Last week, I had the opportunity to see the latest production of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. I was excited to see this musical at such a prestigious cultural venue. I even got tickets in the fourth row so I could close to the action.
The Lyric Opera’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar was stunning. The staging was clever in its use of a giant cross to serve as an entry point from offstage, a performance space, and even with its use to block the actor to recreate The Last Supper. There were so many dancers depicting followers of Jesus Christ and they made great use of what little room they had and were dancing so intensely and close to the edge of the stage that I thought someone would fall off. And the glitter! 90 pounds of glitter per show. That’s a lot of glitter.
The last time a production of Jesus Christ Superstar toured in the United States was in 2006. At that time, I was entering my freshman year of college and didn’t appreciate musicals as much as I do now. Plus, being a freshman in college, my financial situation wouldn’t allow me to see musicals anyway. Tat more was meant for beer and late-night Waffle House runs.
As I progressed through my collegiate career, the scope of my musical interests continued to expand. When I wasn’t hearing new stuff while DJing at my college radio station, I went to the campus library to check out and rip CDs from various artists throughout the decades. If I had heard of someone’s name before or liked the cover, I would check it out, listen to it, and maybe even go back to it. This was how I was introduced to artists that I still hold near and dear to my heart. For a kid with little money and no car to go to real record stores in Nashville, this was the best I could do.
At the campus library, I checked out a copy of the soundtrack for the 1973 film adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar. The music was pretty cool, but I didn’t really get the overall context of the album. It is essentially a Passion Play and I know the basics of that story, but having a visual reference would help. So, I checked out a copy of the film.
When I watched it, I enjoyed it. I wasn’t too huge on it at the time. I had seen a few rock operas at that point, so I appreciated the form on some level. While it was entertaining, I didn’t really grasp the underlying message of it. It wouldn’t be until much later that I began to understand and appreciate the subtleties of Judas and his relationship with Jesus.
I have returned to the soundtrack a few times since then and continue to find more about it that I appreciate and fascinates me. I imagine for many people, the appeal of the musical is based on a religious interest. For that kind of audience, the story is about the events to led to Christ’s crucifixion and is modern way of telling that story to reaffirm one’s faith in Christ. For me, it isn’t like that. I’m not a really a religious or spiritual person. However, I enjoy a good story. And when I listen to the soundtrack or watch the film, I’m more focused on Judas’ arc and the internal conflicts he is faced with that would secure his legacy in history. The heart of the musical is Judas and his changing relationship with Jesus. While a lot of the characters, Jesus included, are fairly one-dimensional, it is Judas who actually is developed throughout the story. He adds a level of narrative complexity to a story that many only see on Easter and induce feelings of guilt.
I think Jesus Christ Superstar is underappreciated because I feel that many people unfamiliar with the musical just see it as another Passion Play. They are too focused on the Jesus aspect and thus impacts their interest in actually checking it out. When I meet someone like that, I tell them the heart of the story is about the friendship between two men, the internal struggles one faces when tempted, and philosophical overview of Jesus as a person instead of as a religious figure.
The whole musical is philosophical and no track better represents that than “Superstar.” As one of the final songs of the musical, Judas performs and airs out his frustrations with Jesus after he is crucified. Even after death, Judas is still left with burning questions that this Song of God hasn’t answered for him. Did Jesus mean to be crucified? Was all of this intended? Are Buddha and Muhammad the real deal like you? Why did you decide to share this message when you could’ve reached more people in the age of mass communication? Judas asks these questions not because he doubts his friend was the Song of God, but rather because he wants to believe in the man he followed and once called his friend. Even after Jesus’ death, Judas struggles with his own sense of guilt and place in history.
In “Superstar,” the real heart and message of the musical comes front and center. Judas is asking Jesus if he thinks he is what his followers and critics say he is? It is that rhetorical approach that elevates Jesus Christ Superstar as being more than just another Passion Play. It is a great musical that shouldn’t be avoided just because it is about Christ. That type of cynicism is just lazy.
The version of “Superstar” I love most is the film version as performed by Carl Anderson. Listening to the original version by Murray Head, I feel it is just ok. Anderson adds so much emotion and intensity to the performance that it makes Judas’ crisis very believable. I’ve heard Brandon Dixon’s portrayal as Judas in the live NBC version is great, but I haven’t check it out yet. Seeing Judas in the Lyric Opera production, the role was performed well also. However, Anderson’s performance continues to be my favorite.
The musical isn’t perfect in any form. There are some lacking performances in the original cast recording and film. I, for one, cannot stand the film rendition of “King Herod’s Song” because I don’t believe the anger and mockery the actor conveys (this song was saved for me by the performance in the Lyric Opera production that managed to make the number menacing and frightening). However, the film remains to be my favorite because of Carl Anderson. If you get a chance to see the movie you should. And given the rarity of productions for this show, see it live as well.