I was first exposed to Jesus Christ Superstar as an elementary school student when a long-term substitute teacher played sections of the album for us as a way to introduce us to opera. As a kid, my only other opera exposure was from Buggs Bunny and Elmer Fudd, so hearing the rock beats and 70’s soul to tell a story left a lasting impression on me. Throughout the years I’ve revisited the music, the movie, and even had a chance to see one of Ted Neeley’s many touring productions at the Spokane Opera House about 20 years ago. When a chance came recently to audition for the show, I relished the chance to dive into the show from the other side.
Just in time for Holy Week, Lake City Playhouse in Coeur d’Alene opens a run of the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. This 45-year-old show has been revised and covered in diverse ways all around the world. Upon its release, and with subsequent performances, controversy followed suit. While some of the ire shown the show at various times centers around the audacity to use rock music to tell the story, it also comes from what the music focuses on, as well as what it leaves out. As the original work hit theatres, Tim Rice, who collaborated with Andrew Lloyd Webber to write the score, referred to Jesus as merely being the right man at the right time, denying any divine nature. The musical’s focus on Judas’ perception of the last days of Christ as well as the lack of any reference to the resurrection are other points of contention for many. In other cases, it is the non-traditional or even shocking ways that directors take in order to put their own stamp on the characters, whether it be modernizing the tale or making Jesus a more violent hot-head than most artistic representations. As a part of the renewal of Lake City Playhouse, people in the area have a chance to explore the music and perspectives.
However, even if the critics are correct, and that there is some inherent blasphemous tone in the work, does that mean that it cannot evoke powerful emotion as a piece of art? Or does it mean that it holds no value for Christians and non-Christians to understand the tenets of the Passion during this holy season?
Jesus Christ Superstar is not meant to proselytize or to convert non-Christians. That definitely wasn’t Tim Rice’s point at the time it was released, and that thread has remained through most productions. However, as the years have passed, the musical has come to take on new meanings. Even the Catholic Church made an official change, embracing JC Superstar in 1999.
Christianity has an interesting relationship with the visual arts. Other religions don’t use visual representations of their leaders or deities. Of course, with the vast diversity of Christian denominations and beliefs there are no clear standards or accepted ideas of what is appropriate for representing Jesus. We’ve all seen Renaissance paintings with rich representations of the various stages of Christ’s life. In the 1970’s hip representations of Jesus took shape most notably in musicals like Godspell and JC Superstar. In the 1990s I discovered the paintings of Sadao Watanabe when I was fortunate to make a journey to Japan my senior year of college.
Artists that use Christian imagery provide a pathway for us to emotionally enter the texts. They bring relatively non-threatening space to explore the humanity of Jesus’s story. To connect on a deeply with others in the experience. Theatre itself is an act of trust and relationship, as all of the actors, musicians, and audience agree to suspend reality for a length of time and enter into a world of make-believe. In this trust-relationship, deep connection of the spiritual doesn’t always happen, but it can. Theatre creates a sacred space. When this sacred space is shared with powerful acting, music, and staging, something unique and special can occur. The Passion story of Christ can capture emotions and present both believers and non-believers a chance to enter relationship, and explore the Christ story. For whatever reason, in my youth, JC Superstar provided that emotional space.
Through its 70’s funk roots, JC Superstar gives room for exploring the texts in a new way. For example, Mary Magdalene, played in Lake City Playhouse’s version with great wisdom and grace by Abbey Crawford, sings in “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” that Jesus is just a man. For some Christians, the humanity of Jesus gives difficulties because Christ is the Son of Man, and how can the Son of Man be human – not fully divine? In discussions, my pastor brings up the fully human understanding of Jesus with a very practical question: “Did Jesus think the world was flat?.” If Christ was fully human – then he believed as others at the time the same as others in society. For Christians, the rich discussions on the nature of Christ that can be sparked by Mary’s song are important. As the historical Jesus walked with others, did they see and understand his uniqueness, understand his role in the world, and know how to love him? Or, were their lives filled with questions that may parallel our own as we seek to understand Jesus through our own human interactions? We, through emotional reactions to the arts, can connect to them at a human level.
The driving rock guitar and passionate voices of Jesus and Judas evoke the emotional relationship and ultimate betrayal of Judas, leading to Jesus’ arrest and trial. While Judas has been vilified in the almost two thousand years since Christ, JC Superstar highlights the fact that Judas was one of the chosen apostles – one of the people who had the closest relationship and opportunity to fellowship with Christ. In Jadd Davis’ portrayal of Judas, we see love turned anguish and confusion, ultimately leading to his blaming God for leading him to suicide. Judas’ role in the story of the passion is important. Judas is either a predestined helpless pawn – or an active human force leading to the destruction of Jesus. For the pastel sunshiny pictures of Easter morning, there is great pain and darkness that sometimes gets missed when the resurrection is all that is focused on.
While it may seem obvious that the hardest role to play is Jesus, it may not be for the most obvious reasons. While Christ is central to the story, it really is Judas that holds the main view. In productions Christ is sometimes shown wearing all white – and moving in an almost ghostly or seems to give the impression that he is permanently wooden, caught in a Bellini painting. While there are moments in the passion story that show Jesus as a warm and relational figure, there are also moments of despair and loneliness, mirroring the biblical story. Glory and the grit – the healing and the blood, suffering, and darkness of Jesus’ part of the story are tackled by Robby French, whose voice tackles the soul of the story, opening further the door for audiences to see the humanity of Jesus the last days of his life.
Spokane theatre legend Troy Nickerson is very aware of the emotions, controversies, and ultimate importance of the passion play to audiences. He presents a deep understanding of the darkness of the story in his direction. While the staging in the Lake City Playhouse show is modern, and even post-apocalyptic in tones, Nickerson as director tips his hat to the paintings and visual arts seen in his Catholic upbringing using simple body movements to create emotional vignettes. Throughout the play the dancing moves between strength and peace – between power and grace. While the voices and music tell the story, moments are captured that serve as snapshots – giving moments of reflection in the fast-moving story.
I’m pretty biased as I look at JC Superstar. For me it opened a new world of theatre, but also opened a new way to understand Jesus. The secular meeting the spiritual, in the dirt and the grit of human emotional experiences.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs until April 23 at Lake City Playhouse. Find ticket information here.
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