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'Jesus Christ Superstar' Brings Strong Voices To A Familiar Story

Apr 2, 2018
Originally published on April 2, 2018 5:59 pm

There is a fundamental audacity to Jesus Christ Superstar, which was staged as a live "concert" performance on NBC on Sunday night. First released as a concept album in 1970, the work by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice not only imagines a very human story behind the final days in the life of Jesus, but it focuses on that story even when it involves ugliness, vanity, and conflict. It posits that Jesus felt not only frustration, but even resentment and ambivalence — not only about his faith, but about his own followers. On the one hand, it's kind of an obvious choice for Easter. On the other hand, maybe not. (There have been Christians who have found it blasphemous for a variety of reasons.)

Superstar is also kind of weird, in a very specific way, and you'd lose something if you tried to make it otherwise. For one thing, the show is firmly of the '70s, and Sunday night's performance didn't try to escape that fact. Trying to go with authentic dress would make the rock songs seem weird, and trying to go too contemporary would quickly get too cute. Like a lot of other stagings, this one went for a soft, contemporary-but-not-too-specific look. As Jesus, John Legend wore a gray robe over a white shirt and pants, and as Judas, Brandon Victor Dixon (who perhaps trained for this role perfectly by playing Aaron Burr in Hamilton) wore a lot of leather.

It can also be a tough show to follow. It begins in medias res, as it were, with Jesus already established as a major figure. There isn't much explanation, and there's also no real dialogue of note. So if you didn't know what was going on — if this weren't a familiar story to you — you wouldn't necessarily even understand that you were looking at Judas at first, or what the nature of his seething frustration was. In that way, it's built to comment on this story and interpret it more than it is to tell it, strictly speaking.

Superstar has attracted all kinds of experimentation and interpretation: on a personal note, I saw a performance in college that was partly cross-cast with a female Jesus and a King Herod played by a woman in red pajamas. It's ripe for that kind of free-associating in part because it's kind of narratively shaggy. (I refer here to the show, not the Bible.) It sets a series of tableaus, but it doesn't necessarily attempt to create a single through-line.

In Sunday's version, the presence of Jesus himself was initially quite restrained. Jesus is introduced when he already has many followers, and the nature of his fame, for lack of a better word, is the focus of the first part of the show. (That's why it's called what it is. It's not called Jesus Christ, Leader.) In those early scenes, Legend and Dixon seemed well-matched. It ought to go without saying, but if the current push toward live televised musicals is to continue, which it should, it's a good idea to give rich singing parts to true singers, whether from popular music or theater or elsewhere. It helped this production enormously that all of its leads are where they are largely because of their voices.

The only significant role for a woman is Mary Magdalene. Singer and Tony-nominated Broadway composer Sara Bareilles sang her ballads (including the show's pop hit "I Don't Know How To Love Him") in a clear and reliable voice, but the character isn't written with a lot to do except soothe and pine, so she probably didn't have as many opportunities as everybody else did to show off the best stuff she can do.

Not so for some of the show's bad guys. As Caiaphas, seasoned Broadway star Norm Lewis actually managed to get to the low notes that are written to sound almost impossible to sing. And playing Pontius Pilate, Ben Daniels committed so hard to the wrenching solo in which Pilate sends Jesus off to die that he actually seemed to lose his voice at the end. The showiest of the smaller roles went to Alice Cooper (he probably doesn't want you to say "Alice Cooper, bless his heart") as King Herod, who comes on for one flashy number and then vanishes again. Cooper isn't a grand singing voice or anything, and he spoke-sung the first section of the song, but ... he is Alice Cooper, and King Herod is written in this show as a hedonistic, gleeful menace. It worked.

What also worked was placing a live musical in a live theater with an audience and filming it. Past live musical productions in the current wave have often gotten by without an audience at all, which has the effect of making every number seem to fall flat. They have attempted ambitious staging that has sometimes been fine for big numbers but awful for smaller ones, or vice-versa. Here, they took a musical that generally looks pretty scruffy as performed, and they just put it on stage as a generally pretty scruffy piece. That's not to take anything away from the design, which was clever and effective even when it was minimalist. (Look for a few Pharisees in their stylish black coats at your smarty-pants Halloween party in a few months.) But although it can be hard to get stage musicals to translate and tempting to try to turn them into live TV movies that disguise their origins in theater, it's probably smarter to just do this. Just put the show on. Design it for a stage. Have faith in it. Hire great performers, and let them work.

This seemed like a very successful experiment, in the end. The strength of the performances, the smartly controlled staging, the quality of the music (which was produced in a way that respected its 1970 birthdate without screaming I AM AVAILABLE ON EIGHT-TRACK), and the mix of Broadway and album-cutting talent worked well. As always seems to happen in these productions, there were periodic issues with the sound, but everybody watching — maybe everybody on Earth — heard Dixon just fine when he shimmied out late in the show in a silver get-up for the final "Superstar" sequence. Never has a man looked so good wearing so much silver. (Don't ask him where he got it.)

It's good news, this revival of the televised musical. Musical theater at this level is hard to share with a lot of people in live settings, for economic reasons and lots of other reasons, too. Putting productions on TV doesn't precisely scratch the same itch, but the more of these they do, the more they'll learn. There's already a shift toward theater talent and theater styling. Who knew the best way to put on a show was to just put on a show?

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

A 1970s rock opera about the final days in the life of Jesus found a new audience last night. NBC's live telecast of "Jesus Christ Superstar" was the latest in a series of hit musicals staged for television. It was a lavish production with an all-star cast, including John Legend in the title role.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR LIVE!")

JOHN LEGEND: (As Jesus, singing) Nail me to your cross and break me. Bleed me, beat me. Kill me, take me now before I change my mind.

CORNISH: NBC billed the show as a live concert performance with a live audience. And that, says our pop culture team, is one of the things that set it apart from other stage to TV productions. Linda Holmes is the host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. Glen Weldon is a regular panelist. They spoke to me about what stood out in this production of "Jesus Christ Superstar," starting with that casting.

LINDA HOLMES, BYLINE: I think they have begun to sort of narrow the choices in casting down to people who are primarily live performers. I think they've begun to understand that if you want a killer live performance, you want to get somebody where that's their bread and butter.

CORNISH: Who really stuck out? Who knocked it out of the park song-wise?

HOLMES: The standout for me was Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Judas Iscariot.

CORNISH: Of "Hamilton" fame.

HOLMES: He's done "Hamilton," he's done a lot of other things. He's a very accomplished Broadway musical theater guy.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR LIVE!")

BRANDON VICTOR DIXON: (As Judas Iscariot, singing) Jesus. You've started to believe the things they say of you.

HOLMES: And that's a role that has some of the biggest and most dramatic parts in the show. The show really takes the viewpoint of Judas, which is one thing that for some people, makes it controversial.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR LIVE!")

DIXON: (As Judas Iscariot, singing) You've begun to matter more than the things you say.

HOLMES: I think he was wonderful in this role musically and also just in terms of his acting, which I think is probably where he had the edge over John Legend, who's a wonderful singer but not as much an actor.

CORNISH: Glen Weldon, the moment for you that stuck out.

GLEN WELDON, BYLINE: I would say that Alice Cooper plays the role of Herod. Now, that's a weird part. It's this bit of vaudeville dropped in the middle of this rock opera.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR LIVE!")

ALICE COOPER: (As King Herod, singing) Prove to me that you're divine. Change my water into wine.

WELDON: And I thought he of all people was holding back.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR LIVE!")

COOPER: (As King Herod, singing) Come on, you king of the Jews.

WELDON: And when Alice Cooper is the most muted thing...

CORNISH: Right.

WELDON: ...About your musical, that means that everybody else is just pushing and pushing and pushing.

CORNISH: Can we get to the point of it as appointment television in the age of streaming and in the age where networks are struggling to make appointment television?

HOLMES: Yeah.

CORNISH: Do you feel like this tradition is becoming a thing?

HOLMES: Well, NBC is certainly trying to make it a thing. I think for them, what they would really like to get is a solid tradition where unlike things that you would stream or maybe watch later or put on the DVR, something where you really know everybody's going to be watching to see how it turns out is an asset for them in the current, like, super, hyper-competitive environment that they're in now.

CORNISH: So a return on investment, Glen. I'll give you the last word on whether it's a turning point artistically.

WELDON: Oh, heck. I think making sure that you include the audience in any kind of theater experience like this makes it a marked turn from what's gone before. It's appointment television. They know people are going to be gathered around. Theater is a communal experience. And by having the audience a part of the show, that changes how this thing feels. When they have mounted these things in the past and they've put them on a vast sound stage, the music ends and it just feels dead and airless.

And really, it added a lot and made it a much more joyous viewing experience.

CORNISH: In the end, do you feel like this is something for the music nerds or are we seeing a moment where people are like, OK, fine, musicals, we're doing this, like, mainstream acceptance?

HOLMES: I think it's always going to be a somewhat nichey (ph) audience, particularly when you get away from the ones like "Sound Of Music" that are wildly popular. But I think this one is a little bit of a, you know, that score has that wonderful dun-dun-dun-dun-dun (ph). That anthemic stuff, to me, is as close as you're going to get to, like, a John Williams of musical theater. And it's wonderful in that way. And for people who love it, that's a great moment. But for a lot of other people, I do think this is a little less-known. And I don't think this was ever going to get, you know, 18 million people.

CORNISH: Linda Holmes and Glen Weldon, host and panelist on the NPR Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. Thanks for coming to the studio.

HOLMES: Thanks, Audie.

WELDON: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR LIVE!")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Jesus Christ superstar, do you think you're what they say you are? Jesus Christ superstar, do you think you're what they say you are? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.