Everything’s all right in NBC’s live remake of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

The Cast Kicks Off the Show – Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert

I think I had the original LP of Jesus Christ Superstar by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, the one that came out in 1970. I know I heard it. It was in my most high-falutin’ English grad student days at the University of Tennessee, and I was still listening to a lot of British invasion music like Jethro Tull and Pete Townshend’s rock opera Tommy. We’d sit around our apartments in off-campus housing, listen to the music, analyze the lyrics and in general carry on like English majors. This was shortly before punk came along, and I lost interest in rock.

But I’ll have to admit I didn’t pay as much attention to Superstar as I did to songs like “American Pie.” Now there were some lyrics that really sent you off into English major nirvana.

Oh, Webber and Rice had some nice tunes. “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” and “Everything’s Alright” (spelled that way in the TV credits, however much it galls me now as an old English major). Maybe a couple of others featuring Mary Magdelene.

But religion was way, way off my radar at the time.

In the spring of 1970 — less than three weeks after the invasion of Cambodia and Kent State — evangelist Billy Graham had invited President Nixon to one of his “Crusades” in the football stadium at the UT-Knoxville. It seemed like a cheap political stunt, dutifully trumpeted by the news media as proof Nixon could still visit a college campus, and the ensuing mass arrests of student demonstrators, helped sour many of us on organized religion for quite a long time.

At any rate, I forgot all about Superstar. I probably knew a movie version came out in the 70s — or am I conflating the movie with Godspell? or The Last Temptation of Christ? — but at best I filed it away with Hair and other half-forgotten concept albums of the day.

All of which means I was entirely, totally, completely unprepared for my reaction to this year’s NBC live television remake of the show broadcast April 1, on Easter Sunday.

In fact, I didn’t even know anyone was doing one till I saw a review of the Easter Sunday production in Brooklyn. It featured R&B singer John Legend as Jesus, pop singer-actress Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene, and Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas. I noticed a lot of headlines the next day, so I got curious and read one of the online reviews. New York magazine’s TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz got my attention when he said:

Minute for minute, NBC’s Easter spectacle was one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in the 20-plus years I’ve been writing about TV. I wish I’d recorded it so that I could have watched it again right away to savor its visual and musical grace notes … This Superstar was the closest that live television has come to creating a hybrid new form, combining elements of epic cinema, the stage musical, and the concert film. It’s a minor miracle.

Whoa! I’ve got to see this, I thought.

So I got on YouTube. Watched it all! Loved it! Blown away by it! So I fired up the Google and looked for other reviews.

Most were equally positive. Noel Murray of the New York Times hailed it as “a conceptual and artistic triumph.” And in Los Angeles, the LA Times’ TV critic Lorraine Ali noted that:

The show, which was broadcast live on the East Coast from the Marcy Armory in Williamsburg [the neighborhood in Brooklyn] and taped for the West Coast airing, was blocked and choreographed like a theater production, where all the action takes place on one stage. But it was also like a pop concert, with a live audience reacting with claps and cheers. It featured 40-plus cast members, a large onstage orchestra and an interactive audience, which was shown and addressed throughout the production.

Ali, who certainly showed a familiarity with Superstar’s stage history that I lack, added:

It was Legend, Bareilles and Dixon who carried most of the production. Lending their pristine voices to the key Jesus and Mary Magdalene numbers so many of us remember being slaughtered in our high school productions of the play were Legend and Bareilles, whose names are more akin with the pop charts than the theater … The two singers weren’t as animated as the multiple dancers and performers who shared the stage, but they brought the songs to life for a modern audience without forsaking the original charm of the numbers.

Their melodious deliveries were complemented by the gruffer voice and more theatrical likes of Dixon. As Judas, Dixon led spectacular numbers such as “Superstar” that required athleticism and some seriously soulful belting. He nailed it on both counts.

I was seeing all of this with new eyes, of course, but I thought Ali nailed it when she said:

The show was a collision of religion and theater and pop culture that could have been one holy mess. But by the grace of God, or maybe a great cast and lots and lots of expert staging, a great musical became a great TV production.

Nearly 50 years have passed since that first LP came out in 1970. I have long since reassessed Billy Graham and come around to thinking he was fundamentally well meaning, although I never fully overcame my doubts about his prophetic witness or his ability to speak truth to power. And I’ve even come to realize — quite recently, in fact! — that Nixon was far from the worst the American political system has to offer.

Most importantly, slowly over the years I’ve begun to suspect there’s more to the Christian story than I realized back when Billy Graham was preaching in the football stadium at UT-Knoxville while FBI informants were identifying protesters from their student ID pictures at the campus security office.

So this time around, I responded to Superstar as a passion story. Not the passion story, but a passion story. There’s a difference.

And I was drawn into the all-too-human emotions that Dixon, Bareilles and Legend conveyed in telling the old, old story. Yes, Legend too. Critics for the New York Times and the Washington Post complained that as a singer, he lacked Dixon’s and Bareilles’ acting chops. But I found him completely engaging, again, all too human … I really liked the guy.

TV can be like that, I think … with its closeups and immediacy, it calls for a kind of understated acting that can draw an audience closer to the characters. And something about it all, about this little group of people so much like myself caught up in something so vast, so powerful, had me thinking — seriously — about incarnation in ways that hadn’t quite occurred to me before.

Writing for the Jesuit magazine America, theater critic Rob Weinert-Kendt suggested:

I have often thought of “Superstar” as the apocryphal Gospel of Judas: It is his skepticism about Jesus’ mission drift, from social rebellion to a more internal and eternal kind of transformation, that drives the first part of the play’s action, and drives Judas into the arms of the plotting Sanhedrin. But in the second half he, along with the rest of the characters, feels the pull of larger forces following a preordained script they cannot diverge from, try as they might.

No one, not even this Jesus, quite understands what the story’s unhappy ending portends, with Jesus asking God, “Why should I die?” and the disciples imploring, “Can we start again, please?”

As I watched the Easter production in Brooklyn, I was struck by how familiar the songs were. I’d forgotten how the music, the lyrics fit together — especially toward the end, at the time of the crucifixion, as “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Everything’s Alright” were reprised together, and took on new meaning as Dixon’s Judas joined in singing.

Weinert-Kendt noted that Superstar has drawn criticism because it doesn’t show the Resurrection, but he had an answer to that:

Well, the Gospel of Mark barely did either. And Leveaux’s final image, accompanied by some of Lloyd Webber’s most genuinely lovely music, of the actual bloody crucifix receding into a cross-shaped light as his followers stare at it worshipfully, was a (literally) brilliant solution, easily interpretable as a vision of life after life—or just a vision.

Either way, whether its viewers were convinced anew that Jesus Christ is alive, this “Superstar” partook freely of the cup that gives theater its fundamental power: It was undeniably live.

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