My appreciation for the diversity of styles in musical theater is entirely due to my wife and her family. When I was growing up, my own family didn’t listen to a lot of musicals. Except for one: Jesus Christ Superstar. My siblings and I listened to those records over and over. I got so used to the skips on the album that when I finally replaced the records with CDs as an adult, I was thrown off by their absence. There was just something about this “rock opera” about Jesus that was fascinating to me. When my faith life really expanded when I was 17, the show became a whole new subject for my reflection.
Once again, thanks to the wonderful influence of my wife, my two boys have also come to appreciate musicals. It started with Joseph and Annie, but those were just the prelude to their obsession with Hamilton (the clean version, of course). So after listening non-stop to the story of the “ten-dollar founding father without a father” for months, I decided to introduce them to Jesus Christ Superstar (JCS). It took quite a bit of time for them to warm up to the radical change in style, but the subject matter of the show finally took hold of them and inspired new conversations about the last week of Jesus’ life.
This Easter Sunday, April 1, NBC is going to be airing a live show of JCS, so if you are unfamiliar with the show, here’s a chance to check it out. Most of the cast are Broadway stars, but the more mainstream performers include John Legend as Jesus, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene, and Alice Cooper as King Herod (trust me: it’s perfect casting). It is probably no accident that the producers have cast black actors to play Jesus and his disciples and white actors to play Pontius Pilate and the Jewish authorities (which is fine – the show can operate on several levels at once).
Jesus Christ Superstar was written by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1970. They would not consider themselves believers and they didn’t set out to write a faithful adaptation of the Gospel. They wanted to write a show that explored Jesus’ humanity, seen largely through the lens of a questioning Judas Iscariot. The question of Jesus’ divinity is never affirmed, but it is never outright denied either. It is this ambivalence that makes some Christians uncomfortable with the show, but I think there are some elements of it that are really worth exploring.
Let’s start with what I think are the most problematic parts of JCS.
First and foremost, Jesus comes across as petulant and even weak. Only rarely do we get glimpses of the charismatic man that formed this movement that is perceived as a threat to the establishment. He is by turns grumpy, whiny, and angry, and most importantly, he never really seems convinced that he himself is God. (It is worth noting, though, that in the original recording, Jesus was played by Ian Gillan, the lead singer of Deep Purple, and he constantly reminds us vocally of why he is at least a rock god.)
Mary Magdalene is clearly in love with Jesus. This is not a problem in itself; there is very little about Mary in the Gospels and the idea that she could have been in love with Jesus seems quite plausible (and it would have been a detail that would not have interested the Evangelists, so they wouldn’t have commented on it). Some see Mary’s attraction in the show as mutual and even physical, but that has more to do with the way producers and directors stage the show, not with the lyrics of the songs themselves. Mary is also clearly presented as a prostitute, which is not supported by the Gospel text.
The apostles generally serve as a sort of clownish choir in the show. Only three of them get any individual attention. Judas Iscariot is ostensibly the lead character in the show, Peter has one brief part where he denies Jesus, and Simon the Zealot gets his own song (one of my favorites in the show) to play up the show’s emphasis that Jesus was perceived as a political revolutionary. But as a group, the apostles are clueless hangers-on, hoping to achieve everlasting fame by their association with Jesus. It’s not accurate to see the historical apostles as fame-seekers (they chose a poor, dangerous way to do so if that was their intention), but they are often clueless in the Gospels.
Some people see it as anti-Semitic that the Jewish authorities (Caiaphas, Annas, and some other priests) are unequivocally villains in the show. However, Rice and Lloyd Webber were basing much of their presentation on John’s Gospel, in which the Jewish authorities (“the Jews” in John’s language) are unequivocally the villains in the story, so I don’t see a problem with this.
The final problematic aspect of the show is that, as it was originally written, it ends with Jesus’ burial, not with his resurrection. However, many performances of JCS now include the Resurrection as the end of the show. I would be surprised if the NBC version, airing on Easter Sunday surely to court Christian viewers, ended with his burial without at least an implied resurrection.
So what is good about this show? What about it can offer us fruit for reflection for growth in our own spiritual lives?
I think the portrayal of Judas is provocative and compelling. Considering his importance to the Passion, there is very little in the Gospels to tell us about the man. He is obviously the betrayer of Jesus, but what else do we know? John alone says that he carried the money-bag for Jesus and the apostles (and John accuses him of being a thief). We know he regretted his betrayal (to the point of despair). Luke says, “Satan entered him” and John says “the devil induced him” to betray Jesus. That’s it. Jesus Christ Superstar presents Judas as a man who thought he was following a good teacher, but this teacher became caught up in his own hype and was ill-equipped for the political revolution he was fomenting. Is this an overly-gracious portrayal of Judas? None of it conflicts with the Gospel material about the man. The Christian tradition has developed a view of Judas as the worst of sinners – Dante has him eternally consumed by Satan at the bottom of Hell – but maybe he was legitimately skeptical of Jesus’ divinity. Just before he killed himself, perhaps he realized who Jesus really was, but couldn’t believe he could be saved after what he had done. The show gives us an occasion to consider this critically-important figure in Jesus’ life – and to see in him many other searchers and questioners among our own friends and loved ones.
I’ve already mentioned that the show emphasizes the idea that Jesus was being groomed to be king of the Jews. This is a historically viable presentation of his story. The concept of a Messiah whose power was secular not supernatural was prominent in 1st c. Judaism. This has to be remembered when reading the Gospels in order to better understand why Jesus was such a controversial figure in his day; the show does well to focus on this.
One of the highlights of Jesus’s songs is the Garden of Gethsemane. This is the part of the Gospel that most clearly aligns with the writers’ intentions to see Jesus as a human being. While the lyrics show Jesus as skeptical of God’s plan, his sadness about the lack of clarity regarding the success of his mission and his desire to not die a horrific death come through powerfully in the performance. We can feel with Jesus the anguish he might have felt in facing the day of his death. The show presents the song as a protest of a man before God, not of the Incarnate Son praying to His Father, but the Jesus of the show does finally consent to offer himself to fulfill the will of God. As humans, we can sympathize when following the will of God in our own lives seems difficult.
This leads to a final observation: the title song of the whole show, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” sung by Judas right before the crucifixion. The words of Judas (yes, he’s now dead at this point in the show) could really be the words of Tim Rice himself, and also the words of so many other people who sincerely seek to know Jesus. What is at stake in believing Jesus is the Son of God? Why did he have to die on the cross? What is the relationship between the Christian revelation of Truth and other religious traditions in the world? The song only raises these questions, it doesn’t answer them. But the recognition that the questions are worth asking is a necessary prerequisite for eventually finding the answers in the man who told us he is the way, the truth, and the life (Jn 14:6).
The show is airing on Easter Sunday, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be fruit for reflection now as we come closer to the end of Lent. Take the opportunity to listen to it now before watching it. Let the music speak to you and draw you in to a more emotional engagement with the story of Christ’s Passion. Reflection on Christ’s humanity can actually help us grow into a greater appreciation of his divinity. We can be more thankful of the God who gives His life to save us because we better understand that he has shared with us in our weakness.
I hope the last days of the season bring your initial Lenten commitments to a profitable end through Christ’s grace. Let me know what you think of Jesus Christ Superstar: the good, the bad, and everything in between.
Let me know what other aspects of popular culture you’d like me to write about!