Jesus Christ Superstar Live

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I cohost a movie remake podcast called Ideal Remake. I have strong opinions about remakes. I have even stronger opinions about Jesus Chris Superstar. My opinions are bubbling over about this John Legend Jesus Christ Superstar Live remake.

 

I grew up with the 1973 movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar and probably saw it at least once a year since the late 70s when my family bought our first VCR. I’ve listened to the album hundreds of times. I saw it live with Ted Neeley still playing Jesus and got to hang out with him after the show. That experience felt like the closest thing I can imagine meeting the real Jesus would have been. Neeley was kind, present and encouraging.

I’ve stomached remakes or reimaginings of Superstar before. I’m not a fan of the modernized version that started up at the turn of the century. It misses the point of the imagery of the original where, for the most part, everything was fairly appropriate to the time with the exception of the Romans who had guns, tanks, jets and shiny helmets. Clearly that’s to illustrate their overwhelming power versus the common people. The late Rik Mayall as Herod is the best part of the Jesus Christ Superstar 2000 Live film.

This is what I love about Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s not Jesus’ story. It’s Judas’ story. Judas is the lead. The opening and closing numbers are Judas songs. Even the titular song is sung by Judas. The late Carl Anderson originated the role but lost it to Ben Vereen when it opened on Broadway. Anderson did play him again in the film and he knocks it out of the park. Jesus Christ Superstar is an opera, so every piece of dialogue is in lyric. Every piece of acting is done in the way the songs are delivered. You can see in Anderson’s face the torment and conflicted emotion that matches the lyrics.

This whole Jesus thing has snowballed out of control. Judas is scared. He and Jesus butt heads, but you can always tell there’s genuine love between the two. When Judas betrays Jesus, he at least believes partially that he’s subverting something worse. My interpretation is that Judas isn’t a true believer though until the last supper. That’s when Judas falls apart because he realizes he’s been wrong the entire time and he’s the bad guy in a bigger story. The lyrics of Judas’ Death call back to his lyrics in Heaven on Their Minds. Heaven opens with “my mind is clearer now” and Death opens with “my mind is in darkness”. He was tricked, which is such an Old Testament God kind of movie. I always liked the idea that Judas, during the song Superstar, has apparently gone to heaven. In that number, Judasknows as much as the audience and has the same questions as many of us. If Jesus is the real deal, what about Buddha and Mohammed? Wouldn’t it make more sense to come back today when, through technology, it would be much easier to get your message out to the world? Judas is full of conflict. It’s in the lyrics and it’s in Carl Anderson’s performance. Living Colour’s Cory Glover had that conflict when I saw this live, but he was acting opposite of the unbelievably Christ-like Neeley. You know how they say if you want to improve your tennis game, play against a pro.

I wrote all of that to preface my thoughts on this latest Remake by admitting that I’m probably a little too close to the original to be totally unbiased.

I loved Sara Bareilles’ performance, but that may be because of how close she stuck to Yvonne Elliman’s portrayal of Mary Magdelene. Then again Ben Daniels put his own spin on Pilate that I thought was up there with the original. The strength of Jesus Christ Superstar is in the fact that all the lead characters are torn. Judas loves Jesus but thinks his following has gotten too big and puts them all in danger. Pilate has a nightmare that foreshadows the way he’s remembered in history and tries to navigate his way around that unsuccessfully. Jesus knows what’s in store for him and questions why. Mary Magdalene feels a love for Jesus that she’s never felt before and doesn’t fully realize who he is until the end. It’s a brilliant interpretation of the story.

Brandon Victor Dixon played Judas in the NBC Live event. I’m not familiar with his work other than knowing that he’s in Hamilton. His message to Vice President Mike Pence, after Pence walked out of a performance of Hamilton, was classy and mature. I too love that he gave the Wakanda salute over the end credits. I’m just stunned though that reviews have him listed as the breakout performer? For real? Sure, he has vocal chops, but he had no emotion until Judas’ Death. I thought Superstar was a standout moment, but that’s the sole moment of the entire production that Judas isn’t full of torment. Was he a standout performance from the ever-smiling John Legend? Sure? But I don’t think we should grade on curve. After all, Bareilles and Daniels make that curve pretty steep.

John Legend…I can’t even. Not yet.

Alice Cooper first played Herod in the ’96 Revival. He’s a fine showman, but this wasn’t the show for him. While Legend should have been his focus in their onescene together, Cooper couldn’t help but to keep making eye contact with the audience. He’s just too used to performing for a crowd. I’m not sure why they waited a good minute into his musical number to break out the dancers either. Maybe that was a mistake from is being live. A couple of the “39 lashes” seemed to miss their cue too.

In the Ideal Remake podcast, I tend to interrupt with pointless trivia. Here’s my pointless trivia break for this review. Josh Mostel played Herod in the movie version. He’s probably best known as the Principal/former wrestler in Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison. His dad is Broadway legend Zero Mostel. The maniacal turn from antagonizing to outright rage of Herod’s song is one of my favorite moments. I just realized that I really key into the bad guys!

John Legend is so out of his league here. I like him in La La Land, but that wasn’t really an emotionally taxing part. He’s a great singer with an incredibly soulful and smooth voice. He definitely doesn’t have the range of Ted Neeley, but few people do. The hard part about the Jesus songs are almost all of them have some sort of really high note. Legend avoids those. I didn’t love his arrangements, but I accept that’s because of my Neeley bias. His original songs are phenomenal. His acting is not. It reminded me of Kumail Nanjiani in The Big Sick when Zoe Kazan is fighting with him and Kumail can’t wipe the stupid smile off his face. He can’t mask the fact that he’s in awe over working with an accomplished actor. Again, I write this from experience. I was in a show called Tornado Alley on the Weather Channel. I played a guy who rescues his neighbors after a tornado.  When I ran out onto to hit my mark, the other actors were shuddering and in hysterics. They were nailing it. The only thing that ran through my head was, “wow, I’m working with real actors. Shit. I’m not a real actor.”

It’s never more evident that Legend isn’t good than in his scene with Daniels. Daniels’ Pilate is at his wits end trying to get out of being responsible for Jesus’ murder. Jesus is supposed to sit there with stoic resolve. His big moment is supposed to be when Pilate gets face to face with him and Jesus looks back at him with no hate or fear, just pure compassion. That’s when Pilate loses his shit. He lost. His dream wasn’t just a nightmare, it was a look at the future. Jesus is the real deal. All of that had to have been lost on an audience who only knows this story from watching this version of it. Legend gave Daniels nothing to work off of, so instead Pilate just comes off as a raging lunatic. This remake has none of the Jesus qualities of Jesus and ends up making him out to be a John Legend level superstar. It’s a shame too because this story is pretty complex and I feel like this lesser adaptation is going to be the only one that many people will come to know.

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About Mike Bobbitt

Sometimes professional storyteller.

Posted on April 4, 2018, in Reviews, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. I agree with all the comments about Legend. Totally mis-cast. I couldn’t stomach it. I keep skipping through the show… not good. What are your thoughts on the 2012 UK arena tour version of JCSS?

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