Hello and happy Easter! To mark the holiday, I want to discuss an iconic musical, Jesus Christ Superstar. I consider myself a Christian, and I also greatly enjoy this show. While not all details may be biblically or historically accurate, the humanity and empathy of these characters are engaging. The musical doesn’t claim that Jesus was divine but focuses more on his political work as a social renegade with the radical message of welcoming the societal outcasts. This review contains “spoilers” of the 2000-year-old story that is the cornerstone of Western civilization.
In the 2012 version, Ben Forster brings emotion and depth to the timeless and iconic title role. Jesus can inspire and transform crowds but can’t open his best friend’s eyes. While Judas does drive the show, Jesus walks a delicate balance of inspiration and exhaustion. The litmus test of this role is the behemoth song Gethsemane, which Forster conquers with grit. His choice to sing to the ceiling rather than the audience, and his repeated breathtaking high notes, make it clear that this is a battle. His final notes and pose make it clear that he has already won. Now it just needs to play out.
Tim Minchin brings a helpless rage to his turn as Judas, a man trying to save his friend and then save his country. In the first act, Minchin opens the show with “Heaven on Their Minds,” a warning against the destruction he will cause. When he makes his deal with the soldiers in “Blood Money”, his plea that “I didn’t really come here of my own accord” strikes me as intriguing, desperate, and sympathetic. The reprise of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” is utterly gut wrenching, and I can barely watch the death of such a lost soul. The question that has haunted me since I watched this production is “Did Judas go to Heaven?” No one can truly answer that on earth, but I’d like to believe he realized his mistake and was offered the same redemption as any of us.
Mary Magdalene is played by Mel C (a former Spice Girl, don’t ask me which one). She provides a soothing respite with her first ballad, “Everything’s Alright,” She also brilliantly nails the reflective and transformative ballad “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” The director made an interesting choice to have her wipe off most of her makeup and take off her jacket during her iconic song. Throughout the show, she’s the gentle calm amidst the growing tension between Jesus and everyone else. Mary Magdalene and Judas have their unique tension, stemming from opposite means to the same end of service. There’s a historical debate about whether Jesus and Mary M were romantically linked, and this show is open to that possibility without overtly forcing it. Judas directly refers to her “profession,” and it’s another beautiful contrast between who she has been and who Jesus has helped her become. She’s a perfect balance to the tension, and her love and care help give Jesus the strength He needs.
The aesthetics and costumes of 2012’s arena show are meant to reflect a modern timelessness, with graffiti in the background and protestors with Mohawks and megaphones. One intriguing twist is turning the “temple” into a modern strip club, with neon and tacky, revealing costumes. It certainly drives home the heretical distortions of the temple. King Herod’s song is staged as a reality show along the lines of Maury or Dr. Phil. This tacky opulence drives home the absurdly of the Roman rulers.
The first half of the show, up to Gethsemane, is engaging and upbeat, a celebration of an impending victory. I’ll be honest; I have trouble watching the second half. Both in the show and in history, the subversion of “tropes” is jaw-dropping and heartbreaking. I don’t do well with onscreen violence, so the whipping and crucifixion can get a bit gratuitous for me. I will say, the final song is a bizarre addition that didn’t need to be there. I get that non-Christians might not believe in resurrection and they still need a happy ending, but they could’ve shown the disciples going out and preaching.
One little nitpicky note: while all of these songs are excellent, I happen to prefer the 2018 version of Simon Zealotes to this one. The 2018 performer had a grittier rock edge and hit a satisfying final note. This show’s Simon seems a little unsure and is not as strong vocally. I’ll be honest, I blast “Simon Zealotes” in my living room and have a full-out dance party.
The show does a stellar job of highlighting just how much Jesus contrasted his surroundings. With His messages, His friends, and His actions, He calls us to an otherworldly hope, and courage and strength in the face of adversity.
I give this show 9/10 for excellent aesthetics, songs, and characters. One point docked for the bizarre ending song and the slightly gratuitous violence. I would recommend this for families with kids over 14 as an immersive perspective on a very extraordinary human. Happy Easter to all!