On Sunday, April 1, NBC showed a live version of Jesus Christ Superstar, I suppose to celebrate Easter. While I have no quibbles with the performance — it was quite good, with Alice Cooper and Sara Bareilles being standouts (for Herod and Mary Magdelene, respectively) — I am puzzled about this choice of entertainment.
Jesus Christ Superstar is not an Easter musical. For one thing, it ends with the crucifixion, and ignores the resurrection, thus leaving the question of Jesus’s divinity open. (According to Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber, this was a deliberate choice on the part of him and Tim Rice, the lyricist.) If anything, this is a musical for Good Friday, following as it does the liturgy of the Passion.
The musical is dark and cynical. Jesus, an ineffectual messiah, is overwhelmed not merely by the burden of his impending death but also by the demands made of him by people needing healing. The segment of the last supper which has found its way into Catholic and Anglican liturgy (“this is my body, when you eat it remember me”) comes across less as a profound statement of his status as the Son of God than as as an annoyed rebuke to his empty-headed apostles.
Where are his teachings? Where are his parables? Jesus is not only not divine in this musical, he is only marginally anything other than a cipher.
The apostles are more interested in their public image (“When we retire we can write the gospels/and they’ll all talk about us when we’ve died”) than actually listening to Jesus. Judas, through whose eyes the story is told, is a frustrated revolutionary angry at a man he viewed as a friend but who is not following him down the road of overthrowing Rome. Judas’s betrayal seems inevitable, but his remorse seems unmoving, as though he was more invested in not being blamed than what he actually did.
Judas’s clearly doesn’t believe in Christ’s divinity: in the first song, “Heaven on Their Minds,” he sings of the followers of Jesus looking skyward rather than at Rome. Not all of them, though, an apostle gets up on a table and calls for rebellion against Rome, a call which Jesus repudiates.
I find both Herod and Pilate interesting, but they are villians. The only thing this musical has approaching a fleshed-out and sympathetic character is Mary Magdelene. Of course, Sarah Bareilles is both a wonderful singer, and an adept actress, so that helped.
The final song, “Superstar” puts the cynical exclamation point on the whole enterprise. Not a paeon to Jesus, it is instead a pointed commentary on his life and death. “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ/who are you/what have you sacrificed?” and even more “Jesus Christ, Superstar/Do you think you are what they say you are?” The unspoken question is “And does it matter?”
Don’t get me wrong: I think Superstar the best thing Lloyd Weber has ever done. It is the only musical of his that I like wholeheartedly. I’m just unsure how it was received by people unfamiliar with the show, who have a theology that views Jesus as a “Superstar” instead of a man of the people.
A musical exists which would have been wonderful Easter fare: Godspell. Steven Schwartz’s* musical telling of the Gospel of Matthew covers Jesus’s entire ministry, not merely the last week. No, it doesn’t name its Christ-like figure Jesus, and whether or not it musically covers the resurrection remains an open question, but its songs call people to justice, love and community, not darkness.
I love songs from both these musicals: “Everything’s All Right” and “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” from Superstar, and oh, about six different songs from Godspell are in heavy rotation on my iTunes. Both present profound questions of how we view the Christ.
But I know which one draws people towards God, and it’s not the one they showed on Sunday.
*Best thing that Schwartz has ever done, for that matter, and I include Wicked in there.