herod and his court, who is effectively ridiculed as a playboy tyrant in the musical. It could be fair to argue that Herod is the character that comes away from the musical with the worst image. The musical simply captures and reflects the political complexity of the era in a succinct and direct manner. The Zealotes song is particularly effective at cementing this awareness.
"Christ, what more do you need to convince you that you've made it, and you're easily as strong as the filth from Rome who rape our country, and who've terrorized our people for so long." The growing movement building behind the erstwhile messiah, the political ground swell that scares Judas so, that is envisioned by Caiaphas, pressing on Pilate is laid bare:
"There must be over fifty thousand screaming love and more for you and everyone of fifty thousand would do whatever you asked them to. Keep them yelling their devotion, but add a touch of hate at Rome. You will rise to a greater power, we will win ourselves a home." One of the paradoxes of the story is that Jesus tells them all that he rejects their notions of power and glory while the characters around him see his reflected power and glory bringing disaster upon them.
If there is one area in which the production falls short, it is the resurrection. The show concludes with the crucifixion. The film presents the cast as a troupe who arrive in the Israeli desert aboard a hippy bus, full of enthusiasm and energy. The film concludes with the cast boarding the bus in solemn reflection, leaving the desert without Ted Neeley/Jesus. The film closes on a silhouetted shepherd guiding his flock into a sunset. It is in keeping with the overall direction of the film, it is a study of the human costs of the events of that week and not an exploration of the divine. Perhaps an ideal companion piece to complete the story would be the 2016 film Risen in which Joseph Fiennes plays a Roman Tribune tasked with the responsibility to find the body of Christ and quell the rumours of his resurrection.
Jesus Christ Superstar is not just a powerful and moving telling of the Easter story, it is a wondrous fusion of pop, rock , gospel and smatterings of funk. The bass lines throughout the show are impressive, if not divine, ever present funk rock noodles that drive forward the hits whilst delightfully complementing the vocals. If you listen, the bass is relentless throughout the production, barely pausing for respite. The film production recording is not perfect, it is laced with errors in timing and has moments of questionable production quality. Purists tend to lean toward the original stage concept album for sound quality, but in both versions the nothing held back nature of the vocal performances, throwing everything they have at every inflection of every tune helps give that unquestionable seal of genuine emotional power. The film can feel kitsch and kooky these days, painfully dated in places and very much of it's time, but the music and the performances shine through, a bold, rock funk letter of love and confusion to one of the most enigmatic men to walk the face of the Earth. As Judas implores on our behalf..."Everytime I look at you I don't understand, why you let the things you did get so out of hand. You'd have managed better if you had a plan. Now why d'you choose such backward time in such a strange land?"