You may have gathered that I’m not a fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber, considering I’m on the record as saying that we know time travel is impossible because no one went back to murder him before he could write Cats. I’m obviously thinking a lot about musical theatre this week with the release of Hamilton, and I read that Lin-Manuel Miranda was inspired by Jesus Christ Superstar to frame his show with the villain narrating the story. I’ve never seen Jesus Christ Superstar, but I figured that I should have a baseline knowledge of a musical that’s obviously influential. So I decided to put my BroadwayHD subscription to good use and finally watch a production.
The production of Jesus Christ Superstar available on BroadwayHD is a filmed version of the show’s 2012 live arena tour. This show, written in 1970, toured arenas in 2012! I bet Sir Lloyd Webber sleeps on a bed of money and when he wakes up in the night to use his golden toilet, I bet he uses £1000 notes as toilet paper. (I don’t know what the biggest currency is in England and I will not look it up.)
I love theatre more than I love almost anything on earth, though I don’t talk about it often in this newsletter because I understand it’s rather niche. But I do act and direct and have even produced several shows and could talk for hours about the magic of live theatre. A production team can take a show that was written with a specific intention in mind and rework it to make it mean something completely different, changing the setting, costuming, casting, or direction so its purpose and story are transformed. But that can go wrong. It can go so wrong. All of this is to say that I’ve seen Cats and Jesus Christ Superstar this year, and while trapped in both situations I was struck with the earnest belief that theatre, as an art form, was a mistake.
Here is a list of all the ways it went wrong in Jesus Christ Superstar: Live Arena Tour.
1. the concept itself
Okay, so this is a broad one, but it deserves it. In what BroadwayHD advertises as “an exciting and contemporary interpretation,” this production tried to reflect REAL issues, namely Occupy Wall Street. The show opens with news footage on the large screen that makes up most of the set. You always know you’re in for a subtle production when the world-building is accomplished through fake news footage.
2. the edgy protest signs
A bunch of scary-looking protesters enter, their choreography suggesting that they’re rioting and looting. Some of them run off with stolen computers or TVs, while others punch people. Protesters are buckwild, and if that wasn’t clear enough, the screen broadcasts some VERY EDGY SIGNS, like the anarchy symbol and the impudent command “CONSUME THIS.”
3. the fact that the disciple Simon throws a Molotov cocktail at the cops
Cops come out in riot gear and the protesters flip them off and try to fight them, which is good, because all cops are bastards. Shit gets wild when Simon sets things ablaze. This ain’t your mom’s rock opera!! This shit is fucking raw!!
3. Follow #TheTwelve
Here I was thinking that the story of Jesus was old and boring, but now I see that it’s cool and relevant!! “Following” Jesus is like “following” a hashtag! Jesus Christ was the original influencer. Young, anti-cop protesters enthusiastically graffiti “12” on buildings to spread their message of revolution. This is resonating, for me.
3. Judas Iscariot’s dreadlocks
I hate this so deeply. I don’t know how I feel about this Judas in general, since I don’t know much about the musical. Tim Minchin plays him and he sounds like an Irish Michael Stipe despite being an Australian someone else. He wrote the music and lyrics for Matilda the Musical, which I enjoyed very much. However. He may be fine in this role, but his dreads are not. I hate them even more than his hipster scarf.
4. the buzz
Naturally, the number “What’s the Buzz?” in this production is about going viral. This show has its finger on the pulse! They know that kids email things like “so excited for tmrw” to communicate nowadays. If Jesus walked among us, the youth would be livestreaming with their big iPads, displaying the home screen instead of a camera feature.
Or they’d just fiddle with their Rubik’s cubes.
5. this dude’s…. makeup? tattoos?
This is what the counter-culture looks like!!
6. the fact that Sporty Spice plays Mary Magdalene
And she crushes it! I’m ashamed to say that I was surprised to realize that “Melanie Chisholm,” who I assumed was a British musical theatre person, was in fact Mel C of the Spice Girls. Why was I surprised!? Did I subconsciously dismiss the Spice Girls? Of course the Spice Girls can sing, except for Posh. I shouldn’t doubt the capability of a Spice Girl who’s not Posh. I’m sorry, Mel C.
6. the fact that Sporty Spice plays Mary Magdalene with dreadlocks
Now it’s time for Mel C. to apologize to me.
7. the fact that Sporty Spice plays Mary Magdalene with leopard-print nails
The costume designer was OUT OF CONTROL.
8. Jesus getting murdered by the Illuminati
This was…. quite the decision. Instead of priests worrying about Jesus getting too powerful, the Illuminati meet up and decide to have him killed. Because it’s realistic and contemporary, right? The biggest threat to social justice is the literal Illuminati.
9. the fact that the actor playing Jesus won a contest
This Jesus was the winner of a reality show competition called Superstar. The English public voted on this Jesus. Andrew Lloyd Webber has too much power.
10. Caiphas’s insane bass
This is part of every production — it’s how the part is written — and I find it wildly unsettling.
You know, that wildly popular video streaming service.
12. Shepard Fairey Jesus
Starting a revolution is actually very easy. The kids will rally around anything with solid graphic design.
13. Simon’s outfit
Dude is wearing a Che Guevara shirt, guyliner, a leather jacket and a chain, and he has the anarchy symbol shaved into his head. This would actually be a great outfit for Judas, because if I saw someone in this anarchist cosplay I’d know they were a cop.
14. Jerusalem’s hottest club is THE TEMPLE
THE TEMPLE is a dope nightclub that has everything: strippers, people shooting heroin, jugglers. The choreographers really made the most of everyone’s “special skills” section of their résumés. I genuinely can’t tell if THE TEMPLE in this world is just a nightclub — it certainly looks like it, from its neon sign to the nightclub activities abounding — or if it’s supposed to be a church that people are defiling. This is what happens when you get too lost in your concept.
(As a note, one of the speakers at Occupy Town Hall, the Occupy protest that I participated in, called out some of the white protesters for “treating it like Coachella,” lounging about and posting on Instagram instead of actually organizing and helping. People partying at the protest might have been a clearer perversion of an important space than whatever is happening in THE TEMPLE.)
15. Jesus being super uncool about sex workers
Jesus gets really mad and throws everyone out of THE TEMPLE even though they were just having a good time. I thought that this Jesus was woke, but he’s not being very sympathetic to the strippers who are just doing their jobs. He was just canoodling with Mary Magdalene a few songs ago! Also, one of the people thrown out of THE TEMPLE was a drag queen, which seems to imply that drag is a sin on the level of partying and stripping. None of these things are sins! Jesus needs to stop being a fucking square!
16. a dramatic transformation
Mary Magdalene realizes that she loves Jesus, so she wipes off her heavy makeup and takes off her leather jacket. That’s what happens when you let Christ into your heart! He’ll make an honest woman out of ya.
17. Mary Magdalene’s cross tattoo, implying that she knows how the man she loves will be brutally killed and that she was pumped enough about the concept to get it inked on her body
What intel do you have, MM?
18. the reporter in a Playboy t-shirt at Jesus’s trial
I NEED to talk to this costume designer. I have so many questions.
19. Simon Peter choking out a homeless lady
Okay, so you know how in the Passion story, Peter denies Jesus three times? Yeah, this is how he does it the first time here. Some homeless woman is like “hey, I saw you around with Jesus, right?” and he fucking chokes her!!
20. Peter escalating the situation further
When two other homeless people argue that he was with Jesus, Peter grabs a broken bottle and waves it around like he’s ready to stab a dude over this. This man became the first bishop of the Church!!
21. “Hark! With Herod”
This is why people hate musicals, and you know what? They’re right.
There’s even a pop culture reference thrown in!
22. the violent mob chanting “you’ll be deported!” in red baseball caps
I don’t know what this was supposed to symbolize in 2012, but it sure was weird to see it now!
23. sexy angels singing the title song
What is this musical? What does this have to do with the concept of this particular production?
I want to go to confession so a priest can absolve me of the sin of watching this.
24. a sad fucking ending?
Okay, I know that the story of Jesus doesn’t end well for him. But this is called Jesus Christ Superstar! I thought that it would end with a big number about how awesome he is and how his message will live on and how future generations with follow #TheTwelve and get inspired to stand up against the Illuminati. It just ended on the genuine bummer that is Christ’s crucifixion, all bloody and cruel and made worse because confetti fell down on him when he died.
Well, I hated this. I’m mad at the 70s and art and the concept of social justice in general. None of it seems worth it.