Thinking Out Loud

April 2, 2018

Thoughts After Watching Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC

It had been a long, long time since I’d listen to the album I purchased as a kid, and I’d never seen the movie or the stage show, so last night my wife and watched NBC-TV’s live (on the East coast at least) broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar.

I have to admit that part of my interest was in the fact this was a live broadcast, and other than some sound problems at the beginning, the production did not disappoint. Working the various handheld cameras around the action required some detailed blocking on the part of the actors and choreographers and I was impressed with what I saw, as well as the times they cut away to actors reacting to things happening front and center.

My wife rarely watches broadcast television, so for her the number of commercials — always playing at a louder volume despite an FCC restriction that stations are now ignoring — were supremely annoying. Better for the network to charge more for fewer spots, in my opinion. The only good thing here was that in four of the commercial breaks there was a split-screen  allowing you to see the backstage action as cast and crew prepared for the next scene. But this was offset by the sheer number of “blipverts” in those packages; I’ll swear there nearly 20 corporations represented in each break, or so it seemed.

Unlike Godspell which purports to cover the entire life of Christ, Superstar is focused on the final week of Christ’s life; in other words, the ‘Hosanna’ procession into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the betrayal and arrest, etc.  (For my thoughts on Godspell see this article.) The entire production is sung, i.e. there is no spoken diaglog. This was, after all, one of the original rock operas.

The script puts a heavier focus on the relationship between Jesus and Judas, and Jesus and Mary Magdalene than we find in scripture and has to invent screenplay to do so. Otherwise, the basics of the story are intact, but there is no resurrection, and the only reference to Jesus being laid in the tomb is an instrumental on the album simply titled “John 19:41” (Text: At the place where Jesus was crucified, there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb, in which no one had ever been laid.)

It’s at this point the script becomes problematic. Conservative Evangelicals were not happy with the Andrew Lloyd Webber – Tim Rice musical when it released in 1970; the show’s very title causing sermons to be preached against it. The romantic interest in Jesus by Mary M. didn’t help. There are no parables or teaching. Only one reference to the people who came seeking healing from disease.

Today, 48 years later, there is far less Biblical literacy. There were no graphics showing who was speaking and when I wasn’t 100% sure about one, twenty minutes in (and also due to the aforementioned audio issues) I found it simpler to pull up the full lyrics on my smartphone, and consult those when I felt I was missing a line here and there. For someone unfamiliar with the Bible account, the show might have been more bewildering.

The problem with productions like this are the same as what I said about watching the movie Paul, Apostle of Christ earlier this week. (See review here.) A generation not Biblically literate would have difficulty knowing what is canon and what is not.

Overall, the production, focusing on that last week of Christ’s life as it does and minus a resurrection, is rather dark. I felt like I was watching 1,500 people watch a stage show in a science fiction movie, the cavernous Marcy Armory adding to that impression. The costumes for the Pharisees looked more out of Star Wars than 1st Century Palestine. John Legend was credible as Jesus, and no mention of Alice Cooper playing Herod (see photo) would be complete without noting his costume, which some say appeared to be on fire.

I also followed the people live Tweeting at #JesusChristSuperstar during the production. Although the following should have a language warning, it was the only one I actually liked, as it summed up my feelings about the show: “Hope no religious folks are offended by this. Think about it this way, you have a shit ton of us non-theists watching a show about Jesus on Easter. I call that a win.”

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