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Jesus Christ Superstar


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#1 Alvy

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Posted 06 January 2005 - 05:47 PM

I'm just cutting and pasting from Grace Pages, but am eager to hear anyone else's response.
QUOTE
I confess until last night I had never seen that renowned work of early '70s rock'n'roll, Jesus Christ Superstar; nor had I ever had the desire to see it. The tickets were free, however, so off I trotted to the Liverpool Empire to see Andrew Lloyd-Webber's ultra-groovy musical based on the events of the last few days of Jesus' life.

Brilliant.

This was our church choir's annual theatre trip, and one old lady was worried it might be heretical and lead youngsters astray. I have heard the rumour before that the show is faintly blasphemous, though it's a mystery to me why. Is it the open-to-interpretation kind of closeness between Jesus and Mary Magdalene? The broadly sympathetic treatment of Judas, from whose perspective most of the play takes place? The rather self-doubting Jesus represented, a Jesus who gets a bit fed-up with all the attention and ends up telling the crowds to piss off (albeit in more Christlike language) and thinking his mission has gone well and truly down the pan? Certainly Jesus Christ Superstar presents us with a more human, down-to-earth, ambiguous Jesus than tradition has often portrayed. But blasphemous or heretical?

The only thing I could imagine was that we were going to get to the end of the show and discover that Jesus remained in his grave, his mission a miserable failure. Ironically, the ending was the only disappointing thing for me -- this Jesus certainly did rise from the dead, but it was all over and done with so quickly, the inattentive might have missed it. This Jesus is restored miraculously to life, appearing on stage in dazzling, stunning white, but it's too abrupt, and there's no real build-up, or any sense of connection with what's gone before. The resurrection felt like one of those "I woke up and it was all a dream" endings that you write when you're seven. It felt almost hasty and tacked-on.

Still, as an encore, the company reprised the most hummable of Lloyd-Webber's tunes from the show -- not the relatively tacky title song, but Hosanna, a number I hadn't heard before -- and it made a rousing and moving end to the show. I loved how when Jesus emerged from the tomb he embraced Mary on one side and Judas on the other, although I don't know whether that was in the original script or peculiar to this particular company.

The highly human Jesus was complemented by a highly human band of disciples, who are heard to muse at the last supper, "Always hoped that I'd be an apostle/Knew that I would make it if I tried/Then when we retire we can write the gospels/So they'll still talk about us when we've died." That's one way to look at it, I suppose.

What other delights did Jesus Christ Superstar hold? Well, Herod was hilariously camp, like a pantomime dame, with his servants hitching up their togas to dance the can-can in the background as he challenged Jesus with such inspired taunts as "Prove to me that you're divine - change my water into wine" and "Prove to me that you're no fool - walk across my swimming pool". The score moved from lilting guitar ballad to heavy rock to funky psychedelic without any hint of disconnection.

If this one comes to your area, check it out. Wonderful.


#2 MattPage

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Posted 06 January 2005 - 05:55 PM

When I have more time I'll post some responses. I'm due to see a live version at the end of the month.

BTW Was your production properly professional, or just a well done bit of am-dram?

Matt

#3 Overstreet

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Posted 06 January 2005 - 06:02 PM

I haven't seen it, so can't comment, except to say that we have a former "Superstar" Judas right here on the board.

Judas?

Are you there?

#4 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 06 January 2005 - 06:30 PM

Links to the Jason Bortz threads.

Link to the thread on the death of Carl Anderson (who played Judas in the 1973 film, and in the touring revival I saw in the mid-1990s).

Alvy wrote:
: I have heard the rumour before that the show is faintly blasphemous, though it's
: a mystery to me why. . . . Certainly Jesus Christ Superstar presents us with a
: more human, down-to-earth, ambiguous Jesus than tradition has often portrayed.
: But blasphemous or heretical?

I don't think that's a stretch, really. "For all you care, this bread could be my body" is a far, far, far cry from "Take, eat, this IS my body." And that song in which he tells God to take him and kill him "before I change my mind" is far more defiant than I think any Christian could plausibly say was the case -- not if we want to hold on to Christ's full divinity AS WELL AS his humanity.

: The resurrection felt like one of those "I woke up and it was all a dream" endings
: that you write when you're seven. It felt almost hasty and tacked-on.

Was it actually part of the play itself? I don't think that's right -- I believe it is supposed to happen AFTER the play, when all the actors come out to take their bows, and the actor playing Jesus comes out dressed in splendid white robes that he never wore during the actual musical.

: The highly human Jesus was complemented by a highly human band of disciples,
: who are heard to muse at the last supper, "Always hoped that I'd be an
: apostle/Knew that I would make it if I tried/Then when we retire we can write the
: gospels/So they'll still talk about us when we've died." That's one way to look at
: it, I suppose.

This reminds me of a devastating bit in Kazantzakis's The Last Temptation -- the novel, not the film -- where the disciples grow discouraged and Matthew, who has been taking notes the whole time, complains that he had always hoped that one day people would gather to hear someone say "AND NOW FOR THE READING FROM THE GOSPEL OF THE HOLY EVANGELIST MATTHEW!!!" As one who has attended an Orthodox church for nearly two years, I now know that that is exactly what IS said in churches week after week after week, and, knowing that Kazantzakis grew up in an Orthodox country, I found it impossible to read that bit in his novel without finding it somewhat sacrilegious. And I say that as one who thinks the word "holy" is thrown around too much, sometimes.

#5 Jason Bortz

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Posted 06 January 2005 - 11:39 PM

Yessuh, I be here. Thanks for the links, Peter--lot of my thoughts are over there, so not sure what I should reiterate... biggrin.gif

#6 Alvy

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Posted 07 January 2005 - 02:36 PM

Thanks for the responses, guys.

Peter, I heard "This could be my body," but the preceding "For all you care" didn't register -- makes a difference.

Personally, I don't mind "before I change my mind". It's quite a strong expression of doubt on Jesus' part, but then, I think "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" is a pretty strong expression of doubt. Doesn't, for me, detract from his divinity.

The resurrection did segue very swiftly into the final bow, but I'm pretty sure it was part of the original play.

Matt, the production I saw was a Bill Kenwright touring production. If you're going to see a professional production soon, there's a chance it is the same one.

It wouldn't be too difficult for am-dram, in terms of the staging, which could be done very simply, but the music is certainly challenging. Even the professional Jesus I saw missed a couple notes. (To be fair, both he and Judas were played by the understudies that night!)

Edited by Alvy, 07 January 2005 - 02:39 PM.


#7 The Baptist Death Ray

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Posted 07 January 2005 - 03:04 PM

For what it's worth, I don't find the play blasphemous.

A blasphemy is something that is antithetical to the nature of God. There are many things in JCSS that I could consider wrong and disagree with, but nothing in it that I consider going that far.

"For all you care/this bread could be my body" is not what Jesus said in scripture -- but it underscores perfectly how Jesus views the... er... amibition of His disciples. And that ambition *is* recorded in Scripture -- they do, after all, argue over who will sit at His right hand.

The scene in the garden plays up Jesus' desire to live. Sure, I don't think when it actually happened it went down like that, but so often when it is TAUGHT it makes it seem like ultimately the thought of crucifixion was no big deal to Jesus... the scene in JCSS sort of underscores the meaning behind "Father let this cup pass from me" -- he wants to live.

At the same time the play is also an interesting commentary on celebrity in general, and in particular I think it shows how even Jesus' supporters misunderstood Him because they treated Him like a star. Simon the Zealot's song in particular underscores this, but the way they all call Him "Superstar" does as well.

The biggest problem I have with the play is the idea that Judas was a semi-unwilling participant in his betrayal of Jesus. I think the story in scripture of Judas' betrayal is a tragic one, but I think the play tries to do two things -- portray Judas as someone who doesn't get it and is concerned that Jesus' actions will bring ruin to the Jews as a whole, AND as someone who was a victim of Divine Decree, who was set up to be the patsy. From a purely theological standpoint I'm too Arminian to endorse the latter view, and from a dramatic standpoint I think that the second view weakens the drama of the first.

But none of these things are things that I can see as blaspheming God. From what I understand the original version of the play does NOT show Jesus' ressurrection, but at the same time it does not say it didn't happen either. It ends with Jesus' death, but doesn't end with a statement that Jesus was deluded or anything. That probably bothers a lot of people who would prefer that the play conclusively come out on one side or another, but it really didn't bother me too much.

Anyway, I saw a production of it in Richmond which starred the guy who was in the movie (who I think was also in the original stage production). I found the production jarring because they were all using microphones. Handheld microphones. I liked the movie a lot better just because they *weren't*. For the most part I love the soundtrack, I have the entire thing sitting on my ipod for easy access.

#8 The Baptist Death Ray

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Posted 07 January 2005 - 03:53 PM

QUOTE
A blasphemy is something that is antithetical to the nature of God. There are many things in JCSS that I could consider wrong and disagree with, but nothing in it that I consider going that far.


Emphasis mine. Of course, original text was mine too. But I want to clarify that I'm not defending the play as an "authentic and historical portrayal of Jesus." I'm defending it as good theatre, and even the parts that are fictional and distorted are interesting, and sometimes emphasize things that are not focused on in much traditional teaching but aren't necessarily wrong either.

As an example: Jesus saying "for all you care / this bread could be my body" is not what He says in scripture, and it's not what He means in Scripture either. But it does highlight that 1) His disciples don't "get it" just yet, and 2) His disciples are still more interested in earthly glory than What's Really Going On. Which is something that the Bible touches on, on occasion, but that isn't really put out there much.


#9 Jason Bortz

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Posted 07 January 2005 - 04:09 PM

Yeah, I agree with both of you guys, actually. One snippet of what I posted in another thread addresses the whole 'liberties' Lloyd Webber threw in there--things that twist the scripture to suit the lyrical purposes, which are not in alignment with the bible--and how to 'get around them' short of changing the line, which I'm not keen on but not too averse to doing with a show like this--when it's the difference between Jesus saying

I have no kingdom in this world, I'm through, through
There must be a kingdom for me somewhere if I only knew


and

I have no kingdom in this world, I'm through, through
There will be a kingdom for me else where if you only knew


it's an easy matter--and truer to who Jesus was according to the original story. When things get changed away from the original intent, that's when I become a bit skeptical--like Besson's ending to The Messenger, rendering Jean d'Arc's final visage as one of unsurety and fear rather than faith. I just didn't care for it.

But some folks frown on changing lines. Personally, there are only a few shows I'd do this with were I directing. This is one of them.

If we can't cheat, we have to find a way to reconcile it. For example:

----------------

Gethsemane

Difficulty: The lyrics presuppose Jesus as victim of circumstance rather than willing vessel of God's purpose.

The hardest lyrics to reconcile:

QUOTE
Show me just a little of your omnipresent brain
show me there's a reason for your wanting me to die
you're far too keen on where and how and not so hot on why'


These lyrics are not only petulant but can be construed as mockery. Our actor chose to withdraw in a moment of self-doubt rather than bolster the image that Jesus is throwing a tantrum; no, you can't get around the lyrics--but you can donwplay or emphasize the intentions to suit the purposes of the vision at hand.

The tendency in secular productions is to play the song angry and perturbed, like a child who isn't getting his way and trying to convince his Dad to let him play for an extra hour--it can turn into a whiny processional with the final moments being defeatist and futilistic.

Key elements: Play it the way Jesus prayed. Don't do the whole thing angry--have him struggle with his task--and at the ending, do not play it resigned.

Jesus did struggle in the garden, yes--but in the end, he surrendered to his Father's will. I and the actor playing Jesus discussed the fact that Jesus was fully human (though in nature God). As such, he did encounter temptations and moments in which he had to make a choice to do His Father's will. "Who being in very nature God, he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped..." No sin was found in him due to the choices he made (assuming sin is an action), and in his adherence to obeying the Father he did not sin. Though he struggled in the garden, at no time did he avail himself of the task at hand; he wrestled in earnest, and this is how it should be played.

In the final moments, Jesus should not stand and shake his fist and blame God for the situation; he finds strength in the 'What you started...I didn't start it!' and understands that God is in control. In the final moments he reaches to embrace His Father 'Your will be done!'--for his friends, for humanity, for His purpose, knowing that His Father will prevail...


---

#10 The Baptist Death Ray

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Posted 07 January 2005 - 04:25 PM

Funny... in the soundtrack I have Jesus sings:

QUOTE
I have no kingdom
in this world I'm through
there may be a kingdom for me somewhere
if you only knew.


Which is sort of in the middle of the two versions you gave, and could go in either direction.


#11 Mark

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Posted 07 January 2005 - 05:19 PM

I've got a soft spot for JCS because it brings back childhood memories of one of my older sisters blaring the soundtrack from her room. I fell in love with the music when I was 10, and it made me actually LISTEN to each week's homily and scripture readings. ("Hey, what's this about Peter being the rock Jesus built his church on? Jesus Christ Superstar says Judas was His right-hand man!")

One of the things that strikes me when revisiting the soundtrack now is the portrayal of Caiaphas and the Jewish high priests. For all the dust-up Mel Gibson's movie caused, I'm amazed no one ever protests JCS, especially with Caiaphas singing:

Fools! You have no perception
The stakes we are gambling are frighteningly high
We must crush him completely
And like John before him, this Jesus must die
Must die, must die, this Jesus must die
For the sake of the nation, this Jesus must die
Must die, must die
This Jesus must, Jesus must, Jesus must die


The Jewish leaders are portrayed as power-mad reptiles; by contrast, Pilate is comtemplative and nearly regretful over Jesus's fate, calling him a "misguided martyr" and "innocent puppet".


#12 Jason Bortz

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Posted 07 January 2005 - 05:26 PM

Jeffrey, remind me to bring the DVD of our show when I come up there in Feb...

#13 Overstreet

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Posted 07 January 2005 - 05:43 PM

Jason,

Bring the DVD of our show when you come up here in Feb.



#14 Jason Bortz

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Posted 07 January 2005 - 05:53 PM

Thanks man. You know what friendship is.

#15 The Baptist Death Ray

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Posted 07 January 2005 - 05:56 PM

That's the thing that makes the end a little harder, right? wink.gif

#16 Jason Bortz

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Posted 07 January 2005 - 06:05 PM

I gotta say, the best version I've heard of this is the Aussie concert version.

It is truly awesome. Click on the samples there. Woo.

Of course, the CD made me pine for a symphony orchestra to show up and decide to do our show...


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You faded jaded jaded faded jaded Mandarin.

#17 Darrel Manson

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Posted 07 January 2005 - 06:57 PM

QUOTE(Jason Bortz @ Jan 7 2005, 01:09 PM)
Yeah, I agree with both of you guys, actually. One snippet of what I posted in another thread addresses the whole 'liberties' Lloyd Webber threw in there--things that twist the scripture to suit the lyrical purposes, which are not in alignment with the bible
---

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I'm going to pretty much stay out of this given my approach to scripture and the historicity of the Gospels.

But why are you crediting Lloyd Webber with the twists? I thought he was primarily the composer, Tim Rice being the lyricist.


#18 Jason Bortz

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Posted 08 January 2005 - 12:59 AM

Sorry, long day. You're absolutely right. Brainfart, Rice is the guy.

QUOTE
I'm going to pretty much stay out of this given my approach to scripture and the historicity of the Gospels.


Storywise, forget living breathing word of God for a moment, but approaching it as just another story--Jesus was not presented in the bible as a confused man who didn't know for sure of His Father's purpose, who constantly doubts that his teachings will have any effect, as is in the lyrics--or that if he would indeed be received by His Father after it were done. Translations throughout the ages do not portray Christ as consistently living in an ambiguous, 'maybe this will work, maybe not' light. He has his moment of reckoning in the garden, but reconciles himself to the task with much prayer and supplication...

...no?

#19 Peter T Chattaway

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Posted 09 January 2005 - 03:03 AM

Alvy wrote:
: I think "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" is a pretty strong
: expression of doubt.

Maybe, maybe not. The fact that Jesus is quoting scripture here does, at least, mean that even his expression of doubt (if that is what it is) is grounded in his faith.

And come to think of it, why is asking God why he has forsaken you a sign of "doubt"?

The Baptist Death Ray wrote:
: For what it's worth, I don't find the play blasphemous.

FWIW, Terry Jones comments on the Criterion Life of Brian DVD that that film was "heretical", not "blasphemous". I can accept that distinction with regard to Life of Brian, and I might be able to accept it here, too. Might.

: The scene in the garden plays up Jesus' desire to live. Sure, I don't think when it
: actually happened it went down like that, but so often when it is TAUGHT it makes
: it seem like ultimately the thought of crucifixion was no big deal to Jesus...

Say WHAT!? What about the sweat like blood, etc.? (I understand it is a matter of some debate whether "like blood" is a description of the sweat's colour and/or composition, or whether it is a description of the manner in which it flowed out of Jesus' body -- but either way, no one could seriously claim that the crucifixion was "no big deal to Jesus" based on that.)

: At the same time the play is also an interesting commentary on celebrity in
: general . . .

That it is -- and its pertinence seems even more pronounced as time goes by and our culture keeps on ramping up its fascination with celebrity... This film was made, what, ten years after La Dolce Vita (which already addresses questions of celebrity vs. more eternal matters), and several years before the inauguration of People magazine, yes?

: Anyway, I saw a production of it in Richmond which starred the guy who was in
: the movie (who I think was also in the original stage production). I found the
: production jarring because they were all using microphones. Handheld
: microphones. I liked the movie a lot better just because they *weren't*.

Weird. The live version I saw (which co-starred Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson) definitely did not have hand-held microphones. Can't imagine what that would have been like.

Jason Bortz wrote:
: . . . like Besson's ending to The Messenger, rendering Jean d'Arc's final visage as
: one of unsurety and fear rather than faith.

I have mixed feelings about that ending, myself. I think there is PLENTY of room to doubt the mythology around Joan of Arc, but the film cheats by altering the known historical data to make her faith look especially dumb.

Mark wrote:
: For all the dust-up Mel Gibson's movie caused, I'm amazed no one ever protests
: JCS . . .

Actually... Granted, there's only a brief, brief allusion to the controversy there, but I believe there HAVE been protests. The arguably anti-Semitic elements in Jesus Christ Superstar are kind of to be expected, though, since this film, just like Mel's, is based on the medieval passion-play template.

#20 Alvy

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Posted 09 January 2005 - 03:26 AM

QUOTE(Peter T Chattaway @ Jan 9 2005, 08:03 AM)
Alvy wrote:
: I think "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" is a pretty strong
: expression of doubt.

Maybe, maybe not.  The fact that Jesus is quoting scripture here does, at least, mean that even his expression of doubt (if that is what it is) is grounded in his faith.

And come to think of it, why is asking God why he has forsaken you a sign of "doubt"?

It is if God hasn't forsaken you. My interpretation has always been that God did not abandon Jesus, and later on in the psalm it says as much: "He has not hidden his face from him, but has listened to his cry for help."