What’s the Buzz? #LyricJCS

Full disclosure: my history with Jesus Christ Superstar is pretty thin. The first time I remember experiencing it was after my wife and I got married, and she got a DVD of the 1973 film version.[fn1]

The second time was this last Easter on NBC.

The third time was Saturday at Chicago’s Lyric Opera. (Spoiler alert: if you’re in or near Chicago, or will be on or before May 20, get tickets to this show. Right now.)

For the last six years or so, the Lyric Opera has closed its season with a Broadway musical. This year, in a departure from the traditionally America, traditionally traditional, musicals, they went with Jesus Christ Superstar. And what they delivered is mind-blowingly good.

This version is an expansion of director Tim Sheader’s successful London revival. And there are a handful of things that make this version so impactful.

First and foremost are the actors.[fn2] Judas’s voice soars and growls, as his agony at the role he can’t escape grows. This Mary Magdalene enters calming the chaos around her. This Pilate may be the most relatable, dressed in black leather but clearly distressed at what he’s going to do. And Caiaphas. In other recordings, his bass vocals are impressive. Here, his basso profundo reverberates in the audience’s chests and in their souls.

And Jesus. For most of the performance, he’s a secondary character in his eponymous play. His songs are, if not bland, at least unmemorable.

Until the moneychangers in the temple. And then his voice explodes, with a melodic scream that would make Jimmy Page Robert Plant [author’s note: oops] proud (and, I suspect, jealous). And the actor manages to capture the pain and the hurt and the loneliness that scripture suggests Jesus felt, but that has largely been sterilized by decades of reading the idea of the gospel texts.

Look, this is Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. It’s young Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. The music and lyrics are fine. But the story they’re adopting is divine, and the performances in this version are transcendent, raising even the most mundane features of the musical to the glorious.

And it’s not just the actors: Sheader sluffs off any attempt at creating connective tissue. Jesus Christ Superstar was, in the first instance, a concept album, not a play. And this version is performatively musical. The stage has a stage on it. The actors sing into classic hand-held microphones. There’s a guitar onstage the whole time, and sometimes Jesus plays it as he sings. That’s not to say there isn’t acting and dancing—there is, and it’s great. But it’s always within the context of a rock concert.

And speaking of: the music. There’s a six-piece rock band (apparently filled with Chicago luminaries) above the stage. But also, the Lyric Opera’s 31-piece orchestra behind the stage. And the chorus is doubled, with not just Broadway singers, but also the Lyric Opera’s chorus. All of those musicians, all of that talent, make for a wall of sound. A glorious, heavenly wall of sound. The sound can be funky—the play starts, basically, with a perfect recreation of the analogue synthesizer glissandos that start the album.[fn3] It can be chaotic and disorienting: the dissonance during the crucifixion is magnified manifold with a chorus and an orchestra this loud. It can be surprising: there was a perfect Brecker-esque saxophone solo that came out of nowhere, then disappeared, never to be heard again.

And Herod. Oh Herod.

Note that the play is appropriately bloody. Jesus’s agony, his pain, is earned. But, at the same time, the play isn’t lovingly focused on the agony. While the pain is palpable, while the blood is makeuped on, none of it is gratuitous or unnecessary. Note, too, that it’s not like what you’ve seen before. It’s not campy, it’s not a throwback, it’s not at all hippy. It is, however, diverse and young and it takes its source material seriously. And you should definitely see it.

But wait! you might be saying. Haven’t church leaders spoken against Jesus Christ Superstar?

Yes, it turns out, though I didn’t know that until I Facebooked it. See, I wasn’t quite born when the album first came out, and by the time I was old enough to be aware of church culture, the show had (temporarily) faded from the public consciousness.[fn4] Then, Sunday night, my oldest daughter was on lds.org and found several statements criticizing Jesus Christ Superstar, to her utter confusion.

And I share that confusion, frankly. Without looking at the specific criticisms (which seem to be more general anti-hippy and anti-rock music stuff than specific criticisms of the album), I suspect it was discomfort at using a vulgar and eminently secular medium (that is, rock music) to address a sacred story.

And that’s part of the greatness. Seeing the Passion from a different perspective, with characters and words we’re not used to, allows us to cut through what we think we’re familiar with. It forces us to look at the story of the last week of Jesus’ life differently, and catch angles and details that we didn’t think about before. Like great art (and this performance was absolutely great art), it allows us to transcend ourselves. And that’s inspiring.

(And for those of you who would love to see it, but aren’t going to make it to Chicago in the next two weeks, in a year, this particular version is going on tour. It won’t be quite the same—they won’t, I suspect, be taking the Lyric’s chorus or orchestra. Even still, though, I wouldn’t miss it if it came to a town near you.)


[fn1] I don’t remember exactly when it was, but since we lived in New York at the time, it must have been in the first decade of the 2000s.

[fn2] Note that I’m using their characters’ names, mostly because I’m too lazy to pull out my program and find out the actors’ names. And also because you probably wouldn’t recognize the names—there are no star names in this performance, and it’s not the weaker for that.

[fn3] Yes, I know I didn’t have any experience with it. But when we got home Saturday night, we listened to the soundtrack from the 1973 movie. Then Sunday, we listened to the original album.

[fn4] The Andrew Lloyd Webber of my childhood was probably Cats. I never saw it, but remember being mystified by ads for it during Saturday morning cartoons. In middle school, the world was obsessed with the organ line from Phantom of the Opera. And when my high school band took a trip to Vegas, we saw Starlight Express.

Comments

  1. Thanks, Sam. A wonderful, enthusiastic review. I dislike most rock music and you were still able to make me wish I were in Chicago! I’ll be looking for the tour next year.
    You supposed the Church opposition to Jesus Christ, Superstar “was discomfort at using a vulgar and eminently secular medium (that is, rock music) to address a sacred story.” Being old enough to have experienced that first reaction and being a classical church musician, I can tell you with some confidence that is exactly what it was. In those days, the formerly existing General Church Music Committee didn’t even approve of “How Great Thou Art”. Mormon pop via EFY, etc. had not yet come into existence. The secular sources of tunes to which we sing hymns were simply ignored. (My favorite is the eminently secular German student drinking song Krambimbambuli that became an American University glee club favorite, was “reincarnated” as an American temperance hymn [the lyrics are hilarious], and adopted by Mormons for “The Time is Far Spent.”) Hope you can help your daughter’s confusion. I haven’t yet dared to conduct The Time is Far Spent with a beer stein in hand.

  2. Thanks for the context and color, JR! (I should note that, probably as a hilarious nod to the fact that this was in an opera house, the coat check had a bowl of ear plugs for patrons. And the show was legit loud, so I wouldn’t blame anybody for using them.)

  3. Watching it three times seems like a lot more than a little “thin experience”! Thanks for the post!

  4. My only experience with it was our High School choir singing an arrangement of “Everything’s All Right”. The somewhat experimental rock feel of it was certainly different and challenging. One of the few times I’d heard music that was in a duet with the lyric, rather than being an accompaniment.

    I don’t know if it was just how I was raised, but the modern retake of something sacred, in this case, never bothered me. It gave me something new to think about in developing my own faith.

  5. “I suspect it was discomfort at using a vulgar and eminently secular medium (that is, rock music) to address a sacred story.”

    This is exactly what it was. I’ve never seen any indication that any Church leader who denounced the musical had actually seen it. Just the idea of it — rock music, a broadway musical, a depiction of Jesus that wasn’t tempered by suburban wanness or viking features.

  6. Your Facebooking of your attendance has provoked a minor crisis of faith for me, or at least raised some questions that I haven’t yet answered. I was a young teen at the time, and heard/read all the warnings against Jesus Christ Superstar, the insistence that no part of it be used in connection with Church activities, and the very strong recommendation that we not play the album or see the movie in our private lives. If it wasn’t blasphemous, it was at least non-doctrinal (that was actually one of the arguments against it — in the generation that made the oh-so-very-doctrinal (?) Saturday’s Warrior an unqualified success.)

    So when one of my school teachers announced that she would play the album for us on a given day, I “knew” I shouldn’t listen to it. Church leaders had made that clear. I had to stand up and walk out of the classroom to spend the period in the library, while all my classmates, including several LDS kids, watched me leave. If my reputation as a weirdo hadn’t already been set in stone, that would have done it, even though nothing was said in class about why I was leaving.

    So I’ve been wondering since you mentioned JCS about the so-called virtue of obedience. Searching “obedience” at lds.org turns up no end of items extolling that virtue, sometimes as paramount above all others. There’s an unspoken assumption that “obedience” means following righteous commandments. But not all requests are righteous in the sense of coming from the source of all righteousness — God — nor are they necessarily correct. In this case, the instruction was cultural or generational, no? Obedience caused me some amount of harm, at least increased my heartache and teen loneliness. When is (or is?) someone justified in disobedience? Yes, certainly — disobeying Haight and Lee at Mountain Meadows is an obvious example. But what about a teen whose understanding is still childlike and who, in the midst of the culture, has no experience to judge the rightness of expectations? <em<Disobedience is no virtue if it’s disobedience for its own sake — did obedience to teachings with regard to JCS result in my greater likelihood of keeping more righteous commandments? would disobedience have led me to rely on my own wishes and develop unhealthy skepticism toward my leaders? What a responsibility those leaders bear to guide youth rightly and not through their own blindness!

    Not looking for answers here, although I anticipate some scornful ones from other commenters. Just relating how your simple “Hey, I’m at this show and I love it!” ignited something in me.

  7. Ardis, Thanks for your thoughts. You have articulated some serious issues about culture and obedience and done it out of personal experience. Those issues have and will continue to persist — from opposition to waltzing, rock dancing, classical music in Church, Bach, multiple earrings, etc. There are serious understanding and balancing issues involved. I suspect if there are answers they are more individual and cultural than general. Sometimes it is valuable for both leaders and youth to simply be aware of the questions while seeking their answers in particular circumstances. Thanks for raising them here.
    I remember the claim that JCS was blasphemous, but I had connected that only to the rock music and to having an actor/rock singer play Christ on stage. I hadn’t noted the “non-doctrinal” claim in my memory, probably because those I would have heard it from had clearly not seen the show and wouldn’t know whether it was “doctrinal” or not.

  8. your food allergy is fake says:

    In your reference to the voice of Led Zeppelin I think you mean Robert Plant, not Jimmy Page.

  9. Ardis, I think those are legitimately hard (and tough) questions. For me, seeing the show didn’t raise any questions of appropriate disobedience, because, while I’d heard vague rumors that the church didn’t love JCS, that lack of love—and that prohibition—had long since faded by the time I was old enough to care about it.

    Because certainly we value being a peculiar people. But also, peculiarity comes with real tangible costs to the people who are peculiar; that peculiarity should, in the best world, be counterbalanced by some kind of increase inclusion and cohesiveness among others who are peculiar. But I can see how it would be doubly alienating to be peculiar vis-a-vis the outside world, but also vis-a-vis others who should be subject to the same limitations that we’re facing.

    (N.b.: scornful comments will be scornfully deleted. So please engage, but engage nicely.)

  10. food allergy, you’re right. I’m mixing up my Zeppeliners. Oops.

  11. ” And then his voice explodes, with a melodic scream that would make Jimmy Page proud (and, I suspect, jealous). ”

    Jimmy Page was the guitarist for Led Zeppelin. Perhaps you meant Robert Plant, the band’s singer. Or better yet, Ian Gillan, the singer for Deep Purple, who lent his unmistakable voice with its powerful tenor scream to the 1970 album.

    My parents followed church leader’s counsel and banned the music from our home when I was a teenager. So of course, I listened to it at a friend’s house. I still make time for it every Easter. I think it’s great that new productions continue to be performed.

  12. Mark, the Ian Gillan scream is great. This one is mindblowingly, well, mindblowing.

  13. When I hear a talk about Christ’s suffering in Gethsemane, that’s where my mind goes. I’m jealous that I don’t live closer to Chicago to hear this rendition.

  14. Ardis, that’s a really powerful expression of a really hard dilemma! Really sorry to hear and contemplate how that might have negatively affected you. I think it’s really unfortunate Church leaders would have felt the need to make a statement against JCS, especially without having seen it but simply out of cultural hostility toward rock music and a popular portrayal of the Passion.

  15. I wonder if someone has done a study on how the Church has reacted to different cultural things like this over the decades. The reaction to JCSS seems quite different from the reaction to (the much more profane) Book of Mormon musical. Probably another post (or three), since the attentions given to such things can vary widely by person, family, Ward, area, etc.

  16. It is an interesting question. Michael Hicks has a chapter on the church’s response to popular music over the 20th century in his book Mormonism and Music. IIRC (my copy’s at home), he suggests that Pres. Kimball and Hunter, both of whom played popular music (clarinet and sax respectively, again iirc) changed the church’s rhetoric on popular music.

  17. But it’s also not just music – our household growing up knew very well the ban on playing cards (which we disregarded), and I had my own take on weather or not role playing games (Dungeons and Dragons) was acceptable.

  18. kevinf says:

    I remember listening to the original album at the Catholic student center at college in 1970 with some friends, mostly non-LDS. There were parts that made me uncomfortable, but other parts that really opened new insights for me. Then in the 1980s, my wife and I saw the touring company at the Capitol Theater in SLC. I had mostly the same reactions, and I totally understand the discomfort that Ardis relates. Disclaimer: I have been, and always will be, a fan of the rock music of the 60s and 70s, and loved that this is a part of this show.

    I enjoyed the NBC version this year, with its subtle nods to social and mass media. There is something about music’s power to magnify emotions and feelings that makes a performance like you describe memorable, and I found moments of that in the NBC version.

    Yet, there is always a little undercurrent of disquiet that sticks with me. I find value in seeing a treatment of the passion like this, but I also recognize the limits. JCS was not written by people with the same theology as the Church, so there will be differences, and there is no question that the emphasis is on Christ’s humanity. That always plays well with me as the character interacts with others around him, and display the human side of those supporting characters. How much do we really know about how Peter felt during this whole experience? Will we ever know in this life the true motivations of Judas? These are interesting ideas to explore, and the musical is a good place to start.

    What always puts me off, though, is the depiction of Herod. Both the touring company in the 80s, and the NBC version play Herod for shock value, and based on the lyrics he sings, it seems pretty clear that is what Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice had in mind. Herod in these productions a grotesque, narcissistic, and utterly profane character, and that may not be far from the truth. But there is always an element of celebration of Herod’s portrayal, and I find that the most difficult aspect of the productions I have seen.

    But overall, despite the warnings from church leaders, I have been glad that I have seen these productions, and learned to parse some of my own thoughts and feelings about Christ and his apostles. And it sounds like this was a great production.

  19. Right. It would also be interesting to know when what faded where. I remember youth conferences in Southern California in the early 90s that taught me that Queen backmasked pro-pot messages in “Another One Bites the Dust.” (I was disappointed at how poorly done it apparently was when I went home and listened backwards.) I grew up playing cards, but the missionaries I lived with and I got a lecture from a member in Brazil when he saw us playing hearts (I think). And I was never a D&D person, so I have no real idea if it was discouraged or not when I was a kid.

  20. I went to a Catholic school and when the film version was first released we went as a class to see it. I was a young teenager and I remember our teachers playing and discussing the soundtrack in class. I actually found it inspiring.

    Years later when I learned that the LDS church disapproved of it I was truly baffled. Now I realize their disapproval was probably a generational thing. I really feel for people like Ardis who suffered because of it.

  21. Sam,
    The movie “Jesus Christ Superstar” came out in 1973. I remember like it was yesterday my seminary teacher repeatedly telling us to stay away from the movie—that it was a tool used by Satan. As I recall, it was believed that the movie diminished Jesus as just a mortal man. To this day I have yet to see that movie, (though I would like to) but I did hear and like the music.

    Many years later, talking to a friend who is a convert to the church, she told me her spiritual awakening began as a result of seeing the Jesus Christ Superstar movie—and resulted in her welcoming the missionaries into her home. Today, she has a leadership role in the stake.

  22. Kevin Barney says:

    Scene no. 1: Very early 70s. I’m a middle schooler. I’m visiting a friend of mine at his house, which was a parsonage (his father was the pastor of the local Lutheran Church). The topic of Jesus Christ Superstar comes up, and I quickly opine that it’s blasphemous, based I suppose on whatever I had heard about it at Church. My friend replies something like, “Oh? How so?” And I immediately realized I had parroted a church line with zero understanding of what I was talking about. This was all the clearer to me as the conversation took place with a friend I knew to be religiously devout in a parsonage just steps away from a church. And it occurred to me that if it weren’t self-obviously blasphemous to him, that was something I couldn’t just assume; if I wanted to express that opinion I would have to own it, which meant I would have to actually, I don’t know, see it or something. So that was a good lesson for me not to just parrot talking points of church leaders if I didn’t actually know what the hell I was talking about.

    Scene no. 2: Last year some time a sister in our ward, a convert, either as part of a talk or a testimony, expressed over the pulpit how excited she was to go to see a local production of JCS. I looked around to see if anyone was fuming; I waited for the correction from the pulpit; but nothing. No one seemed to be aware of the early tack taken by church leaders against the musical. “My, how times change,” I thought.

  23. Rexicorn says:

    I remember a vague understanding the Jesus Christ Superstar was blasphemous, but I’d never seen it. So it was interesting when the NBC broadcast came on and all my Mormon friends were into it. I’m not sure when we decided it was OK again.

    One of my earliest major moments of leadership skepticism was when President Hinckley decried the movie version of Chicago in General Conference. I had just finished watching it three times in theaters; it was one of my favorite film/musical experiences of my life to that point. It was the first time I listened to a prophet speak and thought, “Oh, well, he’s just wrong about that.”

    I’ve noticed they weigh in less on specific pop culture and media now. I wonder if they realized the potential it has to backfire.

  24. Regarding the OP, I’m turning now to flight and Lyric schedules.

    Regarding Ardis’ comment, I recall some of the same thinking but on what might be termed the dark side. Instruction not to see or listen to JCS was one of the first Church-sourced instructions that didn’t make sense—where I could see a stark difference that didn’t rationalize. I did not experience it as a crisis, but more as a gateway. And then experiencing JCS was one of the handful of early events where I learned that spiritual experience didn’t have to be mediated by the Church. Also a gateway.

  25. Rigel Hawthorne says:

    Ardis,

    Thank you for expressing the emotions of being a teenage obedience wierdo. I can relate to that, though I was certainly never perfect in my teen obedience weirdness. One of my more awkward tests came when Elder F. Enzio Busche came to our stake conference and there was a special youth meeting with Elder Busche as a speaker. During his talk, he asked for a commitment from the youth about scripture reading. The years have gone by, but I took it as he asked us to promise to read the scriptures for 20 minutes every day and to show that we agreed to this promise by raising our hands. So…I was an obedient youth, and had just completed the Old Testament year of Seminary where I read the entire Old Testament and knew how difficult it was to read your scriptures daily 100% of the time. I had this fear that if I made a promise and broke it because I missed one day (whether it was because I was on a sports trip and got home late, or was on vacation, or was sick, or was admitted to the hospital), I would forever be guilty of breaking a promise I made to a General Authority with the raise of the right hand. So, I sheepishly kept my hand down while all around my responded with a raised hand. Then to my further ‘shame’, Elder Busche said he saw two hands that did not go up and wanted those individuals to come see him after the meeting’s end. I felt hot and my face felt flushed. Of course, I would not go meet with him, as I already felt that I had been lowered in worth just by exercising my sense of integrity. Later that day when we were at home, my parents mentioned how he described, during an adult meeting, how he had issued a challenge and all but two youth had raised their hands. He mentioned that he asked the two youth to come forward with his intention of asking them why the did not commit, but that neither of them did. My parents talked of this with a type of enthusiasm which suggested that those who raised their hand should be commended. So, when I told them that I was one that did not raise my hand, their expressions were of shock and disappointment. I quickly gave them my justification of why I did not raise my hand. The topic of conversation was changed and it was never spoken of again! One of my classmates even commented to me later that I was one of the non-hand raisers. I did at that 15 year-old age feel guilt that I harbored ill feelings toward a General Authority over something that did not seem right to me, nevertheless, I resolved to try to follow his challenge, even if I didn’t promise to do it every day. Perhaps having recognized that disappointment at 15 prepared me for disappointments that have occurred later on. Though my integrity hasn’t always passed certain tests, I look back with respect for my teenage self for having passed that one.

    I remember my mother speaking ill of Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell as well. I’m sure her influences involved both the musical genre and the counsels of the leadership. After Phantom of the Opera came out, Lloyd Webber excitement got to her and when JCS was performed in our state, I invited my parents to go with me to see it and we all thoroughly enjoyed it. We were giving the cast a standing O and dancing to the reprise during the cast bows.

  26. Loursat says:

    I’m sure the use of rock music was one reason for church leaders’ objection to the show, but I think there’s more. In JCS, Jesus is a sexy rock star. That was threatening for some obvious reasons.

    Good art shakes us–it’s discomfiting and disorienting. Good religion shakes us too. Once we’ve been shaken into conversion, religious leaders want to put boundaries around discomfiting religious experience, and they are often especially suspicious of art whose effects they can’t channel. That doesn’t make the advice to avoid art good advice. It does mean that we can always expect some institutional tension around these things.

    I’m fascinated that JCS seems not to be as threatening now as it used to be.

  27. Andrew H. says:

    I also remember people in the Church saying that JCS was blasphemous when I was a kid in the 1980s. I watched it on TV with my mother around that time, and the thing that she articulated against it was the ending: the crucification happens, then everyone gets on a bus and leaves. No resurrection, and perhaps thereby denying Jesus’ divinity. I have heard that many stage productions hint at a resurrection in the end.

  28. Andrew H. says:

    Sorry, “crucifixion”.

  29. Loursat, Do you really think any church leaders back then went to see JCS in order to have any idea whether Jesus was portrayed as a “sexy” rock star or not? I think those I heard from did not, but I did not ask and haven’t tried to research any written records of the LDS leaders’ complaints about JCS..

  30. Loursat says:

    JR, I don’t think it matters very much whether they actually saw it or listened to it. I think their comments about it were more a cultural position than a criticism of the piece.

    I really appreciate the comments by Ardis, Rigel Hawthorne, and others who have related their youthful struggles over obedience. I also had some experiences like those.There is a difference between making excuses for disobedience and, on the other hand, choosing which principles and advice to follow. Fretting about a show like Jesus Christ Superstar is a conflict that’s really typical of that point in life when we discover that obedience can be complicated.

  31. Ardis’s post reminded me of a friend who had a crisis of faith in high school about trying out for a local production of Godspell. Godspell, you may recall, was the less edgy, more Evangelical-friendly version of Jesus Christ Superstar, by virtue of being a pretty faithful adaptation of the Gospel of Matthew. But the hippie iconography and the soft-rock music still scared off my friend. I told him I’d seen the play and found it very moving, but he was having a hard time imagining what the Savior would say about a version of the Crucifixion SET TO ELECTRIC GUITAR?!?!

    This was in the 1990s, skepticism about the counterculture took a long time to die in LDS circles.

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