/ jesus christ superstar
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Embraced, condemned, twice filmed, and with over two dozen major productions (both theatrical and in concert) since it was first staged in 1971, Jesus Christ Superstar remains something of a phenomenon. It launched the careers of two enduring icons of musical theatre – Andrew Lloyd Webber (‘Cats’, ‘Phantom of the Opera’) and Tim Rice (‘Evita’, ‘Chess’) – pushed the envelope of conservative taste, and helped birth, for better or worse, the eternally contrary ‘rock opera’. It is also one of the finest examples of musical theatre ever conceived.
For those not blessed with irregular church practices, a theatre-loving granny or a scratchy old LP, Superstar portrays the last days in the life of Jesus Christ. Having spent years gathering his followers, preaching his message of love, and winning the hearts and minds of the masses, Jesus (Ben Forster) bows to pressure and marches on Jerusalem, the center of Roman power. Ignoring the pleas for caution by his “right-hand man”, Judas (Tim Minchin), Jesus is deemed a dangerous anarchist by the high priests, who decide on a radical course of action: this Jesus must die…
Taking creative license with the accounts of Christ’s arrest and crucifixion, Webber and Rice were more focused on deconstructing the issues and excesses of their time than producing a straight adaptation of the Gospels. While other interpretations of Christ’s life (such as Scorsese’s Last Temptation) confuse their humanized, psychologically acute rendering of Jesus by including elements of the supernatural, Superstar deliberately rejects them. The ‘miracles’ of Christ’s deeds are in the past – their literality (and their very existence) is taken on faith. Rice’s Jesus is a man imbued with the hopes and dreams of an oppressed people: a savior, certainly, but one made of flesh and blood. There is no divine intervention for this ‘son of God’; the musical concludes with the crucifixion… but shows no sign of resurrection. The song and dance amounts to the universal themes of what it means to doubt, to fear, and to lose – all of which are fleeting. By presenting Christ as fallibly human, it’s easy to see why early productions caused such religious outrage.
This filmed production of Superstar, an arena concert staged recently in the UK, is a mishmash of the theatrical and televisual. Like all filmed performances of live theatre, it’s a series of concessions: in attempting to capture the immediacy of being there, it lacks the focused eye of the camera; and being a concert performance, it lacks the benefits of a fully-realized theatrical production. What it is, though, is a handsomely staged amalgam of the two.
With a set consisting of scaffold and stairs, the actors are projected onto a giant LED screen behind them, which alternates as necessary for those in the nosebleeds, and as a clever theatrical device. Incorporating visual cues from Occupy London, Guantanamo Bay, and myriad social media, this version of Superstar is intelligently contemporized for the modern day – especially in its casting.
Minchin, while initially as startled as the audience to find himself onstage, has a terrific vocal range. The Australian comedian and self-styled “failed rock star” eventually loosens up, finding enough subtly and genuine pathos in his clunky staging to make Judas’ final epiphany tragically moving. Ben Forster, having won the part on an ITV talent show, is a very fine Christ. Exhibiting enough acting ability for the concert medium, and with a voice (like Minchin) that’s pure rock’n’roll, he nails his trial-by-fire, “Gethsemane”, to the back wall of the arena. But the real revelation is Melanie Chisholm (aka, Mel C), who’s a knockout as Mary Magdalene. The former Sporty Spice shows tremendous sensitivity as a musical performer, most notably in her duet, “Could We Start Again Please”, and her stellar rendition of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him”, which summarily brings the house down.
While the performances are uniformly brilliant across the board, not everything holds together theatrically. Judas’ early disapproval of Mary doesn’t make much sense in the context of their rag-tag, counter-culture posse (they both have dreadlocks, for crying out loud), and certain elements, such as Judas’ payment of thirty pieces of silver contained in a little red velvet bag, push the anachronisms a little too far. (Surely a blank cheque would’ve made more sense?) But these occasional lapses in internal logic, as well as a few drab directorial decisions, are hardly deal-breakers. This is one of the best incarnations of Superstar, and the perfect opportunity to get converted.