Jesus Christ Superstar: Don’t Give It Up for Lent
Good Friday would seem to be an apt day to discuss Jesus Christ Superstar, wouldn’t you say?
Only minutes into the new production at the Neil Simon, director Des McAnuff displays an idea that’s so inspired that we might guess that it came from a divine intervention.
For McAnuff hasn’t placed Judas all alone on stage while singing “Heaven on Their Minds” as hundreds of directors have before him. No longer is this excellent song an interior monologue in which Judas ruminates on what he’d say to Jesus (or would like to say to Him) if He were there.
Instead, Des McAnuff shrewdly brings Jesus on stage mid-number, and has Judas (the extraordinary Josh Young) directly state, “Listen, Jesus, I don’t like what I see” en route to listing his complaints, advice and demands.
This splendid innovation gives added urgency to the song and makes Judas a stronger character. Haven’t you, in the privacy of your home, ranted and told off your boss when the big shot was nowhere around? We’ve practiced what we’d like to say to these people who have made our lives difficult, but they are sentiments we wouldn’t dare say. Here, Judas dares.
But upon further examination, this new idea brings with it a new problem: Jesus can’t say anything. The ideal scenario would have had McAnuff persuading Tim Rice to write new lyrics so that we could have heard Jesus’ point-of-view. Without them, however, Jesus can do nothing but stand and stare.
Of course, McAnuff could have had Paul Nolan play Jesus so that He would seem engaged by Judas’ warnings. Instead, Nolan offers glazed unblinking eyes and an attitude that says He’s really only half-listening and that nothing’s registering. Near number’s end, He simply walks off without a word.
And while this brush-off does give Judas motivation for his ultimate betrayal, it’s damaging because it establishes Jesus as uncaring. For much of the first act, He seems to be in a world of His own, quite removed from everyone and everything. Where’s the charisma we’ve been led to believe He had? What’s He had, a lobotomy?
On the other hand, this interpretation is supportable on one level. This is, after all, the last week of The Man’s life, so He literally has more than heaven on his mind. Still, He seems awfully aloof. One thing I’ll say for Him: Jesus is cold.
Granted, McAnuff may feel that the anachronistic word “superstar” may allow for iciness. The number of photographs of rock megastars with scowls on their faces far outnumbers the ones in which they look delighted. Looking tough and unfeeling is the way we show today that we can cope with the world, no matter what it flings at us. But, needless to say, we expect more from Jesus.
That’s the most fascinating facet of this new production. When does a trademark signature device become simply tired and boring? One could say that about McAnuff’s penchant for one-size-fit-all steel balcony bridges. This time he has two electronic boards to play with: a big rectangle above the balcony and a traveling ribbon below it. The production probably has the biggest electric bill that the Simon has ever endured.
One of the first electronic images is the number “2012.” While those now-classic riffs of the overture play, the numbers tick off backwards until they reach 33. But if McAnuff’s making such a point of time-traveling from now to then, Robert Brill’s set should morph from steel to wood.
Yes, I know that would be expensive. McAnuff could also rebut that he wants to stress the contemporary. Certainly the sound is in keeping with today’s levels. Many a theatergoer will be nodding his head when Judas proclaims, “We are getting much too loud.”
But if that offends some, a few or many, sound designer Steve Canyon Kennedy gets major plaudits when the crowd sings its “Hosannas.” The sound is definitely coming from the back of the theater, but it’s so authentic that a theatergoer can’t be certain if it’s piped-in music or if the actors have quickly scurried to the back of the house. When that happens, you know that your sound designer has done his job splendidly.
Three other members of the cast are worth hearing, too. Chilina Kennedy sings “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” with careful attention to the lyric. She knows she’s not just supposed to warbling a pop tune. This is a theater song, and Kennedy turns it into a one-woman musical scene. For “Pilate’s Dream,” Tom Hewett’s Pontius Pilate has the gravitas. Bruce’s Dow’s Herod, of course, lacks it. Dow gets us to hate Herod 23 words into his song. On the word “cripples,” he cruelly mocks by crooking his arms and hands as if paralyzed. He also uses those hands more wittily when he uses two fingers of each to make quotation marks on the “great Jesus Christ.”
While Lisa Shriver’s choreography is supposed to be ridiculous in “Herod’s Song” -- it is not more markedly so than in the rest of the show. Could we start again, please?
With this score, Lloyd Webber and Rice were considered trail-blazers.
Indeed they were. Musical theater sadists (you know, the type that attends first previews and texts at intermission how awful the show is) get their all-time favorite musical number here: “39 Lashes.” It’s particularly graphic in this production, but effective.
But for all their then-new “rock opera” writing, Lloyd Webber and Rice weren’t above using a convention that Broadway composers of yore routinely used: reprises. Both “Everything’s Alright” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” reappear up in that blatant song-plugging way. You can feel that when Lloyd Webber and Rice finished work on each of these two, they nodded and agreed, “That’s the single.”
Still, even without the reprises, these songs and so many others would have landed. Despite Rice’s wince-inducing quasi-rhyming of “apostle” and “gospel” (and a few others), he comes through on ideas. Case in point: Judas’ telling Jesus that “I’ve been your right-hand man all along.” Christians have always been taught that Peter had that role, but Judas’ thinking he was numero uno – and then feeling shunted to second place – could be another reason for his betraying Him.
Forty years on, Jesus Christ Superstar is still one of the greatest Broadway debuts a songwriting team has ever had. That Lloyd Webber and Rice are still around and not quite retired speaks well of them; we can all name dozens of Broadway songwriters who made fewer millions and walked away from the arduous job of creating a new musical. Lloyd Webber and Rice, often vilified by many who simply resent their ubiquitous success, are still semi-here.
Finally, here’s the nit-pickiest of nit-picks: that electronic “33” that sets the year for us. Few Biblical scholars dispute that Jesus Christ was 33 when the events of His last few days take place. But most agree that Jesus was born in 4 B.C., so the date should be 29.
Yes, yes, I know. How could Christ be born four years before the birth of Christ? The answer is well beyond the purview of this column. I withdraw the question so that you can simply go and enjoy Jesus Christ Superstar.
— Peter Filichia