I’ve been a fan of musicals since I was a kid. It would be many years before I’d get a chance to see some performed live, but soundtracks have been a staple of my listening habits pretty much my whole life. The first one I can remember getting hooked on was Jesus Christ Superstar.
I can’t pin down the exact year, but since the movie came out in 1973, I’m guessing I discovered the soundtrack in the late 70’s when I was in the 7-9 yr. old range. I don’t remember if the movie or the soundtrack was my first exposure, but even if I saw the movie first, it was the double album on vinyl that I listened to over and over. I had a turntable in my bedroom and usually put on a record to fall asleep to. I didn’t have a huge collection, so JCS was in heavy rotation.
I didn’t start to question my Catholic faith until my mid-late teens, so when this show was making it’s earliest impression on me, I was still a believer. For many years, when I imagined Jesus in my head, he looked like Ted Neely, not the more placid dark-haired version in church iconography. I was aware, though I don’t remember how, that the JCS version of the Christ story was not exactly the orthodox Catholic version, but I didn’t regard it as blasphemous, either.
As I got older and found new musicals to get into, JCS stopped getting the airplay I gave it when it was practically the only soundtrack I knew, but it remained enough of a favorite to survive in my catalog from vinyl to cassette to CD to MP3, even when it meant paying again. One of my favorite live musicals of all time was getting to see a stage version of JCS starring Ted Neely and Carl Anderson in the mid-nineties. Jesus looked a little older than 33, but seeing the two stars I’d listened to since I was little perform it live was awesome.
When I listen to it now – and I still prefer the movie soundtrack above all other versions I’ve heard – the songs and performances are the same as they ever were, but a lot has changed about me. Most notably, I’m no longer a believer, so while I’m well aware the plot covers a story that many people believe as literal truth, it’s as fictional to me as listening to Wicked or Avenue Q. Like any good fiction, though, it still contains true and relatable themes that resonate even if the characters and plot are made up.
The passion and yearning of I Don’t Know How to Love Him still moves me, whether it’s the more famous Mary Magdelene rendition, later when Judas reprises it. They don’t mean the exact same thing by singing it, but each is heartbreaking and authentic in its own way.
One of the things I love about the show, but which went completely over my head as a kid, is that Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t really about Jesus – it’s about Judas. Once the musical overture is dispensed with, it’s Judas that kicks off the show with Heaven on Their Minds. He’s the squeaky wheel wondering out loud if this is all a good idea in Strange Thing Mystifying and Everything’s Alright. The familiar Jesus stuff is still happening, but we access it through Judas’s flawed (and therefore more relatable) perspective. Judas’s most famous accomplishment is betraying Judas, but I don’t remember any analog to Damned for All Time in the gospels to hint at the tortured conflict he’d feel at making that choice. You only get that detail in a story about Judas. Even the titular song, Superstar, is a showstopper performed by Judas. It’s nominally about Jesus, but the superstar of that number and, on balance, the whole show, is Judas. Jesus is just the star, but the answer to WWJD is: insist on top billing.
Given this lifetime affection for the show and the soundtrack, I was interested to find out that NBC planned a live performance on Easter Sunday, 2018, starring John Legend as…Jesus. I hadn’t heard of the guy performing Judas, but when I read that he followed Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr in the Broadway cast of Hamilton, I expected him to be good. Alice Cooper is stunt casted as King Herod, and that’s the only other name I recognized, though I’m sure it’s an impressive cast. We “cut the cord” for cable TV maybe half a year ago, and this was the first time I felt like it might mean missing something I really wanted to see. Fortunately, I’ve secured login info for a relative’s cable provider so I can watch it after all.
I did watch all the promos available on NBC’s site, which included Judas (Brandon Victor Dixon) performing Superstar to an adoring choir/audience. It sounded amazing. As I mentioned before, I’ve never preferred another version to the movie soundtrack, but this was very, very good. It looked terrible.
I don’t mean that the lighting or camerawork looked bad. Those were fine. What looked off to me was three men on an elevated stage, performing to packed crowds of women on all sides looking not just entertained or even adoring, but like they’re practically coming. Judas is the main man on stage, of course, but they didn’t even throw in a token woman to be the accompanying guitarist. The third man, deemed so indispensable that he has to be up on stage, wearing a shirt emblazoned, “MY TASTES ARE SO CATHOLIC,” is conducting the throngs of women. Judas and Guitar Guy pay him no mind and don’t seem to need him, but it was so critical to the women getting their “Ahhh!”s just right that they couldn’t stash a conductor out of sight.
The clip is titled “Brandon Victor Dixons Sings With 400 Superstars”. Without pausing, I didn’t spot more than 4 men in the adoring choir, and I didn’t get to 10 even with pausing. The sound of the choir – as in the original – is distinctively and I assume intentionally female, but good lord, I half-expected this staging to end with facials. I’m not opposed to a well-timed facial between consenting adults if it serves the story, but it feels wrong for Jesus Christ Superstar.
If you thought I could write an essay on musicals without more than a passing mention of Hamilton, you’re wrong. Any big Hamilton fan will bore tell you how its genius is in its many layers and levels, so there’s more to it than catchy tunes. There’s a ton of references and homages paid to rap songs, for example, so knowing those enriches the appreciation for the lyrics. Hamilton is, among other things, a love letter to hip-hop. It is also a love letter to musicals themselves. Sometimes it’s pretty on-the-nose, like Washington’s lyric, “Now I’m the model of the modern major general” is almost verbatim from The Pirates of Penzance famous lyric, “I’m the very model of the modern major general,” but other times it’s more subtle. The most obvious parallel I see to JCS is that Hamilton’s story is filtered through the perspective of Aaron Burr. Some of Burr’s big showstoppers, especially the tortured parts of Wait For It have always reminded me of Judas’s songs. Hamilton may be the star, but Burr is the superstar.