Without a doubt, the religion event of the week in the world of 21st century pop culture was NBC’s live Easter Sunday broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar last night.
Having played the role of Mary Magdalene in ninth grade, I know almost every lyric and note by heart. I was interested in hearing about this bare-bones rendition of the rock opera compared to Norman Jewison’s over-wrought 1973 movie version.
My daughter and I would have enjoyed last night's show had it not been interrupted every five seconds by commercials, which utterly ruined the flow of the performance. There were lots of great performances; the kiddo loved the music and I got a big nostalgia dose.
Most favorite moment: Jesus getting mobbed by TV news crews while fans were taking selfies. More of my reaction further down.
But first, I was curious as to how reporters previewing the performance would treat the religion angle –- other than the obvious fact that the show is about the founder of a faith that has more than 2 billion adherents. Would they delve into the not-so-obvious?
Many did not. More were taken with how, for the first time, Jesus was played by a black actor, like this NPR story:
This Easter Sunday, NBC will debut its latest one-night live musical event, Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert. The event's source material is the 1970s rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, an interpretation of the final days of the life of Jesus Christ. But it's not your old school Sunday morning gospel. This time around, John Legend, the messiah of pop-R&B love jams, will take on the titular role of Jesus Christ for the production. ...
Legend also applauds NBC for casting a black man as Jesus Christ, a figure often presented as white. "I think we've gotten used to seeing Jesus look like he came from Oslo, when, you know, obviously he was born and raised in the Middle East and probably looked a lot closer to me," he says.
The Associated Press noted the breadth of the production
Live TV musicals have become progressively more complex, with the use of cars and multiple locations, sometimes outdoors. But "Jesus Christ Superstar" will be more stripped down, an attempt to capture a concert vibe. It will be staged inside an armory in Brooklyn with about 12 cameras.
The actors will be augmented by a 32-piece band -- including a mobile, all-woman string quartet -- and 1,500 people will be in the audience, surrounding the action and interacting sometimes with the performers. The stage will be just 2 feet above a mosh pit.
The best preview –- or what we in the industry call a "walk-up" feature -– was one done by Michael Paulson of the New York Times; not surprisingly in that Paulson is a seasoned religion reporter formerly with the Boston Globe. He was the only reporter (that I could find) who delved into the religious background of several of the main players. It really helps when a reporter knows which questions to ask.
About John Legend, he wrote:
On religion: I grew up in a Pentecostal Christian family, pretty fundamentalist. My grandfather was my pastor growing up. My dad is a pastor himself and played drums in the church choir, my mother was a choir director, and my grandmother was the church organist. My dad would even play Jesus in some of our passion plays in church. I’m not religious now, I would say, but there’s no way that you are raised in that environment, and also grow up singing that music, without it having an impact on your life.
Brandon Victor Dixon, who played Judas, really shone in the production.
Judas, more than Jesus, has the killer part. Dixon told Paulson:
On religion: I grew up in the Episcopal Church, went to private school in that church, went to chapel every day. It was a constant through my adolescence. Then we started to shift, to the Unitarian church. Now, spirituality plays a role in my life, but not religion. For me religion is a political construct, and spirituality is a community construct, and there’s a real difference.
Sara Bareilles, who plays Mary Magdalene, had a lovely voice but she barely acted. During the famous "I don't know how to love Him" solo, the actress is supposed to move about the stage but Bareilles does not. Big disappointment. She told Paulson:
On religion: I’m definitely someone who has faith and a belief in God and the workings of the universe at large, but I don’t subscribe to a particular doctrine. I grew up Catholic, and I went to Catholic school, so the story of Jesus and the crucifixion are very near and dear to my heart…
By the way, ‘70s rocker Alice Cooper, who plays Herod, was as good as everyone thought he'd be in his bright orange get-up and scornful mien. As an outspoken born-again Christian, it was easy to get him to talk, as this Daily Beast story shows. There are some awfully good quotes here:
Fittingly, given the occasion for our conversation, he credits Jesus and embracing his Christian faith after being diagnosed as an alcoholic with saving his life. To continue to be Alice Cooper, the rock star, he had to rebirth Vincent Furnier, his given name. He had to go back to his roots.
“I was a prodigal son,” Cooper tells me. He grew up in a Christian home. His dad was a pastor. His grandfather was an evangelist. Even his wife’s father is a pastor. “I went as far away as you could possibly get,” he says. “I stood for everything wrong, and then I came back.” He has an intensely personal connection to King Herod, but from the other side.
The Daily Beast piece had some profound points in there, thanks to Cooper’s excellent quotes.
Cooper ... takes issue with those who think the show -- and the decision to stage it on Easter Sunday -- is sacrilegious. (Tim Rice, who wrote the lyrics, once said of his interpretation: “It happens that we don’t see Christ as God but simply the right man at the right time at the right place.”)
“I think if it was blasphemous, I couldn’t do it,” he says. “But this piece honors Christ, I think. The bad guys are the bad guys and the good guys are the good guys. It’s pretty cut and dried.”
He’s also well aware of the significance of this live staging airing on Easter Sunday. ... That a story about Jesus and faith might unite families around the TV set, and against the backdrop of a culture that is increasingly jaded and a world that’s increasingly harrowing, is something that Cooper says is rare and special.
The same writer did an interview with John Legend but didn’t hit the same profound note. When you're dealing with something so well known as a nearly 50-year-old rock opera being retrofitted for a new century, it's sometimes tough to be original. Fortunately, a few reporters rose to the challenge.
I was underwhelmed by Legend's performance mainly because he emoted so little until the very end when he was getting whipped (which was a showstopper of a scene). Part of the problem is the script, which has Jesus as a complaining, confused martyr instead of a leader who was in control of everything that was going on and, as he reminded his disciples, could call down zillions of warrior angels in an instant if he so chose.
The camera work was very good; the actor (Ben Daniels) playing a Nazi-like Pilate really shone and the end with Jesus on the cross fading into a light was fabulous. (When we did our performance back in 1971, it was very tricky to figure out how to get a dead Jesus off the stage before the final music.)
This Vulture.com review is dead-on in its assessment as Judas' best moment being the closing number where the betrayer, now in hell, is still trying to second guess what Jesus was all about. The guys playing Annas (Jin Ha) and Caiaphas (Norm Lewis) in their black Matrix-y get-up were just right.
I'll end with a paragraph from this Variety review . Be sure to read the Eileen Fisher comment elsewhere in the review, which was dead on:
The entire cast, a multi-cultural tribe who looked as though they just left a loft party at 3 a.m. hungry for more adventure, was as energetically sincere as they could be almost all of the time. The exception was Alice Cooper, who stole the show when he emerged in an orange suit. But that adjective doesn’t begin to describe what he was wearing. Cooper’s threads looked like there were made out of flames -- that’s how vivid and pleasingly eye-popping his tailored suit was -- and yet the singer easily outshone his clothes. His rendition of “King Herod’s Song” was a star turn of the highest order, and a delightful amount of fun. If you can’t enjoy a dapper, devilish rock-god Herod surrounded by dancing ladies clad in outfits a Vegas showgirl would kill for, then perhaps live musicals on television are just not for you.