Commentary Magazine


Jesus on Broadway

It seems that Jesus Christ Superstar is not destined to be a landmark in the struggle of Christian revivalism. Critics have found it overblown and conventional; religionists have called it crude and historically objectionable; and even Time, committed as it was to cover-story enthusiasm, nevertheless picked out traces of Spenglerian Untergang in the rock opera’s religiosity. What many thought was going to be a fresh appropriation or youthful definition of the life of Jesus has turned out to be a stale piece of offensiveness that rekindles old animosities for no greater cause than that of a tawdry, show-business aesthetic.

This reaction will most likely in no way cause a serious reduction in the audience that has already committed itself to Jesus Christ Superstar in the amount of a one-million-dollar advance sale. As I overheard two ladies put it in a pre-overture dialogue, “They say you’ll either love this or hate it” “Well, it’s good that Jesus is at least controversial again.”

Unfortunately, controversial is precisely what Jesus is not in this musical adaptation of his life. Except for a hint or two of carnality in his relationship with Mary Magdalene, what Tim Rice and Andrew Webber present us with is the same Jesus that popular imagination has always drawn from the Gospels. He is a troubled tired. ascetic fellow, stubbornly pushing on toward his destiny at Calvary, religiously and ethically baffling to the mundane minds of his disciples. He is a worker of miracles, a harsh judge of the wicked, and a compassionate tolerator of human weaknesses. His vocabulary, of course, has been refurbished to accommodate the taste of those who believe that modern jargon is spiritually more meaningful than 17th-century English, especially when wedded to rock music; but his utterances on his way to the cross are crude facsimiles of those ascribed to him in the New Testament. Occasionally, he emits a falsetto scream, but that is attributable to the octave jumps in Andrew Webber’s music and, to my mind at least, is in no way intended to mean that Jesus was an occasionally hysterical prophet.

No, what controversy there is in Jesus Christ Superstar has little to do with the opera’s protagonist, and nothing at all to do with what one might call artistic innovation. It arises, instead, out of the conventionality of the conception, out of its dogged adherence to ideas and stereotypes that have produced a long history of dark social difficulties. A number of commentators on this production seemed mildly abashed that anyone could take such a simpleminded reenactment of Christ’s Passion seriously enough to question its spiritual and historical assumptions They may be light But when a popular depiction of the life of Jesus turns up on Broadway decked out in lavish sets and raiments, it seems to me that the underlying interpretation of the Gospels is of no less interest for an understanding of the 20th-century Christian mind than the pronouncements of Vatican Councils and Ecumenical Conferences.

The problem, of course, lies in the way Caiaphas, Annas and the members of the Jewish priesthood and Sanhedrin are depicted. Having for so long been delicately excised from Hollywood accounts of the Passion, they reappear in Superstar as a collection of grotesque villains, who seem, in each of their scenes, more like a coven of cackling witches than like the official leaders of the Jewish people. Indeed, the only attitude they hold in the opera that would absolve them of the charge of unmitigated and gratuitous evil is their fear that Jesus’s preachings will bring down on them the wrath of Rome.

Now there is certainly no novelty in this attitude, and even its crude presentation in this opera is as nothing compared with, let us say, the Oberammergau Passion Play before the Daisenberger version was finally altered and its more rabid anti-Semitic parts deleted. Indeed, although there are scholars who have offered subtle interpretations as to why the Gospels tend to exculpate Pilate and indict the Jews in the question of Jesus’s trial and execution—it has been observed, for instance, that Mark, the oldest Gospel, was written in Rome around the year 70, thereby making it politically expedient for Roman involvement in Christ’s crucifixion to be deemphasized—it is, nevertheless, true that, given even the most lenient scriptural reading, the Gospels treat neither the Jewish priesthood nor the Jewish people kindly in their account of Jesus’s betrayal, arrest, trial, and death. Jesus Christ Superstar may put the case crudely, but it is a case founded on authority. One may challenge the historical accuracy of that authority, but it is a barren enterprise to make it seem that the attitude of the Gospels is being abused by Messrs Webber and Rice. The point of criticism, it seems to me, rests on the question of why a 20th-century artist would want to present a conventional distillation of these evangelical writings. Faith might be one answer, but it is an answer certainly not applicable to the creators of Jesus Christ Superstar.

However, I may be unjust. Although it is difficult to be certain from the lyrical scramble that serves as a libretto for this opera, the role of Judas does seem to have been fleshed out by a modern consciousness. In the versions of Mark and Matthew, Judas’s decision to betray Christ follows immediately upon the episode in which Mary anoints Jesus; when the disciples complain of the waste of precious ointment that might be given to the poor, Jesus answers: “Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me. For ye have the poor always with you: but me ye have not always.” Apparently concluding from this that Judas believed his leader had forgotten his role as a social activist, the authors of Superstar have decided to make Judas something of a tormented revolutionary, a man who betrays Christ because he is preaching Heaven instead of Social Change. This evaluation, of course, ignores John’s blunt testimony that Judas was a thief who cared nothing at all for the poor, but it does give Rice and Webber an opportunity to indulge in some modern exegesis Considering the level of subtlety in this interpretation, it is perhaps best after all that, as far as their sensibilities allowed, they remained, in general, faithful to the four evangelists.

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I have stated that Jesus Christ Superstar, as a passion play, is conventional in its theme and crude in its variations. I think this is a fair estimate of the intelligence evinced by the opera. Its theatricality is another matter. Here things are slightly more successful. There is, for example, the opening scene in which human figures slither down from the top of a solid curtain that gradually decreases its angle of incline to form a stage. In a few seconds, one is presented with a tableau that creates a memorable image of mankind scuttling across the earth in desperate need of a savior. Then also, there is the lurid, comical scene in which Christ is confronted by a daubed, transvested Herod who sports a pair of cothurni in the shape of giant, metal wedgies and who engages in a vamping, mocking dance while trying to persuade Jesus to entertain him with a miracle or two. There is also the performance of Ben Vereen, who plays Judas as someone possessed by much subtler demons than the quartet of indeterminate furies director Tom O’Horgan has seen fit to surround him with on the stage.

However, in the end, O’Horgan, whose work I admired in the productions of Tom Paine and Hair, simply has found no way to connect his Flemish-hell imagery to the story he was supposed to present. All the moving panels, grotesque costumes, and imaginative and technical brilliance of Robin Wagner’s sets cannot compensate for the lack of secular passion and theatrical coherence in Jesus Christ Superstar. Finally one feels that O’Horgan is treating his audience to one snappy production number after another, each succeeding one a slight escalation in stage virtuosity By the evening’s end, one is left wondering about nothing more significant than how O’Horgan is going to pull off the crudifixion scene, and whether it can possibly top the Expulsion-of-the-Money-Lenders-from-the-Temple number in the first act.

Another mistake on O’Horgan’s part was his idea that there should be no pause between his scenes, that there should be a continuous evolution of action. This may have seemed the best way to present an uninterrupted flow of music, but it results in a sameness of tone that divests everything and everyone of nuance. Events and characters rush by, all held in the same mood, all frozen in the single dimension that theatricality produces when it is not sustained by am belief, logic, or textual purpose. An occasional solid break between scenes might have forced everyone concerned to realize that the incidents being depicted were not all of a piece, that they had originally been put together by narrators who knew that more is entailed in the varieties of life than a change of costume or scene. Finally O’Horgan is pathetically reduced to nothing more than gadgetry and meretricious costuming when he has Christ rising from a rent in the folds of a flapping sheet, meant I suppose to signify the veil of the temple, adorned in an endless gown that, rumor has it, cost twenty thousand dollars. It is a desperate final attempt to redeem vacuity with dazzlement, and while it does draw a few breathy approbations from the audience, they are of the sort I imagine one hears during the finale of the Easter Pageant at Radio City Music Hall

As I’m sure everyone by this time knows, Jesus Christ Superstar made its debut in the world in the form of a record album. Calling itself a rock opera, it has been an unquestioned success among those who are committed to, or diverted by, the pop musical culture, and indeed one can listen to Webber’s score and find some amiable moments in it. But with all respect to the expanding, egalitarian cultural values of our times, I must confess that such music, when forced to enfold the complexities of something like the Passion, seems to me woefully uninspired and limited. It has neither the honest ebullience of the spiritual nor the dense power of traditional operatic voicings. There is something pat and carefully manufactured about it, qualities that can be accepted, and even enjoyed, in a single, well-produced song, but that become tiresome and wearing if one expects the cumulative strength of an opera and has to sit for hours waiting vainly for that expectation to be fulfilled.

Actually, Superstar is really more an oratorio than an opera—a notion that was reinforced when I saw the present production in which microphones are passed about at the cue for each participant’s number—and it might make a better impression if presented, say, in a stadium by singers who did not have to pretend that they were enmeshed in a cohesive drama.

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I realize that, except for a patronizing reference to “breathy approbations” conjoined with popular Easter pageants, I have not really given an adequate idea of how the audience responds to Jesus Christ Superstar. Usually, I think that this should not concern a critic of firm mind, but since I am sure Superstar will prove ultimately to be of greater sociological than dramatic interest, I feel justified in mentioning the reaction of those who sat around me at the Mark Hellinger Theater. In a word, it was ecstatic. Everything, from Mary Magdalene’s love song to Judas’s hanging, was greeted with explosions of applause.

At the curtain calls, the actors received the veritable homage of those in the hall, and the theater was filled with emotions of transfiguration. What, I wonder, were these enthusiasts really experiencing? Did it have anything to do with the story they had been watching? Was it simply a frank delight in professional entertainment? Were they joyfully astonished to find that Christ still had a place in the world?

I am afraid I will have to believe that they had only been amused by the proceedings, and had especially enjoyed the fact that the amusements, as is fashionable nowadays, had a soupcon of audacity to them. In the end, I noticed that the actor who plays Judas drew the greater number of bravos and the most applause. Apparently, delighted as it was, the audience wished to draw back and keep a certain distance from the conclusions of the testament it had witnessed. It was applauding, most likely, what it took to be the new importance of a contemporary aesthetic style that seemed at last to have wrestled with a Significant Subject and bested it on its own terms. As a disinterested agnostic, I can honestly report that, if this is the case, the victory celebration was very premature.

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