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Greatest Easter pageant ever? Half a century of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ | Columnists


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Henry Bial, University of Kansas

(THE CONVERSATION) In the times main as much as Easter Sunday, Christians world wide will take part in retellings of the story of the final days of Jesus’ life, from his entry into Jerusalem to the Last Supper and to his trial, crucifixion and resurrection. They could stroll the Stations of the Cross – a processional ritual marking key factors within the biblical narrative – attend a pageant or just collect in church for non secular companies.

And some individuals will view or hearken to “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the 1971 rock musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert,” that includes R&B star John Legend within the title position, was first broadcast on Easter Sunday 2018 and re-aired for Easter 2020. This yr, if you end up in Dallas throughout Holy Week, you would possibly even rating a ticket to the most recent touring manufacturing.

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As I element in my e book “Playing God: The Bible on the Broadway Stage,” “Superstar” is probably the most commercially profitable adaptation of a biblical story in Broadway historical past, with effectively over 1,000 performances spanning a number of productions. In some methods, that is unsurprising. Church reenactments of biblical scenes had been foundational for the event of Western theater, particularly the “quem quaeritis trope,” a Tenth-century dialogue that reenacts the second when Jesus’ physique is supposedly found lacking from the tomb. Put one other manner, Christians have seen drama as an applicable technique to talk the story of Jesus’ ardour and resurrection for greater than a millennium.

Yet one thing about “Superstar” has all the time appeared a bit unbelievable, and its depiction of Holy Week set off controversy from the beginning. Composer Lloyd Webber has recounted how London producers initially regarded the challenge as “the worst idea in history.” Many non secular audiences seen the play with deep suspicion for what they thought-about an irreverent strategy, questionable theology and its rock ‘n’ roll-influenced rating.

As a theater professor, I see “Superstar” as an essential step within the evolution of the Broadway musical, a groundbreaking rock opera that paved the best way for up to date hits like “Mamma Mia!” and “Hamilton.” But the musical’s now-canonical standing was something however inevitable.

The present’s irreverent perspective is encapsulated in its title music, which mixes a hovering choral hook (“Jesus Christ, Superstar, Do you think you’re what they say you are?”) with a sequence of pointed and ironic questions by way of rock melody – “Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?”

Though set within the Jerusalem of two,000 years in the past, the play makes use of fashionable language – “Jesus is cool” – and imagery, akin to paparazzi following Jesus by the streets. By representing Jesus as a charismatic movie star whose fame spirals uncontrolled, “Superstar” presents audiences a recent framework for understanding the traditional biblical narrative. This is underlined by self-aware lyrics that supply commentary on how the Passion story would go on to be informed. During the Last Supper scene, for instance, Jesus’ disciples sing:

Always hoped that I’d be an apostle Knew that I might make it if I attempted Then once we retire, we are able to write the gospels So they’ll nonetheless speak about us once we’ve died.

For conservative Christians, such lighthearted paraphrasing of Scripture could have been offensive. More troubling, within the eyes of many spiritual leaders, was the musical’s theology. “Superstar” is structured equally to a standard Christian Passion play, depicting Jesus’ closing days. But it abruptly ends with the crucifixion, omitting the resurrection that’s on the coronary heart of the Easter story – and Christianity itself. What’s extra, the play hints at a romantic relationship between Jesus and his supporter Mary Magdalene, and provides a distinguished position to Judas, the disciple whom the Gospels say betrayed Jesus – actually, Judas is arguably the present’s main man.

All this precipitated many Christian leaders to dismiss the present as blasphemous. Others argued that, whereas well-meaning, “Superstar” was overly targeted on Christ’s humanity, to the exclusion of his divinity.

Meanwhile, Jewish organizations expressed concern that the play would encourage antisemitism by perpetuating the concept that Jews bear duty for the dying of Christ. A trio of Jewish monks sings “This Jesus Must Die,” and later pressures a reluctant Pontius Pilate to have Jesus crucified.

In 1971, this was a very sore spot for Jewish-Christian relations. The concept that the Jewish individuals bore collective guilt for killing Jesus had lengthy been a part of antisemitic rhetoric from Catholic leaders just like the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin. In reality, it wasn’t till 1965 that the Vatican formally declared, “what happened in [Christ’s] passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”

Still, most early objections to “Superstar” had been pushed much less by its content material and extra by its kind. The mere thought of turning the Bible right into a loud, flashy, rock ‘n’ roll spectacle was usually seen as a form of sacrilege. As faith scholar David Chidester and others have noticed, conservative Christian teams have traditionally complained in regards to the superficial and amoral nature of American well-liked tradition, with specific distaste for its music. In this view, rock lyrics advocate sin whereas the loud, sensual and unrestrained nature of the music encourages it.

For such critics, “Jesus Christ Superstar” appeared to pose a menace just by juxtaposing the sacred narrative of the Bible with the profane ambiance of the rock live performance.

Yet half a century after its premiere, the musical not generates a lot controversy. The recognition and appreciation of Jesus’ humanity has progressively grow to be extra acceptable amongst American Christians, although to not the exclusion of his divinity. Compared with earlier generations, Generation X and millennials are much less prone to learn Scripture, and subsequently much less prone to be involved over positive factors of theological interpretation.

Rock music, in the meantime, is ageing together with its followers, whereas the rise of the American megachurch has blurred the road between rock live performance and church service, between celebrities and non secular leaders. No longer are electrical devices, flashy costumes, spotlights and microphones seen as disrespectful or inconsistent with worship.

Perhaps most importantly, right now’s audiences, each non secular and never, could merely have a larger regard for so-called superstars. For many individuals within the Seventies, the musical’s comparability of the deification of Christ and the idolatry of a rock star was inherently derogatory, undercutting Jesus’ non secular significance. Yet right now, in an period when Lady Gaga has six occasions as many Instagram followers as Pope Francis, arguably the title – and the musical itself – reads as a extra honest type of appreciation.

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This article has been up to date to appropriate the lyrics to “The Last Supper.”

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