Jesus Christ Superstar Goes from Counterculture to Mainstream in Live NBC Performance

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Jesus Christ Superstar Goes from Counterculture to Mainstream in Live NBC Performance

There’s a very obvious reason why Jesus Christ Superstar, the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice-penned rock opera that debuted on Broadway in 1971, has remained such an internationally successful musical theater behemoth. It is, after all, about the most influential figure in human history, a man who has seen his life and legacy interpreted and contextualized by countless artists in the last two thousand years. If you make something about Jesus—a movie, a TV show, a big musical theater extravaganza—people tend to pay attention.

Nearly 50 years after its debut, Jesus Christ Superstar is getting the NBC live musical treatment (albeit in a staged concert format, which is not too dissimilar from a full-fledged production). With John Legend in the title role and Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene, it’d be easy to assume that the show itself is ubiquitous not only in the musical theater canon but as a quasi-religious event; the event airs on Easter Sunday.

But what this version of Jesus Christ Superstar suggests is that the rock opera has finally achieved the mass appeal its creators didn’t expect when they conceived of it five decades ago.

Before its Broadway debut, the songwriting team of Lloyd Webber and Rice released Jesus Christ Superstar as a concept album—although that was not their original intention. It was the second Biblically inspired collaboration for the duo, who had created Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat (which would also become a massive hit) as a one-act “pop cantata” in 1968. While Joseph has the saccharine quality of a Sunday School sketch, Lloyd Webber and Rice veered into darker territory with their follow-up: the last days, and ultimate execution, of Jesus Christ.

Like its source material, Jesus Christ Superstar has become a canvas upon which other artists can reinterpret and contextualize to fit their own visions.

What might have been a n0-brainer turned out to be much more complex thanks to their depiction of their central character, which incorporated a contemporary analysis of Jesus’ character (not to mention a loud, rock-focused score complete with slang-heavy lyrics), that proved to hinder its success in their native country. Producers in London wouldn’t go near it; the 1970 album’s pop success in the U.S., however, garnered enough interest for a Broadway production that premiered the following year. (Despite Lloyd Webber’s disapproval of that original production, which he called “a vulgar travesty,” the show earned five Tony nominations and ran for over a year.)

It’s easy to see why British investors may have shied away from mounting the show. While Jesus gets top billing with the title, the final week of his life is told through the perspective of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who ultimately betrayed him and set into motion his arrest and crucifixion. Despite the bad rap he’s gotten over the last two millennia, Judas gets the anti-hero treatment; here he serves as narrator, offering his own inner turmoil as he considers Jesus’ popularity and rise to religious power to reveal political corruption.

Jesus Christ Superstar begins, in fact, with a wallop of a song in “Heaven on Their Minds.” It’s the song in which Judas lays it all out: his fears that Jesus’ followers are blinded by his celebrity, the enemies who are zeroing in on him and his disciples, and the worry that his teachings and sermons are too easily manipulated for others’ political gain. It sets up the central conflict of the story, but it shows the meaning behind Judas’ betrayal—one rooted in his humanity rather than pure villainy. (It’s heavy, but take it from me: It’s also a banger at karaoke.)

Mary Magdalene, whose reputation has been sullied over the last millennia thanks to artistic depictions that rendered her as a prostitute, also gets a voice here. One of those rare contemporary show tunes that crossed over as a pop hit (an Andrew Lloyd Webber specialty), “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” makes Mary Magdalene a person rather than a horny hanger-on; that it’s the kind of lovelorn soliloquy that works outside of the musical’s Biblical context only bolsters its appeal.

Jesus gets plenty of his own humanizing moments, of course, but none better than “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say).” He offers up his own introspection—away from the temple, from the political adversaries disguising themselves as allies, from his overeager followers—in a call to God that asks, essentially, “Why me?” That Jesus himself had a crisis of confidence is not necessarily sacrilegious, but it plays into the controversial leanings of Jesus Christ Superstar as a whole, which treats the Gospels less like history and more like the building blocks for artistic and philosophical interpretation.

That’s the musical’s central appeal—at least for musical theater fans who for the last half-century may not have flocked to the show for Biblical lessons. As someone who grew up slightly religious, going to a stoic Episcopalian church where there were no electric guitars in sight, Jesus Christ Superstar felt like a revelation because suddenly Sunday School stories seemed fun, with the characters at the center of the most important chapter of the Bible seeming (for the first time to me, at least) like actual human beings.

But isn’t that the essential thing about musical theater? Emotions are externalized to the most extreme degree—through melodramatic songs—and the characters who sing them reveal an interiority that is instantly relatable. And Jesus Christ Superstar is loaded with jams beyond the three I’ve mentioned; there’s the soft-rock lullaby “Everything’s Alright,” groovy crowd sing-alongs like “Simon Zealotes” and “Hosanna,” and the pastiche-leaning “King Herod’s Song” that ups the irreverence when Jesus must present himself before the ruler who then belittles the supposed son of God.

And, of course, there’s the eleven o’clock number “Superstar,” in which Judas appears before Jesus just before his death, flanked by a celestial choir of rock ‘n’ roll angels, giving the messiah a glimpse at the future that lies ahead after his crucifixion.

All of this was transgressive at the time of Jesus Christ Superstar’s initial release as a concept album. (There’s something still particularly wild about Deep Purple frontman Ian Gillian performing as Jesus in a musical project co-created by the man who would go on to create Cats and The Phantom of the Opera, but this was when musical theater was still reflecting the popular sound of the time—long before Hamilton made show tunes cool again.)

And while the original production and the 1973 Norman Jewison-directed movie portrayed Jesus and Co. as wayward hippies, traveling through Israel and spreading the good news of a changing world, subsequent productions have updated the looks to reflect the youth culture of their time. Like its source material, Jesus Christ Superstar has become a canvas upon which other artists can reinterpret and contextualize to fit their own visions.

Decades later, after a film adaptation and countless productions across the globe, the musical seems much less outrageous. Perhaps that’s why we’re finally seeing a broadcast of the show—once banned from the BBC and in South Africa and Hungary—on a major American network starring two immensely famous pop stars. Once provocative and representative of the counterculture, Jesus Christ Superstar helped move the needle so far left that it now rests firmly as part of the dominant culture.

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