They rocked the Easter story last night on NBC.
Everyone posting on Twitter during the show said they finally got the live musical thing right. Maybe because I’d never seen any of the other live efforts, I didn’t realize there was a danger that Jesus Christ Superstar was ever at risk of meeting a similar fate. I expected greatness and it was delivered. From the opening guitar solo (wow!) to the blinding light at the end (wow!), it was just about as perfectly staged and performed as it possibly could have been.
What amazed me most, though, was how many of the lyrics I remembered and could sing right along with the actors. It’s been almost fifty years since the album was released, but last night I could still hum the overture and segue right into Judas’s opening rumination. Funny how music helps to store and then (much) later retrieve memory.
It wasn’t just the music I remembered, though. Jesus Christ Superstar constitutes a distinct memory of childhood experience. About the time the album came out (1970) my parents belonged to some sort of ecumenical group, which I perceived to be rather avant-garde of them. My impression was that interfaith spiritual connection at that time was something not really done. So I felt sort of proud when my mom and dad invited people from the group over to our house to listen to the album.
Here is how they listened to it: Furniture arranged in a circle, with extra folding chairs usually reserved for bridge club brought in, our living room filled with Lutherans, Catholics, Presbyterians, Methodists, etc., who sat with mimeographed copies of the libretto in their hands for like TWO HOURS listening to the music. With refreshments and discussion after.
I was also aware back then that Jesus Christ Superstar was considered scandalous, even blasphemous for some reason. I assumed it was because rock music was disrespectful to God. Plus even the name, the very idea of trivializing God by calling Jesus a “superstar.” However, after watching last night’s show, I think it more likely people were upset because in many ways Jesus Christ Superstar belongs to Judas. His is the show’s opening number, and his is the climactic closing number. Or rather, what the audience feels in the moment should be the show’s climactic closing number.
At the end of which we remember: oh yeah, the Crucifixion.
I thought last night’s production did that really well. We had the “BIG FINISH,” at which point many audience members probably felt an urge to give a standing ovation (similar to that almost irresistable impulse to applaud during the moment of silence near the end of the “Hallelujah” chorus), but then all the cast members silently turned their gazes and bodies toward where Jesus was going up on the cross.
That contrast really hits us in the gut. Our attention is drawn to the loud, shiny secular stuff until, in the unlooked-for quietness, we realize we’ve forgotten what we should have been paying attention to all along.
And they nailed the Crucifixion last night. (I know, I know. Truly, no pun is intended. I just can’t think of a better way to say it.) The staging was incredibly beautiful. Simple, symbolic, pure.
I was going to talk a lot more about everyone’s performances, but I don’t really feel in a theater-critic mood right now. Plus it seems really churlish to nitpick such a brilliant production. Let me just say that a certain high note was not hit, and in my opinion it was a crucial high note. Everything important to know about the character who sings it is captured in that one note. That raw, anguished high note so impossibly out of range and so infused with despair. And it didn’t happen, at least not in the way I believe it needed to, which was a disappointment.
So there, I said it but didn’t exactly say it. If you agree with me, you’ll feel validated in your own reaction, and if you don’t, you can pause a moment to wonder what the heck I’m talking about and then just brush it off and go on with your day 🙂