Photo credit: NBC
As I’ve said elsewhere on this site, I’m a Christian. Yes, you can be a Christian and believe that everyone is made equal in the sight of God, something too many of my fellow Christians choose not to believe. But that’s a rant for another day. What’s important right now is that I’m a Christian, but for as spiritual as I am, I’m also quite lax. Maybe too lax. For instance, this Easter, my family didn’t really do anything. We didn’t even have a proper Easter meal. We were just tired.
But I made up for my lack of spiritual piety for most of the day by watching Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert on NBC. I honestly didn’t know what to expect going in–during the beginning, my sisters were making jokes about John Legend’s singing before he even uttered a word. But even though I joined in a little (I have to be honest), I still felt deep in my gut like I might be in for a big treat. Turns out Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert exceeded my expectations. I don’t think I’m being hyperbolic by saying Jesus Christ Superstar: Live might be the best live TV musical ever. Yes, even better than my current reigning champion, NBC’s The Wiz: Live.
There were probably two elements that were intensely crucial to this production to go right: figuring out how to balance the differences between TV and stage and finding the right Judas. As everyone who’s a fan of the 1971 original Broadway production and subsequent 1973 film, Carl Anderson is truly the Judas of Judases. There isn’t a song in the production that he doesn’t belt out his heart and soul.
Thankfully, directors David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski were able to bring out the best elements of both TV and stage by making the audience an actor in the opera. The audience’s hype got in the way only a few noticeable times, but for the most part, the conceit that this was actually a concert helped sell the show’s portrayals of Jesus (John Legend), Judas (Brandon Victor Dixon) and King Herod (Alice Cooper) as larger-than-life figures. With Jesus and King Herod in particular, Legend and Cooper directly interact with the crowd, fully immersing us audience members into the story and blurring the line between fact and fiction just enough for the production to have a slightly eerie feel to it.
That eerie feeling is necessary for a character like Judas in particular, who bears the weight of being the voice of human frailty and doubt. What is great about Jesus Christ Superstar is that Judas isn’t out-and-out condemned for being Jesus’ betrayer. Thanks to the power of art, we can dive into Judas’ humanity and see that maybe everything he did was out of his love for Jesus and perhaps all he wanted was for his friend to be safe. Of course, we see how his intentions backfire spectacularly. But it takes a special actor to bring out all of Judas’ complexity. Thankfully, Dixon is that guy. Seeing how he’s played the likes of Aaron Burr from Hamilton, Dixon is well-versed in playing complex guys. Dixon’s portrayal of Judas not only rivals that of Anderson’s, but it’s one that I feel Anderson himself would be proud of. Dixon definitely became Anderson’s heir-apparent with this performance, one that definitely had me in my feelings by the end of his tragic story.
You could argue that Jesus Christ Superstar is Judas’ story, since Judas is usually the character who steals the show, and I’m not even counting the fact that he’s the one who gets the big glitzy disco number (and even that song is filled with Judas’ doubt, eternally present from beyond the grave).
But as the title suggests (and as Christianity asserts, of course), Jesus is the star, and Legend holds his own against the likes of Dixon. I’ve been listening to Legend ever since his first album dropped years ago, and I’ve waxed and waned on him, to be honest. Like Alicia Keys, it seemed like the bigger he got, the less soul his songs actually had, which is a shame, because he’s actually a great singer. In fact, part of my remarks to my siblings and mom during their jokefest was that it seemed like the more singers like Legend reached superstardom, the less it seems like they feel the need to really work for their songs. In other words, they sound complacent. Who wouldn’t if you’d finally reached the top and you become part of the machine?
But maybe it took a role like Jesus Christ to make John Legend get back to that grit he had when he first came out, because he sounds the best he’s sounded in years. This a big role, and it commands a lot, and that kind of pressure–and fear of everything going wrong–worked wonders for Legend. He killed it, and I more than believed him to be a deity in a conflicted human’s body.
Since we’re talking about both Dixon and Legend, it’s worth noting that these are both black men. One thing that’s bothered me about the 1973 one is that Judas is black. Certainly, Anderson’s performance is fantastic, but the fact that Judas was portrayed as a black man kinda had me feeling a certain way, is if all of the stereotypes about the evils and or duplicity of black men were boiled down into one character. Of course, a black character doesn’t always have to be good, and Judas is definitely a complex character any actor would chomp at the bit to play. But the film version made popular was the one with a black guy as the “villain” in a time not too removed from the Civil Rights Movement, a time in which black characters either were totally bad or totally saintly. But perhaps when it’s put that way, Judas presented one of the handful complex black roles for actors in the 1970s, so that’s a plus. And thankfully, in the lifespan of Judas as a character he’s only been portrayed as a black man 4 out of the 10 most notable times this production has been acted out, and the first time Judas was given a voice in the 1970 concept album, it was Murray Head, a white performer, who voiced him. To boil it down, my feelings about Judas are layered, since the first time I saw Judas was when he was portrayed by Anderson.
With that said, it’s important to note that this time around we get a widely POC cast, from Jesus to Judas, to Peter (Jason Tam) to priests Annas and Caiaphas (Jin Ha and Norm Lewis, respectively).
It’s a version of Jesus Christ Superstar for the modern age, one that finally posits the Son of God, the savior of the world according to Christianity, as a man with bronzed skin and hair of wool, as he was described in the Bible.
This bring me back full circle to how I started this post–talking about my identity as a Christian and my beef with other Christians. I’m not sure what made me think about this, but maybe, between the diverse cast, the stellar performances, and this jaw-dropping moment of Jesus’s death:
I felt entirely reaffirmed in my faith and in how I choose to use Christianity in my own life. I’ll be the first to tell you that I dabble in a lot of religions; as a spiritual person, I’m intent on learning everything about as many major religions as a can, so I know my fair share of Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, Confucianism, Baha’i, etc. But my foundation will always be Christianity since that’s what I was raised with. I voluntarily read the Bible growing up and did a lot of thinking–my own journey of discovery about what religion meant to me and how it could apply to my life. From everything I’ve read and from everything I’ve been exposed to, from atheism to deism to New Age teachings to even the profound simplicity of Mr. Rogers’ teachings, I’ve long decided that Jesus’ message was for us to love everyone and to exercise that love as much as we can. Since we’re human, we’re going to fail. But if we have love as our goal, we’re at least on the right track towards godliness.
Writing about love is certainly easier than it is to actually do. I can definitely say I’ve failed–it’s said to say, but I fail most often with loving myself when I feel like I don’t live up to my own expectations, even though I’m supposed to be kind to myself because I’m just as fallible as anyone else. I fail with loving those who might hate me because of my race, my beliefs, or whatever other reason someone could have for hating others. But I definitely believe that Jesus’ message was that we are all welcomed in the sight of God. Love is the most powerful force there is, so if God is love, then how can we hate what God has created?
I think this must have been at the heart of Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert, since people who have been vilified in this country for reasons for all types of reasons, race in particular, were at the heart of this production. Even that defining moment of the production, in which the stage opens up, using the negative space to form a cross, is inspired by a POC talent, Japanese architect Tadao Ando. Their stories were at the heart of this production, and for me, this production in particular was as much of a study of dignity in the face of adversity as it was the story about Jesus.
But if we think about it, wasn’t Jesus’ story also one that was about dignity in the face of adversity? And isn’t that what we’re supposed to take from Jesus’ death? We as Christians aren’t supposed to believe that getting into Heaven means wearing the right clothes or living by rules other human beings have made for us, rules that either misconstrue God’s word or miss the point altogether. What we should be doing is live by what Jesus said, which is to treat others they way you want to be treated. It’s really as simple as that, even though it’s such a hard act to do. Even in death, Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of his killers. if He can do that on the cross, then we should do our best each day to forgive those who have done wrong to us (keep in mind, forgiving doesn’t mean forgetting) and to uplift others who need a helping hand.
Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert gave me the church sermon I didn’t know I needed, and I’m glad it gave it to me in one of the ways I’m most receptive to–snazzy stage productions.
More on Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert:
From executive producers Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice, Marc Platt, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron comes NBC’s next live musical spectacular, the groundbreaking rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert,” starring John Legend, Alice Cooper and Sara Bareilles.
Set during the final week of Jesus’ life, the story is told from the perspective of infamous betrayer Judas Iscariot. As more and more followers flock to Jesus, Judas grows concerned that Jesus is becoming arrogant and losing sight of his principles. So when Jesus attacks the money changers in a temple, Judas finally turns on his teacher, setting both on a path to tragedy. Originally conceived as a concept album that hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, the show eventually made its way to the stage in 1971 and garnered five Tony nominations in addition to winning a Drama Desk Award for Andrew Lloyd Webber. Now this globally celebrated classic comes to NBC in 2018 for a one-of-a-kind live staging on Easter Sunday that’s sure to amaze with jaw-dropping spectacle and an all-star cast of beloved recording artists.