Strange Thing Mystifying
Jesus Christ Superstar Live aired Sunday night on NBC and in many ways, I’d say that it exceeded expectations.
The performances, the choreography, the staging, the visual effects, the camera work, the use of the live audience – all were excellent in bringing the show to life. John Legend gave us a Jesus that was not nearly as whiny as Ian Gillan on the original soundtrack, which made his divinity more plausible. Brandon Victor Dixon was fantastic in the role of Judas, especially in really conveying not just his ambivalence about betraying Jesus, but his strong desire not to do so. As I said before, we can easily reduce Judas to the cardboard role of “villain” in Jesus’ actual life, but the reality of his situation had to be more complicated than that. The show last night provided ample food for thought in this regard. Sara Bareilles was also excellent as Mary Magdalene. She conveyed her own confusion about Jesus’ identity (aided by the inclusion of “Could We Start Again Please?” from the movie version of the show) while Legend did not show any reciprocity in Mary’s feelings of conflicted romantic love for Jesus.
Nobody failed to deliver among the rest of the cast either. Norm Lewis and Jin Ha exuded menace as Caiaphas and Annas (costuming really helped here as well), Jason Tam did a lot with the mostly wordless portrayal of Peter, and Ben Daniels had great moments as Pontius Pilate, especially one simple pause where he stared into the eyes of Jesus and suddenly recognized the man from his dream.
I could continue to praise the performances themselves (and I would love to hear your thoughts about the show), but instead I want to comment on how the show succeeded in creating opportunities for spiritual reflection. I already mentioned a couple points above: first, Jesus was more believable as the Son of God. In the show, one of the most un-Christ-like lines occurs during the second part of “The Temple,” when the wounded and diseased crowds mob Jesus (my sons found this scene to be particularly uncomfortable, which means the director hit it right). As the mob piles on top of him, Jesus shouts, “Heal yourselves!” In the original soundtrack, it’s a loud frustrated growl that conveys the idea that Jesus is annoyed with healing the crowds. By contrast, Legend said the line with exhaustion and a hint of desperation. Either way, the line seems wrong coming from the mouth of Christ, but at least this version made it less troubling.
Several lyrics were changed throughout the show (I haven’t yet found a site with all the changes collected in one place). In some cases, I wondered why the changes were made, as they felt merely “different,” not necessarily “better.” But in a couple places, they made a big difference. In particular, there was a change at the end of “Gethsemane” that “fixed” the song for me. This song occurs during the time in which we are seeing Jesus at his most human. His fear and anxiety make total sense to us. However, in the original soundtrack, the end of the song suggests that Jesus is just a man who is begrudgingly doing what God has asked and is frustrated by it: “God, thy will is hard/But you hold all the cards.” The lyric in the live show was changed to “God, thy will be done/Destroy your only Son.” The line is still poignant, but it better reflects the Gospel and Jesus’ decision to place his fear aside to fulfill His Father’s plan of redemption.
I guess I was right and wrong about the Resurrection. There was no Resurrection in the show, but the ending was still not as final as the original recording, which ends with his burial. Instead, they used the music for the burial during an extraordinary technical achievement: Jesus on the cross was lifted high above the crowds and faded away into a blinding white light. While this was not a literal resurrection scene, the important implication was very clear: Jesus was no longer among us. I thought this was a nice compromise between those who prefer the ambivalence of the original show and those who want the show to be about the Christ of the Gospels.
There were other things that I liked and there were some nitpicky things that I could critique, but overall, it worked to bring an emotional and reverent end to the Easter Solemnity for our family. What do you think? Did you watch it? What parts did you like or dislike?