by Jack McClatchy
Staff Musical Evangelist
Ever since NBC has started airing live musicals on national television, I’ve either not watched the show or been massively disappointed. It nearly ruined Grease, The Sound of Music, Rocky Horror, and other shows so I was prepared to write off Jesus Christ Superstar when I saw the commercials.
I admit I’m a fanboy of Jesus Christ Superstar. I have the original recording on vinyl and listen to it occasionally, almost always blown away by what I hear. It’s Andrew Lloyd Weber’s best musical, and yes, that includes Cats (even though I don’t quite like it).
Weber wrote the musical as a rock opera, or basically a rock musical without any spoken dialogue. Think Tommy and Quadrophenia by the Who, or The Wall by Pink Floyd. Basically, it’s like traditional opera but with instruments used for rock and roll.
The musical is set during the last week of Jesus’ life seen through the eyes of Judas Iscariot who ultimately betrayed him to the authorities. It is a notable exception to the notion that Christian rock is terrible (which I won’t be getting into here).
In the original concept album released in 1970, Ian Gillian played Jesus, Murray Head was Judas Iscariot, and Yvonne Elliman was Mary Magdalene. All three of them gave stellar performances. It was quintessential early 1970’s rock, rich in perfectly imperfect voices, funky basslines, and musical ornamentation.
So, how did a modern adaptation of a musical giant go? Surprisingly well, considering NBC’s history of airing musicals live. I shudder whenever I think of Grease, The Sound of Music, or A Christmas Story (who the hell made that into a musical?), and I thank God they haven’t tried Rent or Les Misérables yet.
Given my past experience with NBC musicals, I was prepared to hate this adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar on Easter Sunday. I watched with a critical eye, but could find few things that were glaringly wrong with anyone’s performance.
NBC casted R&B star John Legend to be Jesus, and I was skeptical. Ian Gillian, who at the time was the lead singer for the hard rock band Deep Purple, was known for his screeching high notes in a way few other people can do (listen to Highway Star and you’ll see what I mean a minute in).
I haven’t seen Legend be able do that, and he didn’t when I saw the show, but I was still impressed by his vocal abilities. His acting left a bit to be desired (the New York Times described it as “John Legend is worried”), however his singing was unique in that he didn’t try to be Ian Gillian. He was John Legend signing like John Legend, and I can always respect a singer not trying to imitate someone else.
The real star of the show was Judas, played by Brandon Victor Dixon who was really known for replacing Leslie Odom, Jr. as Aaron Burr in Hamilton. He gave power and weakness when the music required it, and his acting was spot on. I know it’s hard to sympathize with the man who sold out the Son of God, but dammit Dixon made me feel for him.
Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene was also a very good casting choice. She sang with such precision and power that I would put her in dead heat with Yvonne Elliman, who all Mary Magdaelenes are compared to. Magdalene’s songs serve a respite from the drama of Jesus’ final days, and Bareilles did a fantastic job.
Another aspect that came out of left field was casting Alice Cooper as King Herod. This role is usually played in the campiest of ways (usually Herod joins a kick line of Go-Go girls) and is unequivocally gay. Cooper played an almost distant but curious straight man which was a breath of fresh air for me. Believe me, I love some campy humor, but to see a gay stereotype flipped on its head almost effortlessly was amazing to see.
Granted, Cooper did forget a line, but his performance was so good I can overlook it.
One problem I did have was the sound mixing. In the original recording, the instrumentation is almost competing with the vocalist as if a traveling band is following Jesus and the 12 Apostles. In the NBC showing, I had to listen hard to find the instrumentation which is a shame because I love it as much as I love the vocal performances.
I know sound mixing is hard to do, but I wish NBC did a better job in bringing the instruments to the forefront because it almost sounded barebones without it.
I think it’s safe to say that Jesus Christ Superstar saved live musicals for NBC, considering all of the other ones have been sh*tting on the legacy of earlier performances. After watching Jesus Christ Superstar, I will still watch these live musicals on NBC, but not as skeptical as I was before watching this one.