“Jesus Christ, Superstar, do you think you’re what they say you are?”
This question—sung by Judas Iscariot and a backup chorus—has reverberated across popular culture for almost half a century now. With it, there has been another, second question: How should Christians respond to a catchy musical that casts a skeptical, and at times flamboyantly irreverent, light on the story of Jesus? These questions will get new life on Easter Sunday when NBC broadcasts Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert.
Preview copies were, of course, unavailable because the show will be airing live. However, behind-the-scenes featurettes and publicity materials have indicated that it will follow a live concert format, with minimalistic sets and an on-camera audience watching the singers and contributing to the aura of rock-star celebrity that is one of the musical’s subtexts. The show will star Oscar-winning singer John Legend as Jesus, Hamilton’s Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas, and singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene.
Born from Unrest
The musical got its start in the late 1960s, at a time when the same youthful idealism and anti-establishment sentiment that led to so much social and political unrest were beginning to be channeled in a number of spiritual directions. The title song was released as a single in 1969, the same year Larry Norman released his first album and inaugurated the era of Christian rock music.
The song’s composers, Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice—then 21 and 25, respectively—had already set part of the Bible to music with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Now they were embarking on an adaptation of the events leading up to Jesus’ crucifixion, as told from the point of view of Judas, who thinks highly of Jesus as a political revolutionary figure but is disturbed by the idea of Jesus’ divinity.
The single led to an album in 1970, which was first released in Lloyd Webber and Rice’s native UK. Lloyd Webber stated recently that the recording, which omits the Resurrection and depicts the apostles as somewhat vain, “wasn’t that controversial” at first, mainly because his fellow Brits simply ignored it. But then the album came out in the United States, where it became a huge sensation and a huge controversy. Some Christians condemned it outright. But others liked it and even co-opted it.
According to a 1971 cover story in TIME, some of the first stage versions of Jesus Christ Superstar were unauthorized musicals put on "by churches, in cities and towns large and small from New Jersey to New Mexico, who were using Superstar to stir up their congregations." Some of these churches may have even tried to “fix” the musical’s theological problems; Billy Graham claimed in a sermon he gave in June 1971 that some people in Kansas City “got hold of the rock opera and they carried it right on to the next step, the Resurrection.”
Others were less impressed by the album and suggested that Christians should come up with their own alternative. Cheryl Forbes, reviewing the album in Christianity Today, complained that there was “no faith and no victory” in the music, which she found “haunting and hollow,” though she did acknowledge that it told the older generation “what young people are saying.” She expressed hope that “some Christian composer will take the cue and produce a rock opera about Christ that ends not with hollow questions but with triumphant answers.”
The divisions didn’t go away when the album developed into a Broadway musical, which opened in October 1971. The Broadway show depicted Herod as a transvestite and showed Jesus being crucified on a triangle rather than a cross. It attracted Christian and Jewish protesters alike—the former for its irreverence, the latter because its treatment of the Jewish priests and crowds seemed anti-Semitic. In the meantime, the producers sued more than a dozen religious groups for copyright infringement to get them to stop putting on their own versions of the musical.
By and large, Christians who had expressed cautious appreciation for the album were more dismissive of the show. Stephen C. Rose, writing in The Christian Century, said the Broadway show was theologically “incoherent” and “should have remained a recording.” Forbes, reviewing the show for Christianity Today, said its “bizarre effects and for-the-shock-of-it images” had overwhelmed the lyrics and emptied them of their meaning. A CT editorial added that the stage production had “destroyed” the record’s impact and “lost” the album’s “thoughtful, discerning awareness of a generation’s concern with Jesus and his identity.” (Even the composer didn’t care for the original stage show; Lloyd Webber said a few years ago that it was a “vulgar travesty” and its opening night “probably the worst night of my life.”)
Regardless, the musical’s cultural influence continued to spread. By the time the film version of Jesus Christ Superstar came out in 1973, it was actually the third hippie-flavored Jesus musical to hit movie theaters that year, following Johnny Cash’s explicitly evangelical The Gospel Road and the film version of Stephen Schwartz’s parable-heavy Godspell. But in some ways, it was still the most divisive of the bunch. Forbes, writing again in Christianity Today, called the Superstar movie a “theological disaster” but an “ecumenical triumph” because it had united Jews and Christians of all stripes in condemning the film. But again, not all Christians rejected the film out-of-hand. James M. Wall, writing in The Christian Century, called the film “compelling, moving and visually stunning” and concluded that it is “a work of cinematic art which just might strengthen the viewer’s faith in its original story.”
Since then, the musical has been performed countless times, and in a variety of styles. Notably, modern versions have dropped the flower-people aspect of the earlier productions, sometimes finding new ways to plug the musical into contemporary concerns. While a 1990 production put the actors in traditional biblical costumes and was said to have a “reverential tone” overall, a 2003 production reimagined the Jerusalem Temple as a version of Wall Street, with stockbrokers taking the place of the moneychangers.
And while the show is not as controversial as it once was, it is still greeted by protesters here and there. Most bizarrely, perhaps, a Polish production in 2006 was going to take place at a former concentration camp until Jewish leaders convinced the authorities to call it off.
Jesus in the 21st Century
The upcoming Live in Concert broadcast will put a new spin on the musical, and on the ways Christians can respond to it—and even participate in it. The part of Herod is now being played by Alice Cooper, the legendary shock rocker who has been quite open about his Christian faith. (To judge from the publicity photos, this Herod won’t be in drag.)
Interestingly, the NBC broadcast joins recent films like Risen, The Shack, and Killing Jesus in casting a non-white actor as Jesus. In the Jesus Christ Superstar film, Jesus was white and blonde, while Judas was played by a black singer. The character’s frustrations with Jesus and his increasingly spiritual mission seemed to echo the black community’s impatience with white Christianity and its lack of engagement with justice issues. In the NBC broadcast, both Jesus and Judas will be played by people of color, which suggests this version of the musical may resonate in a different way.
And, as always, there is the question of how the musical will handle the Resurrection.
Many people have complained, ever since the album came out, that Jesus stays dead at the end, but the stage and screen adaptations have told a more complex story. For example, in many stage productions, the actor who plays Jesus comes out for the final curtain call wearing a bright white robe that he never wore during the musical, as if to suggest that the Resurrection has happened and is more than just another dramatic event.
The film ends with all of the actors getting on a bus and riding away from the set—all, that is, except for the actor who played Jesus. Again, the film seems to suggest that Jesus is different from the other characters and may have transcended the musical. What’s more, the final shot, which shows a shepherd leading his flock beneath an empty cross, is a direct nod to the final shot of the 1959 version of Ben-Hur, which also never explicitly depicted the Resurrection but was widely accepted by Christians anyway.
In any case, no matter how the NBC musical ties things up, the fact remains that for a few hours on Easter Sunday, people who might not have gone to church that morning will be watching a show about Jesus and listening to Judas ask who Jesus really is.
It’s a good question. Let’s hope those who hear it will be open to the answer.
Peter T. Chattaway writes about film, with a special interest in adaptations of the Bible, at Patheos.com. He lives with his family in Surrey, BC.