With ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ coming to the small screen this weekend, we’re about to see how exactly how much political juice this 46-year-old musical still possesses.
I’m not sure whether it’s cool to like the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber anymore. All I know is that Jesus Christ Superstar remains one of my favorite musicals of all time. From the psychological underpinnings of what it means to be a messianic figure to the ’70s rock anthems and ballads populating the score, Jesus Christ Superstar remains a personal staple even as my tastes have changed over the years. More than that, though, Jesus Christ Superstar is about to accomplish something no musical before it has achieved: make me sit down and watch an entire live NBC broadcast from start to finish.
Even those unfamiliar with Broadway shows should find plenty to enjoy in NBC’s adaptation of Webber’s musical. The show has found the perfect Jesus in John Legend, a performer with just the right blend of pop and stage in his voice to nail oh-so-difficult songs like “Gethsemane.” There’s also Sara Bareilles, an accomplished musician, and composer in her own right, as well as Hamilton alumni Brandon Victor Dixon playing the all-important role of Judas. Oh, and given the (traditionally) free-flowing staging of the show, Jesus Christ Superstar promises to introduce an element of the avant-garde to a network that has typically erred on the side of stodgy adaptations. But even more important than the modern changes made to accommodate the now 46-year-old show is the thing that made it popular in the first place: the ridiculous musical stylings of its now-notorious composer.
There are two common truths about Andrew Lloyd Webber. The first is that Webber is one of the greatest Broadway composers of all time, the creative force behind shows like Phantom of the Opera, Evita, and, of course, Cats. The second is that he single-handedly brought ruin upon the modern musical. In a recent review of Webber’s memoir, Unmasked, New Yorker author Adam Gopnik openly referred to the composer’s dubious accomplishments in the industry. For many, Gopnik wrote, Webber would always be known as “the guy who dragged the Broadway musical from its vitality and idiomatic urgency back to its melodramatic roots in European operetta — while also degrading rock music to a mere rhythm track.” If that makes him sound a lot closer to the Michael Bay than the Steven Spielberg of the modern era of Broadway shows, well, you’re not exactly wrong.
Then again, not everyone who creates art of a time period can be an originator. Some of our most important talents are those who simply recognized new trails being blazed and found ways to make it more appealing to the masses. Later in that New Yorker piece, Gopnik admits that Webber, much like some of his musical contemporaries, should be viewed as someone who created a mainstream prog-rock concept album rather than an industry-changing musical. Jesus Christ Superstar placed Webber within a circle of “educated British musicians with classical training, inherited rock rhythm sections, minimal blues feeling, and a taste for the grandiose and bombastic,” making him less a musical theater trendsetter than a second-tier popular musician who happened to find a unique distribution platform for his songs.
Much like Webber’s other shows, Jesus Christ Superstar does not shy away from the grandiose, but there’s a cohesion of medium and message that makes Webber’s musical the exception that proves the rule. The New Testament itself blends melodrama and nuance in equal amounts, and much of early Christianity was borrowed – or plagiarized – from the work of other successful religions. Whatever nuance Jesus’s original teachings had to offer, Jesus Christ Superstar seems the perfect musical release for the modern era of Christianity; the liberties it takes with the Christian interpretation of the bible are no less bold than the ones used by contemporary Evangelical leaders to preach a gospel of prosperity. In the era of megachurches and millionaire preachers, Jesus has become the biggest diva in the world, and that which seemed garish and off-putting in decades past now seems almost tame by comparison.
Webber’s blend of rock music and navel-gazing in Jesus Christ Superstar makes this Jesus far more similar to someone like David Koresh than, say, the namesake of organized Western religion. Of course, the best part of the musical is how inappropriately it has been named. The true star of the show is Judas Iscariot, depicted here as the most loyal – or at least most pragmatic – of all Jesus’s disciples. Judas presents audiences with the kind of moral dilemma that enraptures any college freshman taking their first religion course: given that there could be no Jesus without Judas, how exactly should we remember him if not as the man who allowed Jesus to achieve his final form? And what, exactly, is wrong with delivering a message in a format that allows it the widest possible reach? There are certainly parallels to be found between Judas and those who push a more centrist political agenda in an era of radical politics; much like is often the case in real life, there’s plenty of blame to go around when Jesus takes the fall.
And this is why I’m so anxiously anticipating Jesus Christ Superstar. Not just as an opportunity to bask in John Legend’s voice, not just as a chance to watch one of my favorite musicals on the big screen, but also as an opportunity to see another work of art – one derided for its lack of nuance and subtlety – age into the wild era of politics and religion in which we currently live. I rarely go looking for trouble when it comes to popular culture, but when I close my eyes, all I see are headlines both for and against Jesus Christ Superstar on both sides of the religious aisle. Here’s to a fascinating Easter Sunday filled with great music and even better tweets.