For all the heated debate, for all the excess that Jesus Christ Superstar has engendered since 1971, the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s techno-ice version, now on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre, is the most controlled and purposely nonexpressive, parceling out only calculated jolts of raw emotion. It refuses to set us in a punk world, as was the case with the 2001 video production, or remind us of the Arab-Israeli conflict, as did the 1973 film. Silver ponytails won’t especially flash back to the early Seventies counterculture, either. Instead, two-time Tony Award winner Des McAnuff, the director, gives his unruly, thankless, hedonistic charge a buzz cut (his interpretation of the rock opera runs just under two hours with an intermission, which, from the audience’s point of view, isn’t really needed) and revels more in Brecht than the divine: supertitles, like the news ticker in Times Square, put events squarely on track for a countdown to Passover in the year 33. Andrew Lloyd Webber had once discussed the work as “a train, [going] from A to B,” which may have had to do with its success. Now, however, sung virtually straight through, it’s a streamlined express, starlight or otherwise.
The eclectic music for Jesus Christ Superstar doesn’t sound like other show tunes—Webber has noted that he wrote lyrical songs for Mary Magdalene, ragtime for Herod, rock for Judas, and rock and folk-inspired songs for Jesus. Actually, the musical was originally written as an oratorio. Tim Rice came up with the concept at around age fifteen—and his casual lyrics (“Always hoped that I’d be an apostle, knew that I could make it if I tried”) are very different from the urbane words of Stephen Sondheim writing during the same period (“You’ll always be what you always were, which has nothing to do with all to do with her”). Jesus Christ Superstar would never have even been considered for a New York run, much less one for London, had the 1970 concept album not caught on. It brought youth theatre to Broadway (under the director of Hair, Tom O’Horgan). At the movies, the big-budget 1971 studio production of Superstar was lost in desert vistas; it was spectacular but uninvolving. The 2001 version, with Glenn Clark and Jerome Pradon, was overwrought (although there are adherents for both interpretations). The problem with the play, as drama, it seems to me, lies with the fact that Judas abandons actively trying to get Jesus out of trouble relatively early, ceding influence to Mary. We are then left with huge, traditional set pieces: Palm Sunday, the temple, the Last Supper, and Gethsemane. They give the show a presentational feel, as if we’re watching an Easter pageant.
McAnuff is aware of the two-dimensional quality—and uses it. You’ll pick up on this early in Lisa Shriver’s choreography, which nods to Martha Graham and ancient Egyptian non-dimensional painting. It’s interesting to be asked to accept and be drawn to surface flatness, instead of seeing the show as an exercise in sweaty, heavy-breathing Method acting, assault on traditional Christian perspectives, or as a clothes hanger for social issues. Watch the turn-on-a-dime angles, attitudes, the performers demonstrate as part of their blocking in this production (Tom Hewitt, as Pilate, does so with special efficiency); watch the blankness of their expressions, particularly Paul Nolan as Jesus. In a theater piece that has typically banked on ponderous, metaphorical overlay, you might find it somewhat liberating to see the weightiness lifted. You’ll be asked to supply your own projection, instead, and will either miss having another or not. There is also an unacknowledged understanding that the audience knows this music extremely well—you may even find yourself giggling as the overture begins and Kung Fu fighters–dressed like they’re out of Star Wars—enter. They are our culture, whether you find that praiseworthy or not, just as surely as the political underpinnings of the U.S. are Judeo-Christian.
Rice and Webber were surprised by America’s initial reaction to their work, landing, as it did, on the cover of Time magazine. They thought they had written a solid show, on its own terms. They didn’t think they were being blasphemous or unduly controversial (Webber’s father had been a college director of music and a church organist, and Andrew knew sacred composition). Jesus, a non-utopian, might even have gotten on with the local young Republicans when he says, “There will always be the poor.” Christ was a good child, portrayed not as divinity, but as human, living in a messy, complex, corporeal world. Judas, the true anarchist, whom many would argue is the main character, albeit an anti-hero, expressed the anger and ambivalence of the Vietnam years. Ultimately, of course, he would betray the patriarchy, the establishment, and Father, exposing the favored son. Some would say that Judas was God’s pawn because the crucifixion was a foregone conclusion—but that is a conversation to have with a priest or freshman in college late at night.
This clear production makes an interesting choice in looking at the erotic connections between Judas, Christ, and Mary Magdalene (played by a feisty Chilina Kennedy, who becomes earth mother). The point isn’t especially punctuated; it doesn’t seem to me that it offers a major plot destination (the way a similar situation takes place in the movie Cabaret). It also doesn’t come off as especially provocative, and it may, in fact, have been played this way in other productions. What’s shocking, however, is that the point isn’t highlighted more—instead this is a Jesus Christ Superstar running on its own music, in what is primarily a staged classical concert, with a technologically enhanced orchestra, which just happens to feature nonclassical songs. The singers, as part of such a tight ensemble, would be required not to overtly perform in such a context.
Josh Young sings with a strong baritone as Judas—his opening “Heaven on Their Minds” does not have the pyrotechnics we’re used to when hearing the song; he doesn’t make the vocal jump upward toward the end to please the crowd (most likely owing to the concept). Paul Nolan is also an extremely fine, disciplined singer—it actually may be harder for the cast to be measured, rather than letting it all hang out with this show. Even Bruce Dow’s Herod is mean and shaming, rather than a mere overindulged clown, in his surefire comic number.
The spare, contemporary scenic design is by Robert Brill, who uses a tiered set with ladders, a modernist venetian blind backdrop, and seemingly live-action projections. Black and chrome are his major colors. It’s no accident that Judas wears cold royal blue in the finale; in 2000, he wore devil red. It may be that this show can adapt to just about anything, including its original intention. It may also be that the greatest risk of all is imagining Jesus Christ Superstar as a theater work, which isn't just for the kids.
© 2012 by Bob Shuman; additional reporting by Marit Shuman
Press: Emily Meagher—Boneau/Bryan-Brown
Visit the show’s Web site: http://www.superstaronbroadway.com/
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR
Now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, directed by the Stratford Shakespeare Festival’s Artistic Director and 2-time Tony Award winner Des McAnuff,
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR opens March 22, 2012 at the Neil Simon Theatre (250 West 52nd Street).
This ground-breaking rock opera, which reinvented musical theatre for the modern age, tells the story of the last week of Christ’s life. The score includes such chart-topping songs as “I Don’t Know How To Love Him,” “Everything’s Alright” and “Superstar.” The cast features Paul Nolan as Jesus Christ, Josh Young as Judas Iscariot, Chilina Kennedy as Mary Magdalene, Tom Hewitt as Pontius Pilate, Bruce Dow as King Herod, Marcus Nance as Caiaphas and Aaron Walpole as Annas.
Also in the cast: Matt Alfano as Thaddeus, Mary Antonini as Elizabeth, Karen Burthwright as Ruth, Jacqueline Burtney as Mary (Martha’s Sister), Mark Cassius as Matthew, Ryan Gifford as Bartholomew, Kaylee Harwood as Sarah, Jeremy Kushnier as James the Lesser/Priest, Mike
Nadajewski as Peter, Melissa O’Neil as Martha/Maid by the Fire, Laurin Padolina as Rachel, Katrina Reynolds as Esther, Jaz Sealey as Thomas, Jason Sermonia as John, Julius Sermonia as James, Lee Siegel as Simon Zealotes, Jonathan Winsby as Phillip, Sandy Winsby as Andrew,
Nick Cartell as Jonah/Swing, with Krista Leis, Matthew Rossoff and Matt Stokes as swings.
In addition to Mr. McAnuff as Director, the creative team includes Choreographer Lisa Shriver,
Musical Director Rick Fox, Set Designer Robert Brill, Costume Designer Paul Tazewell, Lighting
Designer Howell Binkley, Sound Designer Steve Canyon Kennedy and Video Designer Sean
The Stratford Shakespeare Festival production of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is produced
The Dodgers and The Really Useful Group, Latitude Link, Tamara and Kevin Kinsella,
Pelican Group, Waxman-Dokton, with Joe Corcoran, Detsky/Sokolowski/Kassie, Florin-
Blanshay-Fan/Broadway Across America, REG/Caudwell, Shin/Coleman, Theatre Dreams
North America, LLC.
Tickets for JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR are available by calling Ticketmaster.com at (877) 250-
2929, (800) 432-7250 outside the NY metro area, online at Ticketmaster.com or in person at the
Neil Simon Theatre box office (250 West 52nd Street). Box office hours are Monday through
Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.
Tickets on Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday range in price from $62 to $127. Tickets on Friday,
Saturday & Sunday range in price from $72 to $137.
The performance schedule varies. Click here for more information.