Jesus Christ Superstar: A Modern Passion Play?

On Easter Sunday, I hesitated to watch NBC’s livecast of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar, because remakes of familiar musicals often try to be too edgy, or are just downright bad.  But I was pleasantly surprised.  It was really well done.  The singers were great, the staging was interesting, and the music was true to the piece.

Composers have been setting the Passion of Christ to music for centuries (see Bach’s St. Matthew or St. John Passions).  This is just another one.  Yes, it’s edgy, coming from a time when traditional music was being thrown out of churches, an entire culture was thumbing their noses at authority, and when composers were arranging rock versions of classical music.  It was meant to shock from the start. This is a brilliant rock setting of a classical form, the Passion play, combined with opera (staged and sung), and an unusual look at the human side of the apostles and of Jesus.

First a word to all those offended by this piece: This is not a theological piece, and it’s not suitable for Mass.  It’s a theatrical exploration.  It’s not meant to be a theologically correct view of the Passion, but it is a view. Unlike religious settings of the Passion, this interpretation isn’t Catholic or Lutheran, or of any other denomination.  It’s from the point of view of the people in the streets, and most strangely of all, of Judas himself.

With a libretto by Tim Rice, Jesus Christ Superstar depicts Jesus primarily in his human form. Much of it (but not all) is true to Scripture. A friend of mine who watched it with three riveted secular young men reports that one of them commented about how much he liked the song based on the Garden of Gethsemane, “I suppose that’s blasphemous,” he said to my Catholic friend. “Not really,” she replied, “’Take this cup away from me,’ is in fact what Jesus prayed anticipating His suffering.” Not even Peter, the rock on which He built his Church, nor John the beloved disciple, nor James His family member, could stay awake with Jesus during his agony in the garden.

For Christians, that’s not nearly the whole story, and Jesus Christ Superstar may appall some. But it nevertheless reflects a part of the Gospel story that deserves a look. The viewpoint is secular: respectful but puzzled.  For those who complain that there’s no resurrection of Jesus, well, there is no resurrection in any Passion play.  Christians know what comes later.  Jesus Christ Superstar must be taken for what it is, and at the very least, it’s thought-provoking.

John Legend had all the right vocals for the part of Jesus Christ but lacked some connection with his acting.  Sara Bareilles gave a stunning performance of Mary Magdalene, and Alice Cooper was perfect as King Herod. Ben Daniels in his circus ringmaster’s costume as Pontius Pilate gave a respectable performance, minus a few points for intonation; Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas, and Norm Lewis with his deep and foreboding voice as Caiaphas, stole the show.

I’m always captivated by the theatrical use of a very simple stage setting, how I’m convinced that I’m now in a new scene, how I’ve travelled from here to there without going anywhere. This performance did not disappoint:  steps and scaffolding in front of ancient and fading frescoes and graffitied walls. The poignant crucifixion scene, with its cruciform background, pierced by a blinding light, closes as Jesus on the cross disappears into the light and the fog after he dies.

For a period piece, a showcase of the early Seventies, Jesus Christ Superstar has commanded the attention of audiences for over 40 years.  There is something compelling to even non-Christians about the life and suffering of Jesus, and if it appears rebellious, perhaps that’s what attracted some people to it.  Jesus Christ Superstar has attracted a huge and diverse audience since it first opened on Broadway in 1971.

As someone who taught Sacred Music at Ave Maria University, and now teaches Gregorian chant, I still find meaning in Jesus Christ Superstar.  My atheist Jewish father brought home the album when I was a young teen. I had no idea what it was, but soon I knew all the songs.  In spite of its shocking irreverence, it attracted me and evangelized me.  I’m a product of my time, and the Holy Spirit will move how and where He wills.

My biggest complaint about the NBC production is its timing: Easter Sunday.  For Christians, this is the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus, and the only resurrection we see in Jesus Christ Superstar is that of Judas, who comes back from a sequin-spangled Hell to mock and criticize Jesus.

A few years back, as I was driving to church on Easter Sunday, I turned on the classical radio station in my car. They were playing one of Bach’s Passion settings.  I wondered if it was selected for Easter or if it was just random.  The next year they did it again.  I called the radio station and asked why were they playing a Passion on Easter?  The man who answered the phone said in a somber tone, “Because it’s appropriate.” I responded that it was NOT appropriate and that in fact, it was the most inappropriate day of the year to play it.

I followed up with a letter, explaining that we who would care are the Christians, who are all celebrating the Resurrection; many of us are church musicians who have been singing the pains of the Passion for days. Now on Easter, we would like some happy Hallelujahs, and that there are centuries of great Easter music from which to draw.

I suppose to non-Christians, anything religious is good for any religious occasion. That’s why we hear Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Pie Jesu (from his Requiem) on the radio at Christmas time.

Clearly, we still have work to do.

Diana Silva founded the Sacred Music Department at Ave Maria University and is a board member of the Benedict XVI Institute for Sacred Music and Divine Worship which publishes Catholic Arts Today.

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