As a long-time fan of Broadway musicals – my mom started taking me to NYC when I was just 14 – I was thrilled to see the Easter evening production of Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC. To be fair, this is really more an opera than a musical, since there is no dialogue. For me, musicals were the gateway drug that led to my love of opera as a late teenager.
I have never liked hard rock, but that’s not a problem for me in this score. Andrew Lloyd Webber is a great lyricist, making sure that the thematic material doesn’t get lost in a sea of sound. That’s especially important in a musical style with off the charts decibels! As for the telling of the story, some may not care for Webber’s spin on the characters, which is decidedly more subjective than told in the Bible passages from which they derive. That subjective basis, however, forms how each character is defined by the choices of melody, harmony, and word painting. Richard Wagner would have to tip his hat. However, without equally good musicians to bring these qualities out all would be lost. That includes the amazing rock orchestra, playing in the multi-level cubes and strolling on stage.
I didn’t have a problem with the mish-mosh of voice casting that I read lambasted in other reviews. I found it really fun to see a cast of mostly non-Broadway singers acting in these roles. It’s not such a stretch since film versions of musicals often feature film stars over stage actors. I found the minimalist sets to be quite conducive to the on-stage action. That allowed a poignancy on those few dramatic moments, like the dangling ladder symbolizing Judas’s hanging and the opening and closing of the walls in the image of a cross after the crucifixion.
Some fault the musical for not including the resurrection, ending just after the crucifixion. I think Webber made the right decision to end the story where the dramatic tension peaks, instead of insisting on telling what Christians would consider a complete story. People aren’t going to be swayed in their faith by a Broadway show — but they might be challenged by it. I personally struggled with the depiction of Pilate as too harsh and Judas as too lenient. Either way, it made me feel that I could have been either of those two characters and am not sure if I would have made better choices.
In any event, thank goodness there was a choice on TV other than Ben-Hur this Easter. I hope that the success of this production means the possibility for more live musical theater, performed just as it was done in front of an audience instead of on a sterile soundstage!