THANK YOU, HOT JESUS (WE TALK JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR)
NBC’s live musicals are supposed to be the rotten corpses of shows long-gone and, as the sinful heathens we are, we look forward to mocking their very existence for our own personal salvation. Yet on Easter Sunday, something miraculous happened. The most multicultural cast this side of Hamilton came onto the TV screen for Jesus Christ Superstar and, like Lazarus, rose the whole franchise from the brink of death. We, Ines Bellina and Julie Jurgens, lifelong fans of the Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera approached the event with hesitation, one stiff drink, and lots of questions: will we be #blessed or damned for all time?
What’s your history with Jesus Christ Superstar?
INES: My parents took me to see Jesus Christ Superstar back when I was 10 years old and the touring company was actually comprised of Ted Neely (OG Jesus), Carl Anderson (OG Judas, the real protagonist of the show), Irene Cara (as Mary Magdalene and of Flashdance fame). It was unlike anything I had ever seen before in my life. I loved musicals, but I had pretty much been fed a steady diet of the traditional sort of musical theater: pompous, wholesome, and requiring at least several Disney characters. JCS had a minimalist setting, electric guitars and adults with long hair. This was all I needed as a 5th grader to have my mind effectively blown. It also gave my little budding slightly socialist, definitely progressive heart to see our Lord Savior as some chill hippie living in a commune and being thoroughly unimpressed with the Roman Empire. Since then, I’ve been hooked. My annual Easter tradition, as the uber lapsed Catholic/agnostic pagan that I am, is to watch the 1973 movie and call it day. I shied away from other live productions for decades, for fear that it would never live up to my first experience but I finally took a chance on an all-black ensemble last year, which managed to TOP my already high expectations. Honestly, if we’re going to have Jesus pushed down our throats, then it might as well be the kind that belts out into song whenever he gets pissed at God for making him die.
JULIE: I came to JCS by way of The Phantom of the Opera. After I became obsessed with that show, I worked my way back through all of Weber’s catalog, and to a larger extent, all of musical theater. All of Sir Weber’s musicals had a least one or two good songs, but JCS was one of the ones that really held up as an entire piece of musical theater. (Unlike, say, STARLIGHT EXPRESS which was SINGING TRAINS ffs.) When I was still in high school they did JCS at my local summer stock theater and a boy I had a crush on was one of the disciples, so my love of that boy and the love of that show are forever intertwined.
What are some of the virtues of Jesus Christ Superstar Live! Or Live in Concert or Live on NBC or whatever the official name is?
The Afrofuturism/Post-Apocalyptic Aesthetics: Who here can argue that we aren’t living in some Biblical times? I’m basically expecting the four horsemen to come over for tea any day now. Considering that it’s looking like the end-of-times for so many of us, it seemed fitting that this version of Jesus Christ Superstar situated us in a world that feels ripe for some salvation AKA after Trump and his freakishly small hands have grabbed the world’s pussy and done everything to destroy it. Visually, this meant that Caiaphas, Annas and all the other priests looked like Killmonger, while the rest of the crew was going for some Mad Max realness. I’m pretty sure I swiped right on the Tinder profile of every single Apostle, what with their effortless urban-chic fashion.
The Badass All-Female String Quartet: yooooooooooooooooooo, these ladies were shredding the violin as if it was a sound-making machete and I was here for it.
Judas Flexes His Pecs, Wins Our Hearts
INES: Perhaps the most thrilling element of NBC’s JCS was seeing a star rise right in front of our eyes. Brandon Victor Dixon wasn’t some neophyte, having played Aaron Burr in Hamilton after Leslie Odom Jr. left to make insurance commercials. But it wasn’t like he was a household name, unless your household is full of overgrown theater nerds who admire the manly physique, AS IT VERY WELL SHOULD. With his plunging V-neck tank tops, fancy footwork, and bona fide singing/acting chops, Brandon waltzed into our living rooms and turned everyone just a little bit gayer.
JULIE: And he ended with the Wakanda forever salute!! Also, all the other best kept secrets (sometimes non-secrets) in the cast: Jin Ha, who describes himself on Instagram as activist/artist/apricot; Ben Daniels as Pilate; Norm Lewis as the silver fox I didn’t even know I needed; Jason Tam; and all the ensemble, including a beefy Freddie Mercury look-alike, among others.
The Inclusion of Actual Theater People
INES: Apparently this production rose above the camp of other NBC musical attempts because they actually engaged theater professionals both onstage and off. It shows. There was greater attention put to choreography, the band, and working within a contained setting. I loved that the ensemble reflected the diversity of New York, this country, the world. I have mixed feelings about how rowdy the audience behaved--I mean, calm down, you’re not seeing a Pink Floyd reunion here--but I do think their presence infused the whole event with an energy that wasn’t seen in the others.
What mortal sins did it commit?
Playing Mary Magdalene as the Last Virgin in Theater Camp
JULIE: I didn’t get any sense that Sarah Boresmetotears understood what she was singing or why. When you’re playing the only female character in the entire show, you need to do more with the part.
INES: As someone who was raised Catholic, I demand my unrequited love be brimming with intense sexual repression and Sarah Bareilles was, uh, pretty chill for a loose woman who wants to bone the Son of God. She hit every single note she needed to hit, except for the one in my loins.
Pacing Was Swifter than Genesis.
JULIE: Hey, I know you need to show a shit ton of commercials and yet keep the running time under three hours, but the show suffered from some breakneck pacing and too quick transitions. Imagine if the rest of the show had the same room to breathe that the exquisite ending shot had? Yeah, I KNOW.
INES: Agreed! Look, we’re talking about a Bible story, so the structural logic of the storyline is already heavily compromised. In order for any of this to make sense, we need to see Judas constantly sulking in the background, absolutely seething in rage that the focus is on Jesus as some Biblical “influencer” and not on the revolutionary movement they’ve created. Due to the camera work, though, Judas sang “Heaven On Our Minds” and then promptly disappeared until it was his time to strike a deal with the villains.
We Get That Nothing Is Sacred, but The Commercials.
JULIE: Can we get some product integration or a commercial intermission or something?
INES: “King Herod’s Song” is the rare moment of levity in a show that is about betrayal, sacrifice, and non-sexual lashings. The whole tune is basically one big way of throwing shade at Jesús, and nothing will convince me that a septuagenarian straight white dude has the kind of cheeky sass needed to pull it off. Plus, Alice Cooper cannot compare to Laurent Giroux, the actor who played Herod in ASSLESS CHAPS in the first production I ever saw of JSC. Who would you rather see, Alice in that David S. Pumpkins Suit or this magnificent beauty?
Yeah, I thought so.
JULIE: Alice was FINE I guess, but nothing exciting. I’m wondering if he was cast simply because Tim Rice really liked him. Although his little mic drop was quite cute. But you don’t want Herod to be cute-- you want him to be terrifyingly magnetic and unhinged, like Charles Manson singing a show tune. I would have loved to see Michael C Hall in there.
Did this version convert you into a fan? (I CANNOT get enough of these puns.)
INES: I’m incredibly surprised at how much I ended up liking this. The ensemble was on point. Johnny Legend had the peaceful baby face looks and the soothing vocals of the post-Apocalyptic Messiah you’d want to adore. I loved the visual elements, including the lighting in the breathtaking crucifixion scene. I thought I was dead inside and this Easter Sunday I resurrected.
JULIE: Like Ines, I saw the magnificent all-black cast in Aurora (of all places) in 2017, and it set the bar pretty damn high. That being said, for a television event with lots of stunt casting, there was a lot to like in this production, and if they took it on the road I might even shell out to go see it in a theater.