Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Review: Jesus Christ Superstar

The other night I saw Jesus Christ Superstar again, the newer version from 2000. I've probably seen the musical four or five times by now--I am a fan. But there are also aspects of it I don't care for, which I will get to below.

The really outstanding thing about Jesus Christ Superstar is, of course, the score composed by Andrew Lloyd Weber. Weber manages to incorporate plenty of musically interesting ideas, and make them easily accessible, and catchy, even. One of my favorite parts is the introduction of the high priests, which uses polytonality to great effect. The high priests sing in a minor key ("He is dangerous!"), while the crowds praise Jesus in a major key ("Jesus Christ, Superstar!"). Polytonality is an idea that is very hard to "get", but in context it makes complete sense. This kind of thing is only possible in incidental music!

And that's not the only song which plays with tone. There are a few examples where the same theme is repeated with different tones (such as when Judas and Jesus argue while Mary tries to calm Jesus down). And there are examples where the musical tone is bright, but the meaning is soured with irony (such as when the zealots ask Jesus to lead them in battle, and when King Herod asks Jesus to perform a miracle).

My least favorite songs are the ones expressing straightforward devotion to Jesus. I prefer music with more anger, bitterness, or tension.

The many devotional songs, especially concentrated near the end, I think speak to the definitively Christian perspective of the musical. But one of the great things about the musical is that it lends itself easily to alternate interpretations. King Herod has a classic scene where he asks Jesus to perform a miracle to prove that he isn't a fraud--Jesus has no response to this. Judas has a relatively sympathetic portrayal, and says lots of sensible things ("You've begun to matter more than the things that you say").

Judas is a jerk, mind you, but then again, so is Jesus. Jesus Christ is like a D&D adventurer who rolled high charisma, but whose player doesn't actually know how to role-play charisma. Everyone is falling over themselves to please Jesus, from Judas to Mary to Pontius Pilate. But never does Jesus do anything to justify this treatment. Instead he spends most of his time throwing tantrums, telling people that they don't love him enough, and offering maddening hints that he intends to die. And then, when he dies, he has the gall to forgive people for carrying out his intentions.

This is part of a larger problem with the musical, which is that it relies too much on the audience knowing and accepting the source material. The audience already likes Jesus, so the musical doesn't spend any time demonstrating Jesus' charisma. On the other hand, the musical still felt the need to hit all the common Bible stories from the New Testament, even when they didn't really fit in with the rest of the narrative. As a result, my boyfriend, a first-time watcher, complained that the plot was very thin, and that it seemed more like a series of unrelated vignettes.

My own complaint is that the ending is just way too slow. Spoiler alert: Jesus dies and everyone is sad. They are so sad that the music loses all its anger and becomes boring. Oh, if only Jesus were still around, he'd make the music more interesting by yelling at people for no apparent reason. Yeah, I'm harsh.