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Here at Easter Time — Jesus Christ Superstar

Too much heaven on our mind

Too much heaven on our mind

Jesus Christ Superstar is my favorite musical of all time. I’ve never talked about it to people much, though, because I was always worried about potentially offending a conservative Christian (in the twenty-eight years I’ve known him, I’ve never once mentioned the show to my father-in-law). While I believe people need to lighten up, I can also understand some people getting bent out of shape over the representation of such a different kind of Jesus, a human and vulnerable Jesus who isn’t always nice all of the time.

 Frankly, the Jesus of JCS is pretty pissed off, particularly at all of his followers other than Mary Magdalene. He’s super annoyed at being pestered all the time (“While you prattle through your supper/Who and where and who and how/She alone is trying to give me/What I need right here and now”). The apostles are kind of irritating, nagging Jesus and more conscious of their image rather than their cause (“Always hoped that I’d be an apostle/Knew that I could make it if I tried/Then when we retire we can write the gospels/So they’ll all talk about us when we’ve died”).
Jesus really loses it with the pack of lepers who accost him, wanting to be healed (“There’s too many of you/Don’t PUSH me!/There’s so little of me/Don’t CROWD me!/LEAVE ME ALONE!” That last line, incidentally, is changed in the movie. In the original score, it’s “HEAL YOURSELVES!”) Even after coming to acceptance of his martyrdom in the Garden of Gethsemane, after a major bout of doubt, he ends by saying “Take me now! Before I change my mind…” This is Jesus the man, the human being, not the god.
Perhaps even more controversial is the depiction of Judas as a victim rather than the villain of the story. From the outset of the show, Judas wrestles with his desire to get their mission of helping the poor back on track, before disaster strikes. He criticizes Jesus for not dispelling the myths that he’s a god, a king, but he still loves him (“Believe me, my admiration for you hasn’t died/But every word you say today/Gets twisted round some other way/And they’ll hurt you if they think you’ve lied”). The sheer despair in his voice at the end of “Heaven on Their Minds” just kills me (“He won’t LISTEN to me…ahhhhh…”). Judas has no idea when he sells Jesus out to Caiaphas that it will result in his torture and death. When this becomes clear, Judas goes mad, realizing he’s been a pawn all along (“I’ve been used/And you knew it all the time!”). As he hangs himself, unable to contain his guilt, he cries “You have murdered me/Murdered me/Murdered me!” Rather than the betrayer, he’s a martyr as well.
Even Pontius Pilate isn’t really a bad guy in this story, but rather just another part of the master plan. Jesus himself tells him “Everything is fixed, and you can’t change it!” Pilate gets it, replying with real sadness at the end “I wash my hands of your demolition/Die, if you want to, you innocent puppet.”
But all this controversy isn’t why I love JCS. I love the show for itself, for the cleverness and beauty of its music and lyrics, for the turmoil and interplay between its characters. The look between Jesus and Judas as they reach their hands out to each other, then are pulled away, during “Strange Thing Mystifying” is priceless.
I’m mostly talking about the movie version here. The one and only stage show I’ve seen, well, I don’t really want to talk about it. I don’t really want to THINK about it. The worst part is that it actually starred Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson (before he died of leukemia) in the mid-’90s revival tour. I saw it at the Honolulu Performing Arts Center and the staging was so deplorable that it would have been better done in a high school auditorium.
To me, the movie *is* JCS. It’s a period piece, but not of biblical times. Big Afros, fringed jump suits, bell bottoms, it fairly screams the early to mid- ’70s. Contemporary lines like “Hey, cool it, man” are just part of the hippie-infused atmosphere. The stark beauty of the Israeli locations (those desert vistas, that cavern where they sing “What’s the Buzz,” the ancient amphitheater pit that Judas descends into for “Superstar”) brings such a weird, striking contrast to the modern touches. The opening shots start off with the cast and crew arriving in a Partridge Family-like bus, laughing and hugging and greeting each other as the overture plays. Frame by frame, they start transforming themselves into their characters, shrugging into costumes, picking up props, jumping into synchronized dance moves. Circling around Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson excluded from the group. The sun beats down and nothing is playful anymore, as the chords of “Superstar” cut through like a knife, then fall away.
There is terrific storytelling in the lyrics, taking us through the narrative as effortlessly as spoken word, but with greater impact. The singing always feel natural, as if the characters live in a parallel universe where everyone just naturally sings and rhymes what they say. I could sing all these songs forever.
The cinematography is stunning, so full of blinding light and towering heights. The sets are minimalist, raw scaffolding for the players to move through, letting us focus on the music and the lyrics and the tight, focused facial expressions. There is such a sense of impending doom throughout the movie, woven in with the joyous singing and dancing, and not just because we all already know how things go down in the end. Jesus, Judas, even the baddies Caiaphas and Pilate, they each start out searching for some alternative ending, but they each know they are trapped in the parts they were destined to play. The looks that pass between Jesus and Judas are heartbreaking, both wishing for things that can’t be, while the rest of the group blithely floats along in ignorance. Even as he joyfully parades into town with his cheering followers, singing “Hosanna,” a bleak shadow passes over Jesus’ face, as he knows what is to come. Mary Magdalene seems to know that all is not well, but she is trying her very hardest to will everything into being all right. Even when she’s given up hope, she still has strength left to wish. “Could We Start Again, Please?” is my favorite Mary song in the show; I like it much better than “Everything’s All Right” and a thousand times more than “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Those clean, spare notes in Yvonne Elliman’s sweet voice make for a heart-rending song that often got cut from the TV version they showed when I was a kid (for time, I believe, rather than content).
By the Crucifixion, all the gaudy, hallucinatory trappings of “Superstar” melt away, and it feels terribly, horribly real. The glare of the sun, the sound of the hammered nails, inconceivable pain manifested in harsh, atonal music and Jesus’ agonized cries of “My God, My God, why have you forgotten about me?” Gradually the music slides into a fluid, rising gasp, ascending, as if up with Jesus into heaven.
Then it’s over, and the players smile, now out of character, and tiredly climb back onto the bus. Carl Anderson sweeps his gaze out over the landscape, sapped of strength yet still exuding a sense that something happened here, something big that can never be erased. We see no Ted Neely, just an empty cross up on the hill as the bus rolls away in clouds of ancient ancestral dust.
This was the musical that made me want to sing, and particularly made me want to dance. I was an awkward bookworm of a child, who knew what the word “uncoordinated” meant when I was four years old. Yet the jubilant dancers that leapt and spun through “Simon Zealotes” made it impossible for me to sit still, and I reached for the sky along with them, there on my living room floor. There were no DVRs in those days; we didn’t even have a VCR till years later. If we had, I’m sure I would have had a videotape of JCS, and I would have watched it till it thinned into nothingness. To this day, I can sing every single word of the show, from listening to the cassette tape I had of the soundtrack.
When I was growing up, a local television station showed JCS every year at Easter. Not being a Christian, watching the movie and hunting for eggs were my yearly rituals. Now I can watch it anytime I want, but somehow it’s still particularly special at Easter time.
“Hosanna, Hey Sanna, Sanna Sanna Ho, Sanna Hey Sanna Ho San-na! Hey JC, JC, won’t you smile at me? Sanna Ho Sanna Hey, Superstar!” The heart lifts.

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