There was something odd about watching the live production of Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC last night. It fits under the "Oh, my, how times have changed" heading. When the original concept album by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber was released in 1970 and then had its Broadway production in 1973, the material was considered profoundly controversial and met with protests by religious groups. And not just religious groups -- the BBC banned the album for being "sacrilegious." But now, 45 years later, there it is, given a national platform to help celebrate Easter. And with a black man as Jesus. For a bit of perspective, it was only less than two years ago when Megyn Kelly on "Fox News" felt compelled to tell all the kiddies watching not to worry because Santa Claus was actually white.
(What's interesting too, for all the religious fervor that seemingly attached itself to the production -- both in the network promotion and the live-audience reaction -- is a comment that Andrew Lloyd Webber made on the NBC special to promote the show a few days before. He was talking about how when they wrote the work, Tim Rice worked very hard to make sure his words didn't favor one side or the other, in making clear that their point-of-view was not that Jesus was the Son of God or just a man.)
Speaking of that audience, I thought it was very smart of NBC to have a theater audience there, which helped lend a sense of enthusiasm and vitality to a live undertaking, given it more the aura of a rock concert. I also thought that, for all its positives, it was also the biggest drawback of the show, with maniacal cheering and screaming throughout, often for no apparent reason, other than people seemed to feel it was a point where they should scream in joy -- though why finishing singing a verse and turning to walk three feet away to continue singing was something that should register a scream I haven't quite figured out. It was 20% religious frenzy, 30% rock heaven, and the remainder an obligation to react because they got in free and probably thought they were supposed to. I thought it reached its bizarre peak when John Legend as Jesus was convicted and carried off overhead by the guards with his arms outstretched...and the audience began roaring and applauding. All I could think was, "Wait, you're cheering that Jesus Christ is about to get crucified???"
I also thought it was completely disingenuous for NBC to promote this as "Jesus Christ Superstar in Concert." In no way, shape or form was this a "concert production." This was a fully-staged, fully-choreographed musical. The staging was no different at all from Hamilton -- if you haven't seen it, that show takes place on a single set, with tables and chairs occasionally brought in to change the setting. Exactly the same as was done here. Exactly. The only difference is that the band was on stage last night -- but that's no different from how they did it in Jersey Boys. Or the recent Steve Martin musical, Bright Star. Or as far back as The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. Or many other musicals. A "concert version" is generally considered one where the chorus sits in chairs on stage, and often the main cast does, as well, out front. And they all may have a book with the score, which they hold in plain sight throughout. Then, when it's their turn to perform, they stand up and sing. This last night was a staged musical. Period. Maybe it was a little more bare bones than a show with lots of scene changes and props, but it's a musical, regardless. (Or a "rock opera," as it's long-called itself.) And no, this is not a big deal at all, and it's no aspersion on the production. Just a matter of marketing.
As for the production, I thought they did quite a nice job. I'm not a big fan of the show -- I've never seen it staged, only heard the original album quite a few times (and seen various videos). And I generally enjoy it. Not everything, I think a lot of the lyrics are simplistic, too spot-on direct, and a bit cloying at times. (It's important to remember that, rather than being written by two learned biblical scholars and accomplished men of the theater, Rice and Lloyd Webber were both in their early 20s, writing their first, full-fledged show). I'm also not a big fan of "sung-through" shows in general, with a few exceptions, and find this score in particular is a bit surface, without the depth of dramatic interaction that dialogue can bring. But overall they tell the story in an entertaining way, that's often effective, done from an interesting perspective, and there are quite a few very good songs.
And by and large, I thought the performance were pretty good. I'd have liked to have seen a touch more edge in a few places, but that's just personal choice. My only real quibble was with Sara Bareiles -- not that she wasn't good, in fact she did a very nice job. However I thought she was miscast. She was so sweet, so beatific that you could have mistakenly thought the character was the Virgin Mary, not Mary Magdalene. Bareilles just happens to have a warm personality about her that exudes through whatever she does, and I think the character requires at least some sort of edge, which allows us to see the conflict of Jesus with a prostitute, and Mary's growth. On the other end, although he just had one song, I thought Alice Cooper did a terrific job as King Herod. Often that number is performed as a comic piece, by an almost fey king. But you certainly weren't going to get that from Alice Cooper, and his performance was solidly grounded and menacing.
So, overall well-done, good staging and an effective piece for live television, even if more slight than is my personal preference. If only they could have told the audience during commercial breaks to take a Valium.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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