I would like to start off this article by stating that this is no way a reflection of my personal religious beliefs, or in judgement of anyone else’s. Also, for those wondering what this has to do with rock-n-roll… Keep reading and learn something. No matter your beliefs, or who/what you consider a higher power (if you do at all), this is simply commentary on a newer adaption of a classic musical, referred to commonly as a rock-opera, along with a history of its basis.
There are two types of people in this world: The ones who, when they think of Jesus Christ’s last week on Earth, they think of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice creation, and then the ones who know it because of having been brought up in the Church and as such, they’ve read the Bible.
I am a part of the first group. Granted, I have read the Bible from cover to cover for personal reasons. For as long as I can remember, I have been watching the classic rock-opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. I was obsessed with the 1973 film adaption as a child. I mean, to the point where my Grandmother actually hid our VHS tape of it so she didn’t have to hear it again for awhile, haha. If you asked me to draw a picture of Christ, I’d draw Ted Neeley. Now, nothing against Ian Gillan or Jeff Fenholt! I mean, Fenholt was the first to play Christ in the 1971 Broadway stage production (with Neeley as an understudy), and Gillan was the voice of Christ when it was just a concept album in 1970. However, Neeley has been the face for now 45 years! He has been portraying Christ longer than He (Christ) was on this Earth, and at 74 years old, he is still going strong and sounds AMAZING.
I had the amazing opportunity when I was a toddler to see it taken to the stage, celebrating the 20th anniversary, the “A.D. Tour” starred Ted Neeley as Jesus Christ and Carl Anderson as Judas Iscariot as they reprised their roles. What was really cool was that Dennis DeYoung (yes, from STYX) played Pontius Pilate. That show is one of my earliest memories, and I am to this day grateful for my mother for taking me, even though I embarrassed her by screaming “MOMMY! It’s Judas!” as Anderson performed the opening song “Heaven On Their Minds”. To this day, I watch it with my family every Easter. I still get goosebumps the minute the guitar begins in the overture.
Keeping that in mind, you can understand why I was not only shocked, but skeptical of the live TV adaption on NBC that aired on Easter 2018. What initially caught my eye was that Alice Cooper was playing King Herod. While a good choice for the part, considering he did a recording of King Herod’s song in 1996, I was still curious as to whether or not he could hold a candle to Josh Mostel’s portrayal. This musical is a part of Cooper’s history it would seem. Now, I know there has been backlash about Cooper being cast at all in this, and let me just educate you for a moment on Alice Cooper. Not only is he a devout Christian, but when he is not on tour, he teaches Sunday school and works with helping children all over the world. Religious views aside, why condemn someone who does good for others, which essentially was Christ’s message?
I got curious about the rest of the cast, and it shocked me to see John Legend as Christ. Don’t get me wrong, Legend is insanely talented, but the only person I have seen perform this role aside from Neeley and do it any justice was former Skid Row singer, Sebastian Bach. Knowing Legend’s voice and range, I was immediately concerned about whether or not he would be able to hold his own. There has been backlash about Legend as well, for disgusting and very non-Christian reasons, and shame on you who did so. All I really gave a damn about was whether or not he could sing “Gethsemane”...
Then, there’s Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene. In the teaser commercial for this new version, she could be seen/heard singing “Everything’s Alright”... While she is a very talented singer, I lost a little bit of hope because of the clip. Yvonne Elliman has been Magdalene my entire life, and this song is your introduction to her showing her affection and admiration for Christ. Regardless of being turned off by it, I still wanted to go into watching it with an open mind.
Now, I didn’t watch it on actual Easter due to spending time with my family, but I kept up to date on opinions as they covered my Facebook feed. A lot of mixed reviews, but one thing I noticed was those who were not familiar with the 1970s adaptations raved about it, and those who grew up on it, saw it in theaters, or even on tour all said the same thing: Great production, poor casting.
I decided not to watch it at home because I’m pretty sure my fiance would have never let me hear the end of it (unless it’s Little Shop of Horrors, he does not do musicals), and I couldn’t go to watch it at my mom’s because she watched it without me and refused to subject herself to that a second time. Well, thank goodness for YouTube and headphones.
Let me just say right now, that I loved the set. The scaffolding and the worn down church wall went well together. The overture was played beautifully by the musicians in the orchestra. However, can someone explain the spray paint thing? The guitarists did well, but I don’t understand why they mixed into the ensemble. It seemed odd to me…
Brandon Victor Dixon (Judas) emerged from the crowd and was greeted with cheers. A very talented broadway actor, I expected power from him. The vocal arrangement and the musical arrangement was off and the power behind the notes were lacking. His rendition of “Heaven On Their Minds” was lack luster, not holding a candle anywhere near Carl Anderson or Murray Head… The “isms”, as my vocal teacher called them, were not needed… I should have stopped watching at this point instead of suffering through the next hour and a half.
“What’s the Buzz?” had me going, “What the Fuck?” The female vocals were overpowering to the male vocals that were supposed to dominate this. Again, the musical arrangement was jazzy and just wrong… WHY THE RANDOM OOS, JOHN LEGEND?! Everything about this was wrong. Timing was off. Lines that should have been legato were staccato.
I’m not going to even comment on Sara Bareilles rendition of “Everything’s Alright” other than that this is not a pop concert. Stop adding extra notes. However, Dixon finally showed a bit of passion, so that was the only redeeming quality. Then, Legend opened his mouth again… A powerful line, “You’ll be sorry when I’m gone” suffered. The final note should have made the hair on my neck stand. His poor falsetto was just that, poor.
Jin Ha as Annis, fantastic. Caiaphas actor Norm Lewis did well also, but when it came to the harmonizing, it was so grating I had to skip through...
“Hosanna” was the best song so far, until the isms came back. The adding of them, or the need to be the superstar (pun intended) when not needed took away from the message and points that were to be made, not just in this, but the whole production.
“Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem”... Again. Disappointment. Simon Zealotes actor Erik Gronwall can sing, and the choreography was phenomenal, but an entire section of vocals was left out, and the Axl Rose’ing of everything was just… No… Skipped again.
Ben Daniels (Pontius Pilate) came on to the screen, of course performing “Pilate’s Dream”. Well done. Emotion was shown, and it was sung well overall. I knew it wouldn’t last though.
“The Temple” vocally held up well, and the choreography portrayed its point well. Legend came back in, and his performance seemed rushed… Notes were missed yet again, which made me quite worried for “Gethsemane” later in the show. Again, the ensemble came on as the lepers begging for assistance from Christ. This was the best part of the production, hands down. The foreshadowing of Christ being taken over by them on the Crucifix, was beautifully done as well.
“I Don’t Know How to Love Him” began, and Baraeilles’ performance was redeemed. Her vocals and her emotion behind the song showed. It was just beautifully done. There were some isms, but not anything to be upset about.
The stage was lit with red, fitting for the next number, “Damned For All Time/Blood Money”. This is the scene where Judas goes to Caiaphas and Annis, with the promise of turning in Christ. Dixon performed this quite well. Again, the isms though… Stop with the isms! However, that aside, he portrayed the fear the Judas felt not only for himself, but for his friend. Again, Ha and Lewis as Annis and Caiaphas stole the show, this time, their vocals playing off each other were perfect.
“The Last Supper” came next, and this has always been one of my favorites from the production, for two reasons. One, this is when you knew things were about to turn and get serious. This is what everything lead up to prior to the torture Christ went through in order to fulfill God’s need. Second, it makes the Apostles human. That’s the thing I love most about the entire creation by Webber and Rice - they took the Son of God and the Apostles out of a book and made them relate-able. This performance, especially the argument between Judas and Christ, was the first time I was pleased with Legend’s performance. He hit that note, followed by Dixon letting the emotion and sadness of what his character needed to do out, and for the first time, my hair stood up on my arms.
Finally, my favorite song came. “Gethsemane ( Only Want To Say)”. It started out not bad, although it lacked emotion again. Regardless, I was glued. All that went through my head was whether or not that F# above Middle C would be hit. If you are not familiar with the musical, this is the same note Chris Cornell hits at the peak of “Say Hello 2 Heaven”. It’s a pain in the ass to hit, but it is achievable. As the song kicked into full gear, Legend’s voice began to crack. It was so rushed as well… Then what should have been the note came, and oh dear God no… What WAS that?! That sound was the sound every tenor, baritone, and bass makes on purpose in choir when they try to warm up as high as the sopranos. I felt bad for Legend… I too was sad and tired. Tired of watching this poor dude, who can sing his ass off normally, try to hit these notes that his voice was not meant for in any way. Whoever did the casting for this, BIG fail. Know the voice you are casting. You obviously did not.
“The Arrest” was confusing. Again, with the modernization of everything… Why were there boom mics and cell phones being used by the ensemble?!
Jason Tam as Peter did… okay…
Daniels again as Pilate stole the show during “Pilate and Christ”. His vocals were spot on. His attack on each word was sheer perfection. I could have watched him in every scene and been ten times happier with the production.
The only reason why most metal heads watched the production, Alice Cooper, stepped up to the microphone to applause and cheers. As mentioned earlier, he had done “Herod’s Song” previously in 1996. He played King Herod well, with the camp that the character called for. My only complaint has nothing to do with his vocal performance, but with the stage ensemble, which was lacking. The choreography was awful and made it boring to watch.
“Could We Start Again Please?” was done well, but Tam was the weak link. Bareilles did her homework when it came to her performance throughout the production, but it seems no one else did. Skip.
“Judas’ Death”. I can’t talk highly enough of Lewis and Ha’s performances yet again. Dixon as well. When this guy lets emotions control the song, he does a million times better. The production of his death was subtle, obviously because it was on television, but was still done well enough to get the message across.
“Trial Before Pilate”. Done well, by all involved. I was impressed with the production of the 39 lashes. This is a scene that some may have deemed too violent, but pivotal to the story. However, at the ending when Pilate’s emotions come into play and he washes his hands of Christ, Daniels’ vocals were squeaky and off. Disappointing…
“Superstar” was ensemble wise and choreography wise good, but again, I was not impressed with Dixon’s vocals. This song is supposed to be the finale in a way, and it was completely lost amongst other songs.
“The Crucifixion” was done extremely well production wise. It tied the entire play together, and even though it was on television, still contained a fair amount of risk, considering the crown of thorns did look to cause harm, and the scratches and blood across Legend’s body seemed to be real (obviously it wasn’t, but the makeup artist did well!).
I honestly don’t know how to feel about it as a whole… It was strong at times, but the points that lacked overshadowed any good, in my opinion.
Now, as far as modernizing the story of Christ, everyone needs to stop doing it with JCS… It’s been done. It’s called Godspell. If you want to bring something up to be more modern, redo that one, but leave this classic ALONE.
In conclusion, if you are not familiar with the original versions of Superstar, do yourself a favor and go out and by the record from 1970 with Gillan. Watch the 1973 motion picture with Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson. You will not be disappointed in it! Although, you may find yourself as disappointed as I was with this production.
Production: 3 out of 5 stars
John Legend: 1.5 out of 5 stars
Sara Bareilles: 2.5 out of 5 stars
Brandon Victor Dixon: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Alice Cooper: 3.5 out of 5 stars
Ben Daniels: 4 out of 5 stars
Jin Ha: 4 out of 5 stars
Norm Lewis: 4 out of 5 stars
ORIGINAL JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR CAST LP on Decca Records- From the record library of ZRockR Editor Sylvia Lee ©2018 ZRockR Magazine
Photo of Carl Anderson, Ted Neeley and Yvonne Elliman from the film Jesus Christ Superstar- ©1973 Universal Pictures- For Promotional Use Only- All Rights Reserved
Photos of the NBC Live Production of Jesus Christ Superstar ©2018 Sony Pictures Televison - For Promotional Use Only- All Rights Reserved