‘Jesus Christ, what a show!’
That’s the opening sentence I wrote in 2001, when I was the theatre critic for Fort McMurray Today – about the local community theatre’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar. It wasn’t blasphemy then, and it isn’t blasphemy now.
Admittedly, I’m pretty much the ideal audience for this work: I enjoy musical theatre, I’m a huge classic rock fan, a history buff and a bit of a Jesus Freak.
But in that context, there’s something about seeing a small-scale production (like a community theatre or professional dinner theatre) of Superstar that really brings the story to life for me. (And if you’re like me, listening to the soundtrack once you’ve seen it live, is almost as good.)
Small productions can’t afford to have one actor for every role, so you might have the guy who plays Pontius Pilate also play one of the disciples, for instance. That visual helps me to shred my erroneous default view that the mistakes of Pilate, Herod, Peter and the rest belong only to them. We are all to blame.
And having the same melodies – and even the same lyrics, in some cases – used to convey vastly different parts of the story, says something profound about how the human versions of vice and virtue, righteousness and frailty, must look from Heaven’s perspective.
Cases in point:
- After Pilate decides to dump Jesus off on Herod, the crowd who accompanies Him to the tetrarch’s palace mockingly sings the same Hosanna! song they sang sincerely (supposedly) during His triumphal entry on Palm Sunday. Fickle much, Humanity?
- The melody the crowd sings as they beg Jesus to heal their ills in Act I is the same tune they use when they turn against Him just after his arrest in Act II. Translation: Be the Jesus we want you to be, or we’ll turn on you.
I could go on, but you get the idea.
Soon after basking in Keyano Theatre’s impeccable version, I picked up a copy of the soundtrack from a London mid-1990s production – and listening to it has become a compulsory part of my Holy Week routine. I used to save it for Good Friday, but last year I started before Palm Sunday, and was very glad I did. This year, I’ve played Superstar about a dozen times on my iPod.
There’s something about Superstar that brings the story to life for me like nothing else can. I love the music for its own sake – it may be neither great showtunes nor great rock, but for my money it’s great showtune rock (not as narrow a category as you’d think: see Wikipedia’s article on Rock Opera).
But more important than the music is the text. Lyricist Tim Rice weaves a tapestry in which there are no real villains, but everyone’s to blame – except for the title character, of course.
Before I get to the villains, though, let’s talk about the play’s treatment of Mary Magdalene. She’s really an amalgam of a number of characters, including Mary the sister of Lazarus and Martha – and she’s also probably the most relatable character for the audience/listener. When she sings, ‘I don’t know how to love Him,’ she sings it for all of us.
OK, here are the villains:
High Priest Caiaphas and his cronies only decide that This Jesus Must Die because they fear He’ll stir up trouble against the Romans, thereby making things worse for the Children of Israel. (For the sake of the nation, this Jesus must die.)
Pilate tries to spare Jesus, berating the exasperatingly dim crowd with phrases like ‘Who is this Jesus? Why is He different? You Jews produce Messiahs by the sackfull!’ and ‘You hypocrites! You hate us more than Him!’ But he eventually gives up in the face of a bloodthirsty crowd that won’t be denied and an accused who won’t defend himself: ‘I wash my hands of your demolition’ and ‘Die if you want to, you misguided martyr!’ Poor Pilate.
King Herod sarcastically toys with Jesus, but if Christ had taken him up on some of his taunting invitations to ‘feed my household with this bread’ or ‘walk across my swimming pool,’ I think he’d have changed his tune pretty quickly. I think he’s on the fence (at least in Superstar), and dismisses Jesus because Jesus wants to be dismissed.
(Just as an aside, if I were ever to be part of this play, I’d want to be Herod. His song is so inappropriately fun, given its place in the story, for one thing. Also, in the three versions of Superstar I’m most familiar with, Herod’s been played by my parish priest (Terry Leer, who is now in Grande Prairie, I believe), Alice Cooper and a delightfully chubby fop named Josh Mostel in the 1973 movie version starring Ted Neely. Not sure I’d do the can-can like Mostel did, though, if I ever took on the role. [Josh Mostel is the son of Zero Mostel of the original 1968 version of The Producers, btw.] His performance, incidentally, is the only part of Norman Jewison’s film version of JC Superstar that I enjoy. Please do not judge Jesus Christ Superstar as a whole by that movie.)
But I digress. Back to the villains.
The real triumph of Superstar is the way it treats Judas Iscariot. I’ve always been somewhat uncomfortable with this disciple-turned-betrayer; whether he’s a conspirator, a perpetrator or the victim in the Gospel – and whether he ultimately did good or evil. Superstar tackles these questions head-on.
Judas’s only crime (in the play) is to doubt that the man in front of him is divine (‘No talk of God then; we called you a man’). As he considers selling Jesus out, he wonders if he’ll be ‘damned for all time,’ and initially tells Caiaphas, ‘I don’t want your blood money,’ although it doesn’t take him long to relent. His betrayal is ultimately motivated by the fact Jesus refuses to heed Judas’s counsel that He’s drifted off-course, and could end up doing more harm to Israel than good. I get the sense that Judas’s motivation in the betrayal is more about bringing Jesus to His senses.
Even once he’s made that decision, he dares Jesus to talk him out of it during the Last Supper. (Jesus: Why don’t you go do it? Judas: You want me to do it?) and Jesus has to push Judas out the door: ‘Get out, they’re waiting! Get out!’ prompting Judas to cry out, ‘Every time I look at you I don’t understand why you let the things you did get so out of hand.’ I get goosebumps every time.
When Judas finally comes face to face with who Jesus is and just what he – Judas – has done, he performs the greatest reprise in the history of theatre (sez I): ‘I don’t know how to love Him; I don’t know why He moves me; He’s a man, just a man; He’s not a king, he’s just the same as anyone I know; he scares me so. When He’s cold and dead, will He let me be? Does He love me too? Does he care for me?’
The next bit is absolutely bone-chilling for me, every time: ‘My mind is in darkness now – my God I am sick for I’ve been used. And you knew all the time. God! I’ll never know why you chose me for your crime. Your foul, bloody crime. You have murdered me! You have murdered me, murdered me, murdered me …’
Then he hangs himself, and a choir of celestial beings (demons in some productions, but maybe angels in my mind’s eye) sings, ‘Poor old Judas. Well done, Judas. Good old Judas. So long, Judas.’
A few songs later, right after Pilate has decided to crucify Jesus, Webber and Rice press pause on the story (how awesome is that?!?) and have Judas – dressed in beautiful white – re-enter the scene from Heaven and heap praises on the Saviour for His incredible, wonderful plan. In admiration, He asks a number of interesting questions, like ‘Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land? Don’t get me wrong; I only wanna know.’
Don’t we all?
The depiction of some of these characters and events is more biblical than others, but all of them have some elements of Truth (not easy to define. We both have truths, are yours the same as mine? – Pilate sings) – or at least plausibility – that I think are worth pondering, particularly during Holy Week. They’ve almost – almost – become like a fifth version of the Gospel for me: The Gospel According to Tim (and Andrew).
Another quibble some Christians have with the play is the whininess (for lack of a better term) of Jesus. Point taken: the Son of God doesn’t take a lot of joy in the Lord during this show, to be sure. Two comments on that:
- Musically speaking, the Jesus character’s parts are impossibly high for a man – I think it’s closer to alto (a low female range) than tenor (a high male range). Anyone, singing this high, would sound a little shrill, to anyone’s ears, after 90 minutes or so.
- Much more importantly, Jesus is about to willingly and deliberately suffer a terrible death He doesn’t deserve. Not exactly the stuff of happy, happy, joy, joy, is it? Perhaps a sullen Saviour makes some sense.
Another criticism of JC Superstar is that it ignores Easter Sunday – which is really the whole point of the story, of course. This opinion is understandable; after all, Tim Rice was quoted saying, ‘It happens that we don’t see Christ as God but simply the right man at the right time at the right place.’
But Judas’s triumphant arrival singing the play’s title track just before the Crucifixion paints a very different picture from that quote: as Scottish playwright Willie MacShakespeare might say, ‘Methinks the laddie doth protest tooo much.’
Peace be with you.
- http://middleagebulge.blogspot.ca/2012/02/memories-and-meaning.html; Photo by Russell Thomas