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.”

August 28, 2017

Media that Wasn’t Meant for Christian Insiders

A typical Friday night or Saturday night at my house might consist of sitting by the computer and spinning the giant YouTube wheel. This past weekend, the wheel spun to songs from the musical Godspell.

When I was very young, myself and my friend Cliff boarded a Toronto city bus and rode for forty minutes to the Bayview Playhouse to see the production that some others at our school were talking about, having seen it on previous nights. Despite growing up in church, I had minimal exposure to live music at a professional level and the quality of the band, the singers, and even the lighting and sound was certainly impressive. It didn’t hurt that the cast and musicians included Victor Garber, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Gilda Radner, Dave Thomas, and Martin Short, and the show’s musical director Paul Shaffer.

But while I wouldn’t have articulated this way at the time, I can also report with great clarity that two things struck me that night.

First was the Jesus story itself. I had never before seen the story arc of the four gospels in a single presentation. Years of Sunday School suddenly came to life! You can’t make this stuff up. It’s awesome. I keep coming back to the phrase “If Jesus had never lived, we would not have been able to invent him.” (Philip Yancey attributes this to Walter Wink; though Voltaire, with an entirely different motive, said something similar.) The life of Christ; the teachings; the miracles; the conversations with seekers and critics; it’s all — if I can be permitted this indulgence — the making of great theater.

Second however was the power of contemporary music to convey the Jesus story. I think that night planted the seeds which would cause me to go on to become an ambassador for what was to be called “Jesus Music” and later became known as “CCM” or “Contemporary Christian Music;” and to want to do this in a country where Christian radio, as well as access to the artists and recordings were basically non-existent.

But Godspell had its critics among Evangelicals.

Problem One: The musical originated outside of the Evangelical bubble. How could Christians support something that wasn’t composed by one of their own. John Michael-Tebelak, who wrote the spoken parts of the play describes being overwhelmed by the joy found in the Gospels and decides to attend an Easter Vigil at a nearby church. “I left with the feeling that, rather than rolling the rock away from the Tomb, they were piling more on. I went home, took out my manuscript, and worked it to completion in a non-stop frenzy.” Jewish composer Stephen Schwartz wrote the music.

Problem Two: Jesus was seen as being portrayed as a clown. This assessment is clearly off-base. If anything, the costume used with most touring companies more resembles the look of Robin Williams as Mork from Ork. The idea was to capture the joy the playwright in the previous quotation found lacking. To this day I have never seen this choice of wardrobe as in any way diminishing the character of Jesus, though if it were historically accurate, Jesus would have stood out in a crowd in ways the texts indicate he did not.

Problem Three: There is no resurrection. Wikipedia elaborates:

The “Finale” begins, loud and in B-minor, with Jesus wailing, “Oh, God, I’m dying,” and the community answers: “Oh, God, You’re dying.” Jesus dies and the music comes to a rest. The women of the company sing “Long Live God”, and the men join in with “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” in counterpoint, as they remove Jesus from the fence and carry him out (either offstage or through the aisles of the auditorium). There is controversy over the fact that there is no obvious resurrection of Jesus present in the show, although it can be interpreted that either the singing of “Prepare Ye” in the finale or the curtain call (where all including Jesus return to the stage) is representative of the resurrection…

Stephen Schwartz notes the following in the script:

Over the years, there has been comment from some about the lack of an apparent Resurrection in the show. Some choose to view the curtain call, in which JESUS appears, as symbolic of the resurrection; others point to the moment when the cast raise JESUS above their heads. While either view is valid, both miss the point. GODSPELL is about the formation of a community which carries on JESUS’ teachings after he has gone. In other words, it is the effect JESUS has on the OTHERS which is the story of the show, not whether or not he himself is resurrected. Therefore, it is very important at the end of the show that it be clear that the OTHERS have come through the violence and pain of the crucifixion sequence and leave with a joyful determination to carry on the ideas and feelings they have learned during the course of the show

(This is also as cited in Wikipedia: CapsLock as in the original)

Again, I can’t say how much the musical means to me on a personal level. On that one night, I saw the power of music to convey the Christian message, and this exposure partly set the trajectory of my entire life. But as I was brushing my teeth on Saturday night, two thoughts hit me.

First: Godspell wasn’t written for Christians. It wasn’t even supposed to be that successful, at least where I live. In Toronto, the plan was to hire local performers and produce a few dozen shows for subscribers. Instead, the show moved up to the Bayview Playhouse where I saw it, setting what was then a record run of nearly 500 performances.

Second: I think this is where I get my love for media that is capable of starting conversations with people in the broader marketplace who would never set foot in a church. Those media vehicles we sometimes describe as “crossover” in nature, even if some of them didn’t originate with us in the first place.

  • This is why I like Godspell.
  • This is why I endorse The Shack.
  • This is why I defend the sermons of Andy Stanley.
  • This is why I review and quote from Rob Bell.
  • This is why I refer people to Bruxy Cavey’s church.

When someone is willing to take the message out there and do it in a way that resonates and find an audience with the secularist, the humanist, the cynic, the skeptic, the critic, the seeker, the sinner; at that point I’m on board. “Go for it;” I’m cheering, “Rough edges and all.”


The song All Good Gifts had a rather operatic (and choral) sound when first released. Compare with the 2nd clip below, a more modern version.

The video clip below is from a newer cast.

 

 

 

 

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