With three mainstream movie adaptations and four separate productions on Broadway, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” has had no shortage of interpretations. Despite the show’s obvious prowess, NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live” proved underwhelming.
The performance, which aired on Sunday April 1, featured world-renowned musicians like John Legend, Sara Bareilles and Alice Cooper, as well as celebrated stage actors like Brandon Victor Dixon, Norm Lewis and Ben Daniels These individuals filled the roles of Jesus, his friends and his enemies.
Beyond vocal excellence, the show also skillfully used live instrumental accompaniments. With a 32-piece live orchestra—including 14-year-old electric guitarist Brandon Niederauer—the audience could do little to escape Webber’s earworms even if they wanted to.
Performed in Brooklyn’s Marcy Avenue Armory, the broadcast highlighted both the entire cast and central characters through the large-scale environment. At some times the ensemble intermingled with the audience to make it seem like there were more people in the cast. At others, the stage was empty except for an actor or two to demonstrate their centrality.
Despite all of these reasons to praise the performance, the production was not without its flaws. The chief tripping point of the show was it presented its message.
Originally written during the era of the Civil Rights movement and in protests against the Vietnam War, the musical recast the religious messiah Jesus Christ as the leader of a social movement. In such a role, Jesus’s character struggled to find ground between those who labeled him as extreme and those who labeled him as ineffective, between the government that wanted him to stop inciting rebellion and the masses that pushed him further than he wanted to go.
In other words, this character is meant to be more human than deity. In fact, the thrust of the show is supposed to question whether Jesus is anything special at all or, as Judas’s show-stopping finale asks, “Jesus Christ, who are you, what have you sacrificed? Jesus Christ, Superstar, do you think you’re what they say you are?”
The musical is not meant to supplement a Sunday School lesson or to teach about Christianity, but rather to meditate on the meaning of religious faith and social movements. Audiences are supposed to question if the modern interpretation of Jesus Christ and his teachings is accurate, or if contemporary social leaders are as bad or as good as people think they are.
Some of this more nuanced message was lost in NBC’s production. Despite his skillful singing, Legend played a more traditionally holy version of Jesus. Even though the original musical’s Jesus was a complex human who sang through throat-ripping rock wails, Legend sometimes sang like a more messianic version of himself.
Legend’s one-note performance brushes aside the character’s insecurities and flaws. Even when Legend did express anger or doubt, the audience likely struggled to pick up on it due to his stoicism.
The show’s direction similarly centered on Jesus at the expense of Judas. The audience should sympathize with Judas, as he challenges Jesus’s more questionable actions. In NBC’s production, however, Judas comes across less as a reasonable alternative to Jesus and more as someone who unjustifiably denies Jesus.
The promotion of the production confirmed Judas’s subordinate role. Most of the promotional trailers and photographs emphasized Legend’s Jesus as the show’s selling point, while barely including Dixon’s Judas. By broadcasting on a major Christian holiday recognizing Jesus’s holiness, the production similarly undercut its apparently agnostic message.
Although it brushed aside some of the more complex elements of the original material, the interpretation certainly provided a valuable viewing experience for both those who were familiar and unfamiliar with the original show.