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Rock God: A look back on ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’

| Tuesday, April 22, 2014

WEB_Banner_JesusSuperstarEmily Hoffmann | The Observer

Though it’s not as simple as “Cats,” one could certainly try to make the case that Andrew Lloyd Webber is, in fact, not a god. We’re talking as mortal, as English and as prone to illness as the next bloke. However, God owes Sir Webber some thanks for giving His Son and His Word an unmatched vibrancy and angst only experienced through the wailing of a rock and roll opera. 

If not for Webber’s collaboration (pre-Phantom) with lyricist Tim Rice (pre-Disney Renaissance) at the dawn of the pivot of change, the only religiously affiliated music with which the world was familiar would be church hymns. Not to say that those can’t get a crowd going, but the point is that no one really associated the “great Jesus Christ” with upbeat electric guitars, hip beats and rad tunes. To put a pun to pen, thank God for “Jesus Christ Superstar.”  

It’s edgy. It’s misguided. It’s for the “nobody understands me” pariah in youth group. It’s full of angst, brooding, sweat, blood and tears. Did I mention the mortal Mr. Andrew Lloyd Webber composed the music? Quite honestly, this is the most untraditional, un-show-tune-y score of his entire career, largely in part to the jam sessions of well-known rock musicians Neil Hubbard, Chris Spedding, Alan Spenner and Bruce Rowland. Credit must also be given to the lead vocalists. Before this concept was a show, it was an album featuring Ian Gillan, lead singer of Deep Purple, as Jesus and Murray Head as Judas Iscariot.    

So let me drop the beat for those of you who don’t know this “rock God.” An unorthodox Jesus Christ is not so much the Son of God as much as the antihero causing quite a buzz amongst a lost people (get ready for the cries of “Blasphemy!”) Beginning on Palm Sunday, the show opens with a regular guy everybody calls Jesus of Nazareth, even just Christ, who walks, dances, pretty much shows up in Jerusalem glowing with “superstar” quality. Who is he, what has he sacrificed and why is this group of shaggy, long-haired and barefoot disciples behind him so musically inclined? Are they his backup dancers or something?  

Just ask your parents, grandparents or anyone who listened to vinyl during the 1970s, and they could more likely recount a more personable experience concerning the album’s controversy than any Internet source I scoured following my surge of fascination. Upon listening to my mom’s workout playlist (out of pure curiosity) last year, I shuffled to one of the album’s opening tracks titled, “Heaven On Their Minds.” You would probably never consider that the Gospels could be interpreted, stretched and taken to such extended liberties until you realize the depth, fear and concern behind Judas’s character. 

Jesus may be the title role, but Judas is the show’s true protagonist. His complexion is as notable as Christ’s, if not more intriguing. However, consider how much we really, historically, know about him. His political and interpersonal disagreements with Christ seen onstage are nowhere in the Bible. Aside from a few very vague biblical descriptions, next to no light is ever shed upon his motives for handing over Jesus to the Romans nor the swarming distress that screeches in his ears after doing so, one of the reasons he is a paramount figure in this production. 

Until the album’s release, Judas was always the bad guy in every medium of art and interpretation of the Passion. Even since, no other concept or rendering has delved as deep or placed as much emphasis on him as “Superstar.” Believe me, if I ever had the chance for the roles Jesus and Judas in the musical, I’d be secretly praying to get the latter (and not just because Judas sings the title song, though he has some of the best solos). He also experiences an uncomfortably real 21st-century breakdown, subsequently cutting his stage time a little bit shorter than Christ’s by committing suicide before returning as an angel (in this case not “damned for all time”) to sing “Superstar” before the Crucifixion. 

One more thing: The Resurrection is not included.  

Perhaps the most controversial element of the show, the fact that the Resurrection is excluded instills a free interpretation for all audiences. Rice made an interesting comment in Life magazine about the characterization of Christ that parallels this ideology. 

“It happens that we don’t see Christ as God but simply the right man at the right time at the right place.” 

“ Heresy!” cried the adults.

“Jesus was in Black Sabbath?” asked the kids.  

Obviously, this concept invites listeners and audiences to freely interpret the unsung layers of Jesus’s, Judas’s and Mary’s psyches. Modern language is prevalent throughout the lyrics, and present-day postures contrast with allusions of biblical dress and contemporary sensibilities.

Whether meditated as an alternative to a Lenten preparation or used to combat your traditional religious narrative, “Jesus Christ Superstar” is for the soul of both the religiously and morally lost who seek the comfort of a familiar story rerouted to feel slightly modernized and rebellious. 

The youth who want to know a less stained-glass-window-image of Jesus desire a personal intimacy with Christ as much as the hippies who shout and proclaim so in song and dance, “Christ, you know I love you /Did you see I waved /I believe in you and God, so tell that I’m saved /Jesus, I am with you /Touch me, touch me, Jesus /Jesus, I am on your side /Kiss me, kiss me, Jesus!”  

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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