"Jesus Christ Superstar is so stunningly effective a theatrical experience that I am still finding it difficult to compose my thoughts about it. It is, in short, a triumph."
That's what Douglas Watt (of the New York Daily News) wrote about Jesus Christ Superstar when it premiered on Broadway nearly thirty years ago. Now this mother of all rock operas is back, and I can only echo Watt's words--in a nutshell: wow. For sheer awesome excitement and energy; utter visceral, pulsing, thrilling passion; nothing can match this show. Not since the early days of Rent and, before that, Tommy, has Broadway seen a musical with the power to set an audience on fire like this. Forget Contact, forget Aida: this is the must-see musical of the season.
Whence comes such an extraordinary explosion, you ask? Well, for starters, there's the score, something of an underrated masterpiece, I think: a remarkably accomplished work of musical theatre whose innovations can only now be fully appreciated, looking back through the Phantoms and Cats and Les Miserables that wouldn't be here now had Jesus Christ Superstar not been there first. The lyrics are surprisingly literate (and rank among Tim Rice's finest): compare the drivel that fills Aida with the sharply-etched irreverent economy of a line like this, from "King Herod's Song":
As for the music, by the so-easily-maligned Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber, the flashes of melodic greatness--in songs like "Everything's Alright," "I Don't Know How to Love Him," "King Herod's Song," and, of course, "Superstar" (whose climactic refrain never fails to give me goosebumps)--more than make up for any lack of invention or originality. (Lloyd-Webber was just 23 when he wrote this score, too.)
That said, however, it's absolutely true that the show that Lloyd-Webber and Rice created is fraught with problems: it's so resolutely hip (in 1971 terms) that it manages rather successfully to avoid committing to a specific point of view. This is where director Gale Edwards comes in. Her contributions to this production are miraculous, and amount if not to a reinvention of the piece than certainly to a reconsideration of it.
The question Edwards asks here is simple: if a man like Jesus Christ were living among us right now, what would happen to him? Her answer is resoundingly unoptimistic: in, particularly, the three startling, show-stopping set-pieces that propel this production toward greatness, her disillusionment with humankind at the turn of the millennium is brutally apparent. Consider the scene where Christ encounters the Moneylenders at the Temple. Here, the Temple has been re-imagined as a shrine to the twin gods of war and money--towers of TVs (all broadcasting CNN battle scenes) and nuclear warheads frame it, while slot machines and electronic ticker-tapes rest on its altar. It's a literally breathtaking visual metaphor: a triumph of ingenuity on the part of Edwards and her set designer, Peter J. Davison.
Yet they go on to top themselves in the heart-stopping final moments of the play, as Jesus is rejected first by King Herod and then by his own people. "King Herod's Song" is set, here, on a blazing white set, complete with light-up staircase and a gigantic neon "Herod" sign framing the stage. It's danced by three elegant black women in sparkly red gowns who might as well be the Supremes and a chorus line of Fosse-esque male dancers. The choreography and the insouciance of this number are instantly recognizable as "Broadway," and indeed can be seen at any of a half-dozen or so of Jesus Christ Superstar's near neighbors in the Theatre District. But the shock of recognition afforded by this sequence is nothing compared with what follows in "Superstar": leather-clad rock idol Judas, backed by the same three ladies now attired in trendy mini-skirts and dark glasses, working the crowd into a frenzy, simultaneously filmed and broadcast (on a giant screen across the top center of the stage).
That screen may as well be a mirror: Edwards implicates us all, young and old, in the willful abandonment and misunderstanding of the man at the center of this show. When the circus ends abruptly with Christ's crucifixion, we become aware that the teachings of that man have hardly been mentioned at all; and we pause to reflect as the final notes of Lloyd-Webber's "John 19:41" fill the silent theatre.
I'm aware that some of what I've tried to capture here will probably not bear detailed scrutiny: believe me, though, when I tell you that the immediate experience of this production, particularly its astonishing second act, is almost unbearably powerful. Jesus Christ Superstar is a masterful blend of showmanship and conscience; it brings its audience to catharsis, which is as splendid a purpose as any theatrical enterprise can hope for.
I've already told you that set designer Peter J. Davison is one of this production's heroes; let me add here that Mark McCullough's lighting design is equally exquisite. The cast is exemplary, led by the phenomenal Glenn Carter in the title role and buffeted by the angel-faced, big-voiced Tony Vincent (as Judas), the imposing bass Frederick B. Owens as Caiaphas, and the magnificently layered performance of Kevin Gray as Pilate. Paul Kandel stops the show as the razzle-dazzle lost soul Herod, evoking memories of the great Joel Grey in Cabaret. And Maya Days is nothing short of perfection as Mary Magdalene, singing the role with devastating simplicity and purity.
The sound is occasionally harsh and often muddy; hopefully that can be fixed. And, sure, there are lots of problematic details--about the work itself, and this production of it--on which one can fixate. My advice: don't. Go to Jesus Christ Superstar with an open mind and an open heart and let the show's spirit engulf you. Genuine theatrical rapture, like the religious kind, is a sort of miracle. But it only happens if you allow it to.