I wouldn’t exactly call myself an Andrew Lloyd Webber fan. I like his musicals more than I might care to admit. There is something intoxicating about an indulgently baroque score that is riddled with random hair metal guitar licks and disco drum beats. I loved an album he did eons ago with his brother Julian Lloyd Webber called Variations in which he basically “dance remixed” Paganini into submission. I suspect that’s where my fascination with musical reinvention began. Oh, I saw the film Evita about a dozen times in 1996 at the peak of my Madonna obsession, and I dearly loved it, although it doesn’t hold up as I’d hoped in light of more celebratory, effusive, less self-conscious film musicals that would follow.
I’m even less sprung on “He is Risen” #SoBlessed Easter spectacle and pageantry. I grew up in a small town in Indiana, and, at some point, Easter took on an almost insufferably sanctimonious quality among the social media posts I would read and observe from friends and family members. Not sure how and when that happened, but, as for me, I’m more of a “Here comes Peter Cottontail” #CadburyEgg kind of Easter person.
So I approached with YUGE trepidation NBC’s latest live musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Live in Concert starring pop/rock stars John Legend, Sara Bareilles, and Alice Cooper alongside theatrical luminaries like Hamilton’s Brandon Victor Dixon and Porgy and Bess’ Norm Lewis.
I was wrong. It was pretty fabulous with a dystopian post-punk quality that was more George Orwell than Mel Gibson and a color-blind casting approach that was more Sesame Street than Sean Hannity. Producers Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, and Marc Platt generally know their way around a musical (NBC’s Peter Pannotwithstanding). With this production, they seemed to be less interested in staging a family friendly holiday confection (remember that creepy Wal-Mart clan from The Sound of Music Live’s commercials? shudder) than in presenting allegorical commentary on the fragmented state of our world today.
It is a testament to directors David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski that they allowed the music and the performances to drive the spectacle, avoiding the overdone trap of previous live musicals with their veritable nesting doll of detailed sets that segue seamlessly one to the next. No, with Jesus Christ Superstar, settings were evoked through language and sound and cleverly used props and set pieces, surrounded by graffiti strewn walls and scaffolding used for exits and entrances and the occasional flogging and/or hanging (fun times!).
Maybe I just didn’t pay enough attention in vacation Bible school, but I wasn’t always sure what the heck was going on during Jesus Christ Superstar. The ubiquitous commercial breaks after every big number derailed narrative momentum. The sound quality overall and the challenges of actor articulation/projection while performing in a vast, echoing Brooklyn warehouse contributed as well. The visibly live audience was a smart if distracting choice, adding to the cult-like adoration of the titular figure but often drowning out important lyrical bits.
Jesus Christ Superstar arguably also had the most uniformly excellent cast we’ve seen yet in one of these live productions. Nary a scenery-chewing Christopher Walken nor balsa-wooden Allison Williams in the bunch. The theatre vets faired best, with Dixon and Lewis leading the charge. Lewis as Caiaphas was suitably haunted and haunting as the Jewish high priest who organizes the plot to rid this rabble rouser from their midst. The show was grounded beautifully by his easy-to-take-for-granted performance.
In the showier role as Judas, Dixon left it all on the field (sometimes to the detriment of diction), offering a portrayal rife with conflict and fear: love for a friend versus uncertainty that Jesus’ chosen path made any damn sense at all, layered with just enough resentment and jealousy to make it utterly believable. His final number, performing the show’s title song, was a barnstormer, replete with costuming that made Dixon look like a glittering disco ball.
Alice Cooper preened and strutted appropriately as King Herod whose one song (literally “King Herod’s Song”) is basically a toxic vaudevillian turn, leeringly challenging Jesus to provide evidence of any miraculous abilities at all. Cooper didn’t have to do much other than just be Cooper whose decrepit looks overlaid with his signature stage makeup and hair made for a compellingly repulsive portrayal. With Herod’s song and the subsequent “Trial before Pilate” (British stage vet Ben Daniels made for a kinky, mustache-twirling prefect … still not sure what I thought of him but I couldn’t look away), the die is cast for Jesus and the institutional conspiracy to cut short Christ’s anarchic message of love and inclusion and acceptance entered its final stage.
That was the aspect of this production that spoke to me the most, perhaps because of this ugly current milieu in which we live. Take, for instance, those brave, big-hearted Parkland kids who are pilloried by the falsely fair-and-balanced prophets of “freedom” every time they speak their truth. This production did SUCH an effective job demonizing the forces working against Jesus, did SUCH an effective job depicting the ugly mobs calling for his crucifixion, did SUCH an effective job revealing the insidious intersection of greed and power-mongering that it sent chills down my spine. I was less interested in the show as reflection of faith as I was in its revelatory “more things change, the more they stay the same” positioning.
I kept wondering how Fox News, who cozies up to such a feverishly Evangelical base, would find a way to deride this production which carries in its heart a pretty arch critique of the very demagoguery that is Fox’s stock-in-trade these days. I’m still waiting. Maybe they’ll just counter with a live production of Grease 2.
John Legend was a bit of a cipher as Jesus, which accidently (or intentionally?) aided this direction. His voice all Nat King Cole creamy smooth was an interesting juxtaposition to the jagged rock orchestration surrounding it, but his acting range just doesn’t exist. He can’t help but exude kindness, but otherwise his facial expressions seemed limited to surprised, placid, and worried … with barely any distinction between those. It didn’t much matter. The machinery of Webber’s music, coupled with the sharp overall POV of the production, formed an unstoppable steamroller with Legend along for the ride. When Legend as Jesus finally disappears into the great beyond (with a floating cross effect that was gobsmacking in a “how did they do that?!” way), we are left with the uncertainty of living in a world that punishes kindness and rewards cruelty.
I am no theologian by any stretch, but I read some online comments where people unfamiliar with the musical wondered why it didn’t continue on through the “resurrection.” I think the fact that it does not address that part of the tale imbues Jesus Christ Superstar with a greater universalism.
We leave the piece with as much doubt as we entered. We are given no easy answers. Is Judas’ agnosticism valid? Why do we live in such a world where compassion is rewarded with utter rejection and abject fear? Why is love seen as weakness? Why are the biggest pronouncers of their faith often the worst hypocrites?
That is my idea of a “passion” play. Sounds like something Washington, D.C. should watch. On repeat.
Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital).
In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.
My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.