Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert (2018)

During high school in the mid-eighties, my best friend and I could sing most of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s JCS from memory; we’d perform long passages between classes, and on demand at parties. To be clear, when I refer to JCS, it’s the 1970 concept album – the Broadway show and (awful) movie came after. The original rock opera was tight, just 88 minutes. Its ragged energy appealed, also its irreverence. Jesus Christ Superstar was a bridge between our staid Sunday school classes and what really turned us on at 16; it was the first expression of the Christian Gospel to thrill us.

Webber and Rice began with the single Superstar, released in 1969. It’s the climax of their opera, sung by the spirit of Judas immediately after Pilate sentences Jesus to death. The fanfare of the song is thrilling, first known to me as the soundtrack to ABC’s weekend sports programming. I’ve always found Webber and Rice’s placement of their transcendent theme interesting – not upon Jesus’ death, nor at the resurrection (which JCS doesn’t cover), but instantly following Pilate’s pronouncement. The music is triumphant, proclaiming Christ’s decisive victory much earlier than other versions of the story. Theologians object to the authors’ interpretation, and they have a point, except Webber and Rice aren’t interested in theology – their focus is on the sociology and psychology of the Gospel story, via the rapidly evolving lens of late-60s popular music. (I think JCS is the most coherent and fully realized example of the rock opera form, although The Who’s 1969 album Tommy is a better performance. Webber and Rice have the advantage of a stronger story with built-in familiarity.)

Considering the titular number is sung by Judas, who also opens the show, it seems obvious the protagonist is not actually Jesus. I’d argue that JCS is structured as a love triangle between Judas, Jesus, and Mary Magdalene. The show’s hit ballad I Don’t Know How to Love Him is sung first by Mary, then later by Judas before he commits suicide. It’s gorgeous and resonant, expressing the yearning and uncertainty that can accompany both romantic and spiritual relationships. I think it’s the show’s best song; Judas’ reprise is the emotional peak of the musical, and also a touchstone in my own faith journey.

Unfortunately, NBC’s recent Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert, which had the marketing chutzpah to air on Easter Sunday, clearly considers Jesus its lead. Advertisements featured John Legend’s beatific image, and the cast album (of course) lists Legend, Sara Bareilles and Alice Cooper on its cover art, completely omitting Brandon Victor Dixon’s Judas. This is what makes theater such an interesting, confounding art form – the production involved hundreds of collaborators, who were clearly on different pages (different books, in some cases.)

Let’s get cover boy Cooper out of the way. The New York Times loved his “magnificently scenery-chewing performance of King Herod’s Song…” Cooper’s eye makeup was arguably magnificent; it was certainly more nuanced than his performance, one-note both musically and conceptually. He couldn’t sing it, and he couldn’t find the humor or the pathos in the song.

John Legend is certainly beautiful enough to play Jesus, but his voice is all wrong. During the first half, I thought his vocal reticence might be clever commentary on the character – suggesting an accidental celebrity who was increasingly out of his depth politically. But Webber’s music demands a reckoning in the second act, first in the ballad Gethsemane (the solo is a right of passage for delusional choirboys which can test the patience of audiences who dislike nails on slate) and then in Jesus’ showdowns with Judas and Pilate. Legend sings pleasantly, and sometimes furrows his brow to appear irritated, but he’s way too passive for JCS. (Nobody’s topped Ian Gillan’s original performance, with its essential mix of rock god bombast and unironic hippie sensitivity. The worst actors take the part literally – I remember Ted Neeley stayed in costume and offered blessings for two hours after one show in Utica, as the crew dismantled the set around him.)

The casting of Sara Bareilles also illustrated the tension between commerce and art in the NBC production. She’s got name recognition and even some Broadway cred, with several pop hits and her Waitress musical adaptation now in its third year. Her voice has the range, and it was usually pleasant enough, but she can’t act. Although this version was billed as “Live in Concert” and the staging was minimal, she didn’t begin to convey her character. I would have preferred Bareilles’ normal stage persona, which relies on a lot of mild swearing and grinning about how naughty she’s being. (Come to think of it, that might make an interesting Mary Magdalene.)

Brandon Victor Dixon was simply fantastic. The only capable actor among the principals, Dixon sang Judas beautifully, interpreting the material instead of painting by numbers. He brought unpredictability and riveting vitality to the production, and made it seem effortless. He pulled me to my feet several times, my internal 16 year-old pumping his fist and lip-syncing with the TV. (Although I loved every moment, Dixon had his detractors. The astute cultural commentator Bill O’Reilly didn’t like Judas’ tattoos. I know that, unfortunately, because he took 30 seconds to type it into an app, which CNN and a dozen other Buzzclones gleefully reported, along with Chrissy Teigen’s inane Twitter commentary. News outlets that want to be taken seriously have to stop using the phrase “[Somebody] tweeted…” Honestly, at this point Twitter is just media noise pollution.)

The lighting designer had a daunting task – NBC’s production was recorded in the cavernous Marcy Avenue Armory in Brooklyn, with an immense set that effectively made it theater in the round at gigantic scale. Al Gurdon’s solutions were often gorgeous, sometimes seizure-inducing, but it was the camera operators and editors who deserve extra applause – their live images, framed for HDTV, were consistently interesting and improved as the production went on. Alone among the production’s creators, they made decisions and got better before our eyes.

I also loved seeing the orchestra on multiple levels of scaffolding – why not? They also sounded great, if a bit thin. (Again – no sound mix has ever come close to the original, which admittedly wasn’t produced in an armory for both a live audience and TV broadcast.) I didn’t love the climactic ascension of John Legend on the cross, which forced an interpretation of the material at odds with Webber and Rice. (For one thing, it reoriented the show’s climax from the titular fanfare to something theologians might prefer.) Sure, this finish was impressive – kudos to the rigging team. Still, a more artistically cohesive production would have rejected it.

I was disappointed that directors David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski made Jesus’ Apostles wildly gesticulating Rent rejects, instead of the comic bumblers of the original. (Camille A. Brown’s choreography was mostly silly. I’m not sure she had any support though – IMDB credits her as “Other Crew,” next to the VIP ticketing manager and the production accountant.) I was even more let down by how the directors staged The Temple, where Jesus loses his shit over the vendors desecrating a house of prayer with their commerce. Now, I understand why a commercial production airing on Easter Sunday might not want to insult its advertisers, who paid a lot to intrude every ten minutes of the goddamn production… Still, it just seems lazy to represent the debauchery as a nasty sex orgy (featuring those same Rent rejects) instead of bankers and merchants plying their wares. C’mon. (Following that scene, on a private jet somewhere, Pastor Joel Osteen surely emitted a belch of satisfaction.)

NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert was a huge, and hugely expensive, undertaking. Despite my gripes, I enjoyed it. It’s a logistical triumph. Although I’d prefer to watch a concert version of the material in an intimate space (I worked a local production once at Utica’s Uptown Theater, produced on a shoestring budget, that was ramshackle and glorious), this version was better than the movie and all of the Broadway stagings combined. Only half of it really worked, but that half reawakened my long-departed teenage boy, and made him glad.