TV Special Review: Jesus Christ Superstar, Live

I’m not the biggest fan of musicals. I’ve liked some of them, but I don’t really get into the genre as a whole. One of the Musicals that has always worked for me is Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice – with the musical probably being one of the two’s best collaborations. The musical recently got a new stage adaptation, performed live on NBC, and I watched the archive of the show on Hulu.

The story is pretty well known – it’s a rock opera version of The Passion. Not only that, but it’s one of the first rock operas, along with The Who’s Tommy, and Quadrophenia.In particular, it’s somewhat notable because it’s a work that tries to pretty much redeem most of the figures that are normally painted as villains in the Passion – in particular Pontius Pilate and Judas Iscariot – and to explain the actions of the Pharisees. The story sets up Judas as a man worried of what will happen to Jesus and his followers, Pilate as a man trapped in a bad situation with no options, and the Pharisees as leaders terrified by what will happen to Israel as a whole if things go out of control.

Where this is normally born out is through the casting and performances. In the Norman Jewson movie, as with the book of the play, Judas and Pilate are born out as very sympathetic (with the “Pilate’s Dream” song bearing this out). The songs with the Pharisees are more dependant on the performances. The film version bears out this more sympathetic perspective, while the musical version, well, plays them much more heavily camp – complete with coats apparently out of the wardrobe of the Spacing Guild from Frank Herbert’s Dune.

Musically, there are some issues for the mix. At several points Norm Lewis as Caiaphas is utterly drowned out by the music, when the thing is that he’s a character who is traditionally played by an actor with a tremendously overpowering bass, and Lewis is no exception. This also hurts John Legend in particular. His vocals feel overly soft in some of the Angry Jesus scenes (the temple courtyard and his rage at Judas), and I don’t know if this is an issue with the director saying Legend should tone it down, or if the mix was toned down. Whoever made that decision though, was wrong.

Also, and I feel weird saying this, Alice Cooper has what is quite possibly the most subdued performance of his career as King Herod. Herod is like the one-scene wonder of the play, whose whole point is to be heavily camp to such a degree to force you to crack a smile or get mad, while Jesus just sits there without any sort of reaction. Cooper’s performance consequently feels a little less theatrical – particularly related to the version in the film.

That said, there is a lot to be said for this production – in particular Brandon Victor Dixon is fantastic as Judas Iscariot. Considering he also played Aaron Burr in the original Broadway production of Hamilton, he’s stepping into familiar territory with the character (though not necessarily the music) – helped by the fact that if you’ve seen the musical before,  you know that Judas, not Jesus, gets the two best songs of the musical.

I’m glad I watched it – while it doesn’t entirely compare to the film (some of the location selection and set redesign – especially for the temple market – is superior to this stage production), it was an incredibly well done production, and makes clear that the source material has aged very well.