Jesus Christ show divides

R&B singer John Legend played Jesus Christ in the live broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar.
R&B singer John Legend played Jesus Christ in the live broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar.PHOTO: NBC/YOUTUBE

NEW YORK • More than 1,000 audience members whooped, clapped and even wept on Easter Sunday at a 19th-century National Guard armoury in Brooklyn, New York, from which NBC did a live broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar.

With R&B hitmaker John Legend as Jesus Christ, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene, Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas Iscariot and Alice Cooper as King Herod in Andrew Lloyd Webber's religious rock opera, NBC's Superstar did not lack for star power.

The song-only production was billed as a live concert rather than a fully staged musical. And the crowd's passionate whooping underscored one of the musical's central themes: the dangers of uncritical celebrity worship.

Entertainment Weekly called the performance a "glorious glitter bomb", Deadline said it was "just how Jesus would have wanted it" and The New York Times hailed it as "a conceptual and artistic triumph".

The show averaged 9.4 million viewers, according to The Hollywood Reporter, putting it ahead of all other original telecasts for the night, including ABC's American Idol.

Written by Webber and Tim Rice, Jesus Christ Superstar has long held something of a surprise place in the modern theatrical canon. Debuting in 1970 as a rock opera album, it made the leap to Broadway in 1971 and was nominated for five Tonys - winning none.

The story retells the life of Jesus from the perspective of Judas, the disciple who betrayed Christ to the Roman authorities in the New Testament gospels. It closely follows biblical accounts of Christ's arrest and crucifixion in Jerusalem, while adding substantial criticism of Jesus' followers; his communion with disreputable people; and his open, dangerous antagonism of both the Jewish and the Roman authorities.

The musical then pushes back against its own scepticism, depicting the powers-that-be as corrupt, cynical and manipulative, exploiting the anxieties of Judas and the other apostles.

In the years immediately after its premiere, the musical raised eyebrows and ire with its decidedly non-traditional spin on Christ's last days.

By considering Jesus more as a cultural phenomenon than a divine figure, and by exhibiting as much sympathy for Judas as for the man he betrayed, Webber and Rice delivered an interpretation of the Passion Play as radical as director Martin Scorsese's much-protested 1988 film The Last Temptation Of Christ.

On social media on Monday morning, it was clear that many across America were not as celebratory as the New York crowd in attendance at NBC's Superstar. Some picked at ahistoric artistic flourishes in the script, while others dismissed the show as generally irreverent.

WASHINGTON POST, NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2018, with the headline 'Jesus Christ show divides'. Print Edition | Subscribe