Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Jesus Christ Superstar

Please note: At this point, I have only seen the 2000 movie adaptation. Any comments are based on that production, and other productions may be different.

For years, I have been hearing mixed reviews on Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical Jesus Christ Superstar - everything from amazing to blasphemous (most people weighing in on the latter). As I am not generally one to formulate an opinion on something based only on hearsay (After all, the Bible says to "test the spirits"), I have not had an opinion on the subject. After all, I had never seen or heard it, aside from a few of the songs.

What I had heard: The musical was told from Judas' perspective, it was blasphemous (or amazing, depending on who I asked), Mary Magdalene was an important character, it spanned Jesus' last week leading up to the crucifixion, and what I could get from the songs I had heard (mainly I Don't Know How to Love Him, Gethsemane and Superstar).

First of all, like it or not, Jesus Christ Superstar was very important in the history of musicals. It was wildly popular in its time (and is still somewhat popular), and it was thanks in large part to this musical that Andrew Lloyd Webber rose to popularity, 15 years before The Phantom of the Opera made him even more popular. It was also at the London premiere of Jesus Christ Superstar in 1971 that the Frenchman Alain Boublil got the idea of writing a rock opera, thus beginning his collaboration with Claude-Michel Schönberg. The result was La Révolution Française (1973) a major landmark in the birth of French musicals. They would later go on to write several more hit musicals, the most popular of which were Les Misérables (1980 in French, 1985 in English) and Miss Saigon (1989).

As for the songs I had heard, I had mixed feelings. Musically, they have catchy tunes, and they capture many emotions. Of course, hearing the songs out of context only gives you part of the impact of the song, and sometimes leads to misunderstandings.

I knew "I Don't Know How to Love Him" was sung by Mary, and I didn't entirely know what to make of it. Mary seems to love Jesus, but is confused somehow (obviously, from the title of the song). I don't know that I really spent much time thinking about it before seeing the play, but it was an easily recognizable song.

"Gethsemane" bothered me a bit. It is obviously based on Jesus' prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, and it captures His pain and inner turmoil as He wrestled with the notion of dying, and not wanting to. What bothered me was that it ended with the resolution "All right, I'll die. Just watch me die. See how I die." It sounds to me like a belligerent child deciding to obey his parents just to show them how wrong they are, all the while planning to tell them, "I told you so!" after it's all over. While the real Jesus didn't want to die, there was no belligerence involved, and He went willingly to save mankind, not because He had something to prove.

"Superstar" really bothered me. It seems to mock Jesus for coming 2000 years ago when there was "no mass-communication." I did not appreciate the question repeated throughout the song: "Jesus Christ Superstar, do You think You're who they say You are?" That tells me that the singers didn't believe that He was truly the Messiah.

On a recommendation from a friend who loves the 2000 version especially, I watched it this past Sunday. I have mixed feelings about it, and they may change somewhat as I ponder it further, but these are my thoughts 2 days later.

In the 2000 movie, Judas was played by Jérôme Pradon, one of my favorite singers/actors. Some of my favorite songs from musicals have been from his characters in Boublil & Schönberg's Martin Guerre (in which he played Guillaume) and Värttinä & A.R. Rahman's Lord of the Rings (Aragorn). I was surprised, however, with his performance as Judas. His acting and facial expressions were great, but the powerful, loud singing required of the character seemed to be a bit much for him at times. This is the first time I have been unimpressed with his singing, as he seemed to be straining his voice for most of the show.

It's interesting how, in some ways, the musical seems to turn the biblical story of Jesus' last week on its head. If this musical is to be believed, Judas betrayed Christ because he didn't believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah, which basically implies that Judas didn't believe much of what Jesus taught. He considered Him a misguided friend, who he felt the necessity to advise on repeated occasions. (I'm pretty sure the real Judas knew and understood that Jesus was truly the Messiah.) The musical shows Judas' arrogance in that he seems to see himself as the teacher, not the disciple. Up until the Last Supper, Jesus seems to tolerate Judas' constant nagging, aside from defending Mary several times when Judas criticizes Jesus' friendship with her, including the time she pours oil on Him.

As for Mary, she is a confused person in this musical. She has found Jesus, and turned from her past ways, but finds herself attracted to Him. I think this is a large part of where the charges of blasphemy come from, as she sees Jesus as more than a friend. She is confused because, as a former prostitute, she seems to understand that it's wrong to lie with Him, but that's the way she's known to express her love in the past. She expresses her confused feelings in the song "I Don't Know How to Love Him," which she sings (sometimes belting) while Jesus is sleeping and she's in the same room. In context, the song made more sense to me. One thing that surprised me somewhat was Judas' sudden appearance at the end of the song, when Mary is sitting next to a sleeping Jesus. Judas seems to misunderstand what he sees, takes Jesus for a hypocrite and adulterer, and that seems to be the final straw that leads him to go to the authorities and betray Jesus. I can see where this scene in particular could be open to interpretation and taken in more blasphemous directions than the 2000 movie does.

As the story builds, Judas becomes more and more conflicted, as he is increasingly disillusioned with Jesus, yet reluctant to turn in a friend to the authorities. The conflict seems to explode at the Last Supper when Jesus announces that Peter will deny Him and Judas will betray Him. This scene particularly bothered me, as it practically turns into a brawl, Jesus angrily shouting at Peter for the sin he will commit, and then Jesus and Judas going into a shouting match in which neither is very mature and Jesus seems to be resigned to committing suicide by angrily convincing Judas to go to the authorities. (In the Bible, Jesus only showed sadness at this point, not anger. While He did tell Judas to go do what he had to, He didn't have to spend five minutes trying to convince Judas to go.)

In context, the song "Gethsemane" bothered me just as much as it did out of context. It does a good job of capturing Jesus' pain and inner turmoil, but seems to end on a belligerent and childish note that is not present in the biblical account.

As in the biblical account, Judas feels remorse for betraying Jesus, and he tries to return the money the authorities gave him for his betrayal. Then, in despair, he hangs himself. Unlike in the biblical account, Judas' remorse is not because he realizes that he's sinned; it's because he realizes that Jesus' death will be pinned on him for all time and people won't understand that he did it with the best intentions.

Possibly the most accurately-portrayed character is Pilate (played brilliantly by Fred Johanson). You can tell he is conflicted and confused. He thinks Jesus is crazy, but he can't see any reason to have Him crucified. In an effort to satisfy the angry crowds, he has Jesus whipped 39 times. He sends Him to Herod, who, frustrated that Jesus won't talk, tells Jesus to "get out." Finally, when the crowd pressures Pilate to have Jesus crucified (or he'll incite a riot and be demoted), Pilate washes his hands of the whole affair and gives into the crowd's demands.

As Jesus is carrying the cross up the hill, Judas reappears (I thought he died?) and sings "Superstar." In context, the song makes much more sense, but left me somewhat bewildered. The style of the song is very upbeat, almost celebratory. (It is a rock opera, after all.) Somewhat odd, considering that Jesus is walking to His death. The lyrics seem to mock Jesus because, well, that's what was happening at the time. But to have Judas, who is dead at this point, leading the mockery seems especially strange. What I found even more disturbing was the angels joining in and openly mocking Jesus, agreeing with Judas that Jesus just might not be the Messiah, as the crowds suggested. While the Bible doesn't mention the angels at this point, it only ever talks about them glorifying God, not mocking Him. Perhaps these are supposed to be demons, who were originally angels? After all, the Bible states that Lucifer/Satan was known as the angel of light, and he often masquerades as such.

The musical ends with Jesus dead, His followers devastated and mourning. No mention of the Resurrection. I read somewhere that the musical is more about Jesus' humanity rather than His divinity, and I can see that.

Overall, Jesus Christ Superstar was not as blasphemous as I was expecting, based on comments I had heard from others, but it did have a lot of areas that were hardly respectful to the living Lord and Savior of mankind. It seems to convey that He was a great teacher, but he may have been somewhat misguided. He changed lives for the better, but he may or may not have been the Messiah. It doesn't seem to give a definitive answer to that question.

Glenn Carter did a great job as Jesus, although he seemed angrier than I would have liked (which seems to be written into the script, so I don't think that's his fault), and I could have done without hearing him go into falsetto several times. Renée Castle was an excellent choice for Mary, as her singing and acting conveyed well the conflicted woman, who became increasingly more sure of herself as the story progressed (even rebuking Peter for denying Christ toward the end). Fred Johanson was also great as Pilate. Frederick B. Owens was particularly memorable as Caiaphas. Not very many musicals include a strong bass, and his performance was brilliant. As I mentioned before, I was surprised to be disappointed with Jérôme Pradon's performance as Judas, as he has never disappointed me before, but his acting was great.

As I knew them best, "Gethsemane" and "I Don't Know How to Love Him" stood out as memorable songs, for good and bad. Another song that stood out for me was "Hosanna." I had heard that song a couple times before watching the movie, but didn't know it as well. However, it has a very catchy tune. Those three songs in particular show Andrew Lloyd Webber's brilliance in musical composition, and deserve their place in the classic songs that he wrote. I may not entirely agree with the message conveyed in all of them, but they have enjoyable and memorable tunes, and they capture well the emotions that the characters are feeling.

Due to the disrespectful nature of parts of the show, I can't recommend it for its message and fidelity to the source material, but it was better than I expected. The musicality of the whole thing is excellent, and for that, I do recommend it. However, to anyone watching it, I recommend taking it with a grain of salt and studying the Biblical account to find out what actually happened. In some ways, Jesus Christ Superstar is a semi-fictional story based on actual events, told from an unusual perspective.

One thing I would love to see someday is a hit musical based on the life of Christ that builds up, not to the crucifixion, but to the resurrection. So far, Andrew Lloyd Webber has brought us Jesus Christ Superstar, and Stephen Schwartz has brought us the much-more-respectful (usually) Godspell. Both are somewhat open to interpretation by the director (Godspell more than Jesus Christ Superstar), but neither necessarily includes the resurrection. Both end with Jesus dead (although some productions of Godspell have been able to add the resurrection quite effectively). While there is sometimes value to ending the story with Jesus' death - which highlights the enormity of the tragedy - it's like ending the story halfway through the climactic battle, before the turn of the tide that leads to the final triumphant victory.

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