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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 around the globe 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 might 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 take heed 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 12 months, if you end up in Dallas throughout Holy Week, you may even rating a ticket to the newest touring manufacturing.

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As I element in my e book “Playing God: The Bible on the Broadway Stage,” “Superstar” is essentially the most commercially profitable adaptation of a biblical story in Broadway historical past, with nicely 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 means, Christians have seen drama as an applicable approach to talk the story of Jesus’ ardour and resurrection for greater than a millennium.

Yet one thing about “Superstar” has at all times 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 considered the play with deep suspicion for what they thought of an irreverent method, questionable theology and its rock ‘n’ roll-influenced rating.

As a theater professor, I see “Superstar” as an necessary step within the evolution of the Broadway musical, a groundbreaking rock opera that paved the way in which for modern 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 collection of pointed and ironic questions through 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 trendy language – “Jesus is cool” – and imagery, similar to paparazzi following Jesus via the streets. By representing Jesus as a charismatic celeb whose fame spirals uncontrolled, “Superstar” provides audiences a recent framework for understanding the traditional biblical narrative. This is underlined by self-aware lyrics that provide commentary on how the Passion story would go on to be advised. 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 will write the gospels So they’ll nonetheless speak about us once we’ve died.

For conservative Christians, such lighthearted paraphrasing of Scripture might have been offensive. More troubling, within the eyes of many non secular leaders, was the musical’s theology. “Superstar” is structured equally to a conventional Christian Passion play, depicting Jesus’ remaining 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 outstanding position to Judas, the disciple whom the Gospels say betrayed Jesus – in actual fact, Judas is arguably the present’s main man.

All this triggered 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 demise 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 truth, 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 concerning the superficial and amoral nature of American standard 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 environment of the rock live performance.

Yet half a century after its premiere, the musical now not generates a lot controversy. The recognition and appreciation of Jesus’ humanity has step by step 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 more likely to learn Scripture, and subsequently much less more likely to be involved over high quality 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 religious leaders. No longer are electrical devices, flashy costumes, spotlights and microphones seen as disrespectful or inconsistent with worship.

Perhaps most importantly, at the moment’s audiences, each non secular and never, might merely have a higher regard for so-called superstars. For many individuals within the Nineteen Seventies, the musical’s comparability of the deification of Christ and the idolatry of a rock star was inherently derogatory, undercutting Jesus’ religious significance. Yet at the moment, 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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