Two Live Streaming Jesus Christ Superstars Competing for Prominence, and Both Winning.
The Streaming Experience: The Show Must Go On YouTube and NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar
It’s Easter weekend, and while still trapped in COVID19 confinement, we are being gloriously given two different productions of Jesus Christ Superstar to indulge delightfully in our Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice somewhat obsession. I was truly eager to see Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s iconic stage musical last year “Live in Concert” on NBC and equally thrilled this weekend to watch the streaming 2012 staged version from an arena tour in the UK courtesy of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Shows Must Go On YouTube channel. I had planned to watch that never-seen-before version tonight (available for free streaming from 7pm BT Friday April 10th for 48 hrs), but I couldn’t wait, as it had been a rough week to be a psychotherapist, so I needed to unwind and be entertained last night. And this did the trick with ease and electricity.
I can remember listening to that 1970 concert album endlessly back in my childhood home of London, Ontario, hypnotized and dreamily fascinated by the soaring vocals and heighten dramatic flair of this tale. It was not a story I knew well. Truth be told, all my religious upbringing and teaching about the story of Jesus and his crucifixion was basically encapsulated within that record sleeve (for those of you who remember records and the sleeves they come protected in). The story that this particular musical told was really my only guide. Not the greatest (nor the worst) teachers to enlighten me, but Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were the only ones I had at my disposal.
The arena-staged tour at The O2 from 2012 was packed big and large, with a modernized scope for quick referencing to our current disturbing cycle of greed and power corrupted. Directed with wide-eyed glory by Laurence Connor, this arena-touring Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice revival powers the drama with references pulled from our current troubled systems of government, revolt, and revolution. Adding to the construct of the small man taking on the establishment, the lead actor was picked via the ITV talent show “Superstar“, and luckily, they got it right with the raw magnificently voiced Ben Forster pulling out all stops and delivering forth a Jesus who can carry with him all the complications of a man in crisis. He’s vocally gifted, truly, and magnifies the piece majestically with strength and charisma. It’s a career-defining performance, worthy of our applause, even from our couch at home.
Hanging over the revival of Webber and Tim Rice’s 1971 smash are projected strong imagery and formulations worthy of the arena rock star stage. This isn’t a show bathed in subtlety nor intimacy. The magnified social networking images and pseudo-Banksy murals as backdrops message strong the chant, ‘Wots the buzz?’ with determined glee, thanks to designer Mark Fisher pop-up Occupy Wall Street tents and forever transversed stairs. It feels from the opening that we are witnessing an event rather than a musical staging, and for Jesus Christ Superstar, the idea works brilliantly, particularly because of the nature of this beast, and the phenomenally voiced, talented cast running wild and free on the steps leading to musical heaven. It’s a treat I wanted to witness again and again over the weekend.
Ben Forster delivers strong every moment, diving head-first into the very difficult “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)“. It flies out into the arena with a force drenched in blood, sweat, and tears, and will be remembered by me for years. The song rips into everything that is needed for the part, and Forster finds all of its nuances and throws it out to us brilliantly. It’s magnificent, but lucky for us, it is matched easily by the phenomenally gifted Tim Minchin’s dreadlocked Judas, who is filled to the brim with complicated rage and confusion. His voice is pretty much the best thing in this production, diving out the dilemma and dismissal with rage and power. Together, standing face to face in rage and love, they find the core that makes this rock concert sing hard and strong.
Surprisingly, Mel C finds a detailed loving engagement within her streetwise Mary Magdalene. She orchestrates a sincere connection to the stage and the show that rivals the best, delivering a performance that registers as clear, touching, and wise. Check out her “Everythings Alright” and be grateful for the gift of Mel C. and her dynamic costars. She validates herself as a stage performance with depth, and soul. Also, recasting the Roman establishment as suited power brokers and Wall Street bankers sit well within the structure, although somehow lessens the power impact of Alexander Hanson’s well sung Pontius Pilate. He is given distractions that place him in his 1% position, but also lead us away from his interactive glory. But his rage against the public monster rings raw and forceful, and the whip-smart attack hits its mark.
The fiery brilliance of the cast shines bright and big. The crowd scenes surge with power, and the visuals find their mark alongside the thunderous score. Minchin’s tour de force of tortured emotionality and electric vocal intensity flys outward like no other into that big auditorium, while Chris Moyles finds clarity and vision in his ‘red velvet suited TV talent show host’-inspired King Herod. I have always loved the angry silliness of the song and the part, and even though the ramped up ferociousness isn’t as ignited near the end of “King Herod’s Song“, the twisted bizarreness of the televised journey works its electronic voting magic.
Connor’s production slaps up hard in your face, creating drama in the sometimes motionless, but very emotive delivery. Thank God for the big screen closeups behind the cast, as it helped bring us in deeper to the dynamics and emotionality of the moment. The sound is filled with an effortless masculine power to the musicality, beautifully delivered by the rock band that sits on the sidelines of the tiered stage. Finding authenticity in the hyper-modern staging is a bit difficult as the arena demands size and a volume that cloaks the epic rock opera with millennial outrage. But they find that connection. It worked its magic on my mental state, bringing me into the piece and delivered the engagement that I needed during these difficult days.
I must also admit that from my obsessive listening in my youth, I know every word to every song, and can sing along quite precisely from beginning to end. The UK tour production seemed to take a lot of liberty with the lyrics, altering words and phrases for a reason that escaped me (is it because of the film’s changes to the stage show?). It confused me but didn’t alienate. The musical started out as a concept album and was then adjusted onto the stage and a magnificent movie directed by Norman Jewison in 1973 starring Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson and Yvonne Elliman. The film was historic and thrilling, staged and shot in Isreal, balancing a 1970 esthetic with the classical Biblical storyline. It stays with me solidly, particularly Elliman’s Mary. When I saw the NBC’s retelling of this stage musical back in 2018, it was apparent that Jason Ardizzone-West, the production designer for NBC’s television special knew that he needed to return the focus to that same blend but with a slightly more current semi-staged rendering that was somewhat similar to the UK tour production but without the current political statements on Wall Street and power politics. Director David Leveaux (Public’s Plenty), with an assist from television director Alex Rudzinski, magically found the right theatricality of the telling, playing up to the musical’s strengths by deepening the spectacle, just like they did in the UK. I’m very curious to watch it again when NBC rebroadcasts the production tomorrow night, Easter Sunday.
The overall effect, if I remember correctly, was magnificent, creating an atmosphere that utilized the live audience remarkably well. The tale is about celebrity in a way, while showcasing some amazing performances while engaging with complex and stunning group dynamics and structure. Although I believe at the time that the directing team failed at bring together the emotional inter-relational dynamics between the characters, leaving a few of these singers, John Legend most noticeably, to fend for themselves regarding emotional intent, engagement, and physicality, the overall effect, especially in regards to the brilliant choreography of Camille A. Brown, worked in the big picture. Her choreography encapsulated each style and moment with a strength and a fierceness that jumped out of the television screen and into the imagination of all viewers. And the moments, especially that final fading image, went far beyond the expected, transporting us into a heavenly televised moment of adoration for the orchestration and musicality of the production.
John Legend did a marvelous job giving us a real, angry, thoughtful Jesus singing stunningly from moment to moment, but he is not an actor, and his body never seemed to be fully engaged with anyone around him. He was doing the desired work with simplistic and stereotypical body motions, but not connecting in any real or authentic way beyond his emotional voice. Sara Bareilles (Waitress) seemed desperate to bring him into her loving arms, singing her few songs with such aching beauty that it was hard to imagine not being effected. Her rendition of “Could We Start Again, Please?” and the iconic “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” was casting at its best (looking forward to comparing and contrasting with Mel C’s tender portrayal). Bareilles is seemingly perfect for the part of Mary Magdelene. She is warm and engaging, rising majestically above and beyond any other rendition that one could remember. She also didn’t know what to do on that expansive stage with her body, choosing stillness more often than not. A good call within this forever speeding forward locomotion of a show, but choices didn’t feel internal but prescribed.
Other wonderful moments belong to those magnificent singers and actors: the incomparable gorgeously voiced Norm Lewis (Porgy and Bess) as Caiphas and Jin Ha (If/Then) as Annas giving us evil and power effortlessly (click here for a wee bit of their wonderfulness). Rocking out wonderfully, although the microphone/sound volume levels were no one’s friend on this broadcast, especially at the beginning, Erik Gronwall (“Swedish Idol” winner, 2009) inhabited Simon Zealotes with the exact fortitude and style that this production most inventively needs to succeed. His voice rocked out strong and wild. Ben Daniels (Broadway’s 2008 Les Liaisons Dangereuses) as Pontius Pilate, along with Legend in moments, seemed to get overwhelmed closer to the end by the demands of the soaring musicality, screaming and screeching out the last few dramatic moments with a worn-out harshness that was sadly not what was needed. Rice and Webber’s rock opera requires singers who can rise to these moments, and although the piece, in general, flew above expectations, these moments were the ones that fell with a bit of a thud.
The true star of this production, beyond the surprising wonderfulness of Alice Cooper singing “King Herod’s Song“, was former Hamilton Broadway star, Brandon Victor Dixon and his portrayal of Judas. Besides the fact that the part is really the emotional tormented center of the show, rising and falling throughout, the performance by Dixon (Shuffle Along…) flew high above the temple utilizing the strength within his voice to bring the fear and betrayal to the heart of the matter. He expertly dove into the wild and traitorous journey with an urgency that encapsulated all that this story requires. His suicidal moment felt a bit disappointing in its power and direction, although it certainly didn’t lack the emotional vocal pain it required. The UK tour did that part surprisingly well, using the size and scope of the event to deliver an emotional truthful visual that pulled no punches. In the end, though, it was really the grand finale, that most wonderful title song, “Jesus Christ Superstar” that rocked this broadcast into another dimension. Sexy and exciting in the glittery creation by theater designer Paul Tazewell, Dixon delivered the most shining moment in this tale, almost making it impossible for Legend to give the final punch to the stomach during his final scripted moments. He was saved though, as the walls separated into a glorious light-filled cross made out of thin air, floating away most beautifully (good job: lighting design by Al Gurdon) during “The Crucifixion“. The image, as it was also in the UK production, is the most fitting and powerful ending of the story and of both broadcasts. My memories of the iconic film have been replaced by both, and for that, I am truly thankful. Make sure you catch The Shows Must Go On version before it disappears 48 hours after it was first released on Friday, April 10th at 7pm BT (2pm ET), and then, take in the wonderfulness of the NBC version Sunday night, and let me know what you think of each. I’ll be tuned in, contrasting and comparing, but more than likely, just enjoying the glory of the gifts given.