Jesus Christ, Superstar first was released as an album in 1970. I bought the album almost immediately, and I’m certain that my family got sick of hearing the music coming from my record player day after day. I knew all of the words by heart. I still do.
I was a sophomore or junior at a Catholic High School when the album – which indeed was an album before it was performed on Broadway – was released. While there was then – and still apparently is – a lot of controversy about Andrew Lloyd Webber’s interpretation of the last days of Jesus Christ’s life, not only was it not forbidden at our school, but our religion teacher – a Catholic priest – used it in our class as an educational tool. Perhaps he was wise enough to know that rock music was a good way to reach 16- and 17-year olds. Clarification could come along the way. Anything that can bring about open discussion seems like a positive teaching tool.
Being such a fan, I was excited to learn that Jesus Christ Superstar was going to be performed as one of those new, cool live shows on NBC on Easter Sunday. I never had the opportunity to see it performed live, and this was probably going to be as close as I would get.
The show overall got good reviews. Some more conservative Christians took umbrage – as they did back in 1970 – at the perspective, which is that of Judas Iscariot. And it’s admittedly a sympathetic perspective which creates angst among more traditional Christians. As I watched the show, I felt the same way that I felt when I was 16 years old and listening to the album for the first time. Part of God’s plan for saving us from original sin required that Jesus suffer immense pain, die on the cross, and eventually rise again. Someone had to turn Jesus over to the authorities in order to set these events in motion. So I always wondered, was Judas a victim? Wasn’t he part of God’s plan?
Believe me, I am carefully studying my ceiling looking for the lightning bolt.
Jesus Christ Superstar presents Judas as being a good guy who loved the message being taught by Jesus, but who was becoming concerned that the message was being overlooked because of the charisma of Jesus the Man. He didn’t believe that Jesus was God.
Friends, I hesitantly put forward the notion that there is some biblical support for the idea that Judas loved Jesus but felt he was going astray. Judas did, after all, throw back the coins once he saw what was happening to his friend. He clearly immediately regretted what he had done, as indicated by his suicide. The fact of the matter is that while I believe every word of the Gospels, there is a lot of stuff that is left out.
Take Mary Magdalene, for example, who, by the way, WASN’T A PROSTITUTE, a misrepresentation of her that was furthered in this opera. Jesus Christ Superstar clearly offers the perspective that she loved Jesus romantically. I guess you could, if you wished, look at Webber’s portrayal of their relationship as insinuating that Jesus loved her back romantically. I watched it carefully and took it completely differently. Jesus loved her because she was kind to him and asked nothing in return for her kindness. Period. Neither Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John mention a love affair between the two, but the gospels are clear that she dearly loved him, even if only as a friend and that he loved her as much as he loved all of his disciples.
I’m no great art critic, but I thought the performances were amazing. John Legend did an awfully good job as Jesus. His voice is so good and he has such a broad range. The music seemed perfect for him. I literally sobbed during the scene in Gethsemane. I have always believed that Jesus – being human as well as divine — was so afraid that night, more afraid than the gospel writers ever led us to believe. Brandon Victor Dixon, who played Judas Iscariot, has the kind of voice that nearly knocked me out of my chair when he began to sing. Wow. I had to look him up as I’d never heard of him. And I just have no words for the cleverness of making Alice Cooper sing King Herod’s zippy song. It was genius.
It’s true that the story ends with the crucifixion, but Webber always indicated it was about the last seven days of Jesus’ life. Perhaps it was a bit odd to feature it on Easter Sunday which is the celebration of the resurrection, but really people? I think we tend to overthink sometimes.
I, for one, was a fan.