Sounding similar to proselytes knocking on my door, asking if I’ve gotten to know Jesus, a lot of people are now asking what I thought of the television version of Jesus Christ Superstar. Now, I don’t wish to sound smug, or to slam the door in anyone’s face, but the question is connected to a fundamental misunderstanding of what I do. Theatre is created to be experienced live. Easter’s broadcast showed a live audience enjoying a star-studded production and we TV viewers have our faces pressed to the glass, supposing we know what it’s like to be in the room where it happened. We do not.
The enthusiastic throng in the Park Avenue Armory didn’t take in the zippy camerawork we couch potatoes did, and the stunning visual effect depicting the Ascension may not have wowed as strongly from all seats. But what’s most obvious is that rock music’s piquancy is connected to loud sounds that don’t fly to a satellite and back, or along a cable. The bass and drums literally rock the house, felt through the floorboards like a small earthquake. Anybody get that at home? Put a different way, is attending a rock concert anything like watching a rock concert on TV? Or: can the small screen with its lousy speakers only provide a distant simulacrum? If your living room floor was shaking, chances are that was an earthquake. Check your crystal.
I’ve heard that John Legend, in concert, is a delightful charismatic performer. That he has an ingratiating smile, makes eye contact with the audience, and has a rich, honeyed tone that envelopes the audience like a puff of fog. I say I’ve heard this, because none of that good stuff made its way from New York, to that satellite and back, to my living room. And how could it? This blockage is inherent in the medium, not the fault of Legend or director David Leveaux. In an early scene, Jesus leaned down to touch front-row fans, and they certainly looked like they were having a good time. Me, I’m alienated. I like to have a good time, not just watch other people having a good time.
Still, the music and libretto were on display, and I’m happy to muse on that. I think it’s an innovative and influential piece with many fine virtues that aren’t present in the other works of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. But, I’ll warn you now: some of these couldn’t be rendered on the idiot box. The revolution could not be televised.
The young Englishmen took the idea of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead and retold the most familiar story ever told from the point of view of a different character. And so, the final days of Jesus are told through the lens of Judas Iscariot. And this means that the usual requirement that the tale be expressed through song is lifted. We all know the story, but what we don’t know, and are automatically interested in, is how Judas feels as things progress. My six-year-old wanted to know why Caiaphas and Annas were so angry and I had no answer. The piece doesn’t bother explaining. But why Judas is worried about his friend’s growing celebrity status – that’s explored and explicated. And it’s why I’ve always thought Heaven On Their Minds is a terrific opening number.
“Jesus!” Judas wails, on a rock tenor A, fortissimo, and you feel his distress. Now, for the first time in musical theatre history (early 70s), rock is being used for full expressive power. Of course he screams, and of course his screams resonate around the house – there’s ample justification for it. And Broadway vet Brandon Victor Dixon seemed to have all the right moves, but – sorry to say this – my little TV speakers failed to rock the room. It was like watching something through a vaselined lens. I didn’t feel Judas’ anxiety because his sound didn’t hit my ears like normal rock does. Lloyd Webber and Rice wrote something powerful, and the broadcast diffused that.
Similarly, Legend, Dixon and Sara Bareilles express differing points of view during a 5/4 number called Everything’s Alright and I know, from previously seeing it live, that it can be pretty exciting. Here, it was forgettable, although this may have involved the lack of acting experience of Legend and Bareilles. The writing, in a large quantity of set-pieces, allows rock stars to wail out the emotions we already know are inherent. It’s as if the songwriters understood that providing ample opportunities for strong singers to rock out would be enough to make an entertaining evening. I like Jesus Christ Superstar because of the power of its best numbers. But rock legend Alice Cooper pranced with way too little camp for me to crack a smile during an old-fashioned comedy song. The supposedly-scary Pontius Pilate (Ben Daniels) failed to frighten. The wonderfully humanizing Gethsemene number didn’t move me a bit. And I guess what I’m saying is, I’ve seen these numbers work, gloriously, live. Here, live via satellite, they had little impact.
Still, fewer mistakes were made than were on the other televised musicals from the past decade or two, and I suppose we should all be grateful for that. It’s a weird form that can never quite work. So, even if they cast a better Jesus, Mary Magdalene, King Herod, Pontius Pilate and Annas, I don’t think I’d be raving right now. Call it Jesus Christ, Mildly-Effective-Star.