Jesus Christ Superstar, a musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, that conflates the story of Jesus’s last days with modern celebrity culture.
On April 1st, NBC broadcasted its acclaimed live concert performance of Jesus Christ Superstar. Despite some technical flubs, the production has been unanimously praised, overcoming the ambivalence that audiences usually have for TV musicals. Recent TV musicals produced by major television networks like NBC and Fox have included Grease, Hairspray, and much-maligned productions of The Sound of Music and Peter Pan. Although some have been well-received, the public response to these shows has rarely been more than a collective “it was pretty good.”
Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert seemed like a riskier choice, not because the musical isn’t as well known as its predecessors, but because of its subject matter: the show is a modern take on Biblical passion plays, following Jesus of Nazareth as he is betrayed by Judas Iscariot, interrogated, tortured, and finally crucified. Not only is the crucifixion of Jesus a sensitive topic, but there are also numerous problems with the lyrics to the musical, which, among other things, have been accused of being anti-Semitic. Although recent broadcasts like Hairspray Live! involve positive social messages about inclusiveness, these messages tend to be extremely anodyne – after all, who is going to be upset with a musical about teenagers discovering body positivity and fighting for racial integration? In contrast, live productions of Jesus Christ Superstar have been aggressively protested across the world, even in the past few years, largely by religious groups who consider the musical to be blasphemous.
Neither NBC’s broadcast nor the live concert itself which was taped in Brooklyn received any notable protests or complaints. Even the broadcasting date, Easter Sunday, seemed geared toward controversy – yet, there wasn’t even a hint of public outrage. As World Religion News notes, the lack of outcry might reflect that the American public has become less sensitive about religious issues in recent years. Since Jesus Christ Superstar premiered on Broadway in 1971, it has generated numerous Billboard pop hits, two Broadway revivals, and, possibly due to the success of the NBC broadcast, a recent London production will tour North America next year. Despite the many reasons the musical could be considered offensive, it doesn’t seem like many are opposed to seeing it again. Although the musical may have been ground-breaking when it premiered, it has largely survived due to the strength of its musical score and the resonance of its story (which is notably sympathetic to Judas, who betrays Jesus). Nobody is coming to see Jesus Christ Superstar for historical/Biblical accuracy, however, nor are devout Christians wasting their time attacking a show that is, at its worst, harmless and fun.
This is both a good and a bad thing: although the positive audience feedback to Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert reflects the reality that Americans have found more important things to complain about, it’s a bittersweet victory for NBC – the broadcast pulled in just under ten million viewers, which is about on par with NBC’s Hairspray Live! back in December 2016. With well-known popular musicians John Legend (as Jesus Christ) and Sara Bareilles (as Mary Magdalene) starring in lead roles, NBC was likely expecting higher ratings. While years of mediocre TV musicals may have simply numbed audiences to the genre, it’s also fair to say that audiences prematurely dismissed Jesus Christ Superstar as an attempt to be “edgy” on NBC’s behalf.
This is also somewhat ironic, given that the show, to quote The New York Times, is about “the dangers of uncritical celebrity worship.” The musical suggests that Jesus was a cultural figure of his time (a “superstar,” so to speak) rather than as the actual Son of God, and that many of his followers may not have understood his message. Part of what makes the show “blasphemous” is that it deliberately does not portray the Resurrection, when Jesus rose from the dead. It leaves Jesus’ status open-ended, encouraging audience members to make their own decisions about the boundary between popular celebrity and religious idolatry, and proposes that humans may be too short-sighted to tell the difference.
It’s funny then, although not altogether unsurprising, that NBC promoted this same musical by emphasizing its most bankable performers over the actual content of the show. To be fair, it could certainly be argued that Legend and Bareilles deserve top billing for their leading roles. But why were their names placed next to Alice Cooper’s, the 70 year-old rock musician most famous for a 46 year-old song about summer break, in promotional material for Jesus Christ Superstar – even though Cooper only actually sang one song in the entire two-and-a-half-hour show? Not to denigrate Cooper’s performance, but why was he given priority over Brandon Victor Dixon, who played the crucial role of Judas Iscariot and was onstage from beginning to end? Dixon, a seasoned Broadway performer who has starred in shows like Hamilton and The Color Purple, easily deserved a nod even if he isn’t quite as famous as his co-stars. However, almost none of the advance promotional material for Jesus Christ Superstar even mentioned his name.
Although it might seem like a obvious promotion tactic, NBC prioritized name-brand recognition over the message. How hypocritical is it to produce a show that criticizes celebrity culture while using your own “superstars” to promote it?
None of these criticisms mean to take away from the quality of Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert. If anything, NBC’s safe-but-not-too-safe bet has paid off, and hopefully the overwhelmingly positive responses to the broadcast (rather than any superficial reactions to its content) will encourage NBC and other networks to produce more daring work, even if they don’t receive the most flattering ratings. What’s important about this broadcast is that it brought a unique and revered piece of musical theatre, as well as some very gifted performers, to ten million viewers who might not have otherwise gone to see it outside of the comfort of their own homes. If Jesus Christ Superstar inspires any of those viewers to challenge their own beliefs, then it has achieved the noblest goals that theatre, and television, can hope to attain.