Review: Jesus Christ Superstar

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Photo by Joan Marcus

Dear Andrew Lloyd Webber,

You may be unhappy that I’m beginning this letter by referencing a Stephen Sondheim musical, but if you trust me, you’ll soon understand why I am doing so.

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In his February 26, 1973 review of A Little Night Music, Clive Barnes, then of the New York Times, reflected on the musicals that Harold Prince had been directing during the previous few years-the likes of Cabaret, Company, Follies and Night Music. He wrote, “People have long been talking about Mr. Prince’s conceptual musicals; now I feel I have actually seen one the actual concepts.”

Barnes’ comment, I would argue, helped to legitimize the idea of the “concept musical,” at least in the imaginations of regular theatergoers. No more would audiences necessarily have to expect or demand strict allegiance to the Rodgers and Hammerstein integrated musical model. You knew perfectly well that the concept musical was a legitimate form of theatre: you and lyricist Tim Rice pioneered it, in part, when you released Jesus Christ Superstar as a concept album well before a theatrical staging was contemplated or opened on Broadway. Then as now, Superstar took bold, whimsical, soul-nourishing and, to be blunt, rather naughty liberties with the timeless narrative of the concluding days of Jesus Christ, the most famous tale ever told. The result is a melodically and harmonically gifted and dazzling rock opera that perfectly fit the anarchic, boundary-breaking zeitgeist of the late 1960s and early 1970s. In full disclosure, I was in diapers when Superstar burst onto Broadway (to mixed, occasionally antipathetic reviews) in 1971, but I am aware of much scholarship around director Tom O’Horgan’s equally anarchic staging of the show. And while you are on record as having had misgivings about the original production, a run of 711 performances is nothing, you’ll agree, to crucify anyone about.

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The thing about concept musicals is cohesion is critical. Not to get all fussy and religious about Aristotle, but his famous unities-one main action, one main setting, everything to occur in one day-feels vaguely applicable here, even though the 20th century, courtesy of Bertolt Brecht, largely laid waste to poor Aristotle’s ideas. It seems to me that if Ari were to return from the very-long-dead and revise his unities to fit the post-modern idea of the concept musical, he might write this: one theme, one approach, one cogent setting. Or something to that effect.

The problem with the current Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar is that director Des McAnuff delivers eye-popping production values without delivering so much as a nod to these revised unities. Superstar‘s story remains as shoot-from-the-hip and as uber-loose as you and Rice wrote it, but McAnuff lacks a viewpoint on the story. Are we in a Las Vegas strip club or are we in an imagined version of Holy Land where leather thongs and pan-sexuality reigns supreme? Was Jesus a haplessly trippy hippie? Is Mary meant to be a waif? Is Judas pining for Jesus’s penis?

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Let me back up for a moment. I would also posit that rock concerts are, at their core, a kind of concept musical, but without a book-the idea is to create an ear-shattering, eye-popping, heart-thrumming, emotionally generous immersion in the music, but devoid of visual and/or aural cues that facilitate storytelling and the delineation of character. For good or ill, McAnuff assumes every audience member knows all the elements of the tale at hand-poor, restless, endlessly serene Jesus (Paul Nolan) and his sacrifice, suffering and execution; the climactic betrayal of Judas Iscariot (Josh Young); the exploding rue of Mary Magdalene (Chilena Kennedy); the mocking of Jesus by King Herod (Bruce Dow); the taunting of Jesus by the villainous Pontius Pilate (Tom Hewett); and, of course, the famously not-so-delicious Last Supper.

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Yet whether audiences know the events leading up to Jesus’s martyrdom or not, would you agree that there ought to be a unity, a cogency of some kind, in the manner in which each character’s part of the tale is portrayed? Nolan’s Jesus is-if you’ll pardon the early-’70s expression-right on. Nolan achieves the impressive feat of seeming prematurely resigned yet not cadaverous, even as he is led around the stage from time to time like a death-row prisoner who starts the day knowing well how it will end. As written, we are allowed to peer into Jesus’s soul but once, in the monumental “Gethsemane.”

But then, there is stark contrast-so stark that it’s startling and increasingly inexplicable. Young’s Judas is positively full of agony-I would argue, and I suspect you may agree, that he suffers more by having betrayed Jesus than Jesus does himself in this production, and that makes this Superstar not an examination and celebration of a venerated historical figure so much as a pair of contestants in a Biblical reality show. McAnuff, for reasons I sorely wish I understood, stages Superstar repeatedly so as to ramp up the sexual tension between the Jesus and Judas-and that leaves Kennedy to sing the iconic “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” as if admitting to herself that she doesn’t know how to love him with so much steam building between the guys. (Side note to playwright Terrence McNally: I thought of your controversial play Corpus Christi, in which Jesus and his disciples are all gay, more than once during this production.)

Meanwhile, Dow’s Herod and Hewett’s Pilate are each in some other take on Superstar that McAnuff brutishly shoehorned into this one. Hewitt’s performance is so restrained and so measured that Pilate, weirdly, is yet a third superstar on the Neil Simon stage; at the same time, Dow presents such a tidal wave of effeminacy and flamboyance that you think this Superstar has shifted locations-perhaps to the Continental Baths, the famous 1970s Manhattan gay meeting spot that made Sodom and Gomorrah look like Branson, MO.

Paul Tazewell’s costumes are the culprit when it comes to the lack of conceptual solidity. (McAnuff originally mounted this revival at Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival.) As wearable items, they’re finely created, as Tazewell’s work always is. Indeed, if the singular, unified directorial concept was of a leather-clad, spangle-heavy, Vegas-sized glitz-storm Superstar (albeit with chorus boys singing “Who wears short shorts?”), then Tazewell’s contributions would be universally heralded. But there are constant collisions between visual elements of schmaltz, schmutz, kitsch and modern dress-and when you factor in Robert Brill’s faux-industrial set, Sean Nieuwenhuis’ video design and Howell Binkley’s intense lighting-the effect is stark, jarring and confusing enough to detract from the inherent genius of Superstar itself. McAnuff knows how to move performers on stage (and Lisa Shriver’s choreography abets his work well). But no one seems bothered by the lack of a clear vision of Superstar-just one, well articulated, would undoubtedly do. I always thought the superstar of Superstar was Jesus Christ-and you and Tim Rice. This revival isn’t clean in that respect, and that, sorry to say, isn’t kosher.

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