Apr  2018 03
Jesus Christ Superstar: An Odd Choice for Easter

Did NBC know it was offering its Easter Sunday audience a non-Christian interpretation of the most important week of Jesus’ life in scheduling its live production of Jesus Christ Superstar for that evening?

Disclaimer: I love musicals. Lots of musicals. (JC Superstar is a rock opera rather than a musical per se, but the genre, in my uneducated mind, is close enough.) Soon after the album was released in 1970, I bought it, probably through Columbia House record club. I still own and play that album. I love the music. I love the Judas-point-of-view. I love the whimsy of making Herod so comic-tragic.

I was pre-disposed to soak up NBC’s live presentation, and I did. The casting for Judas, Jesus, Mary, Pilate, and Herod was superb. The over-the-top costumes for the extras and the fusion of ancient-industrial staging were great. The cast’s and orchestra’s energy, the whiff of eros, and the pathos all moved me, as the music all by itself always does.

But the rock opera is less Gospel and more Greek tragedy, complete with chorus. God is absent, except as the invisible Hand of Fate who silently but relentlessly drives this tragedy to its scripted end.

These characters are not agents but puppets, pushed by uncaring Fate to their appointed ends. Judas must betray the man who began to believe his own press. A tired, even burnt-out Jesus prays to avoid the cup but must finish what he—no, what God—had started. Pilate, along with Judas, is most concerned about not being misunderstood and vilified by history, for they were just playing their fate-determined parts.

At the end, Jesus is laid in the tomb. End of story.

The story Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice told is a powerful story, but it is not Gospel.

Obviously, I am not the only one with the opinion that JC Superstar is not a telling of Gospel as told by Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John (despite how often Webber drew on John). Read this good article by Jonathan Merritt (‘Glorious glitter bomb’: Critics loved ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ but much of religious America was unimpressed).

Where I differ from many critics is that I love both the Gospel-tellings of the Jesus story and JC Superstar. (I also love the music of the often-maligned Godspell despite the terrible theology. I said I like musicals.) Both Gospel-tellings and JC Superstar are great stories. I just don’t think JC Superstar should be confused with Gospel.

Which brings be back to the point of what NBC execs were thinking in scheduling JC Superstar for the evening of the holiest day of the Christian year, far more important that Christmas Eve or Day.

I have not been able to find a specific word from NBC on their thinking. (I do think that whoever wrote the promo on the NBC website showed some ignorance of the focus of the story, as the writer mentions who stars as Jesus, Herod, and Mary but leaves off Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas, whose character and perspective shape the entire story.) If NBC thought they were giving some kind of shout-out to Christians in NBC’s potential audience, that was a mistake.

Were they thinking analogically, as in “If we can run Home Alone or Christmas Story on Christmas, why not JC Superstar for Easter?” Perhaps. But Home Alone is not an anti-Christmas story, while JC Superstar is an anti-Easter story. “He’s a man, he’s just a man.” In the end, a dead man is laid in a tomb. No empty tomb, as in Mark, or resurrection appearances, as in Matthew, Luke, and John.

I guess I just wanted to note that JC Superstar was a really well-done but curious choice for Easter Sunday.

That said, I much preferred seeing the live presentation of non-Christian JC Superstar to watching a rerun of intended-to-be-faithful The Ten Commandments or The Greatest Story Ever Told, both of which created multiple opportunities for biblical scholars to say, “Oh, man, now there is something else to un-learn!”

Browse more posts by: Gary Peluso-Verdend, Phillips President
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