The current theater season has provided me with ample opportunities for wistful nostalgia: Godspell, Evita, Follies. These were some of the recordings that I and other show-tune queens of a certain age listened to when we were first becoming obsessed with musical theater. ("Gee, Chris, there was a time when you weren't obsessed with musical theater?")
As I've sat watching the current productions of these shows (or will sit watching, when I see Evita tomorrow), certain musical passages have elicited warm rushes of memory, transporting me back to my teenage bedroom, with my LPs strewn across the floor, singing heartily along to the songs, imagining what the full Broadway stagings must have looked like from the production photos in the gate-folds of the cast recordings.
In some cases, the shows have more than lived up to the promise of those teenage memories. The most recent Follies, for sure, and Evita when I saw the current production during its London run. Other times, the memory has been richer and more artistically fulfilling than the production itself. Godspell and the recently opened Jesus Christ Superstar fall into that disappointing category. It may be mere coincidence that it was the two religion-based shows that appealed far more to my younger self than to the adult who has strayed significantly and irrevocably from the path. I think it has more to do with my evolving musical-theater aesthetic: when I was younger, I either didn't see or was able to forgive these shows for their dramaturgical flaws. Today, I'm not.
Regarding Jesus Christ Superstar in particular, here's the bottom line: individually, the songs are great, but they add up to an entertaining album, not a compelling stage show. The score represents composer Andrew Lloyd Webber at his most inventive and ambitious, back when Lord Andrew actually seemed to care and made adventurous choices. Note the interesting time signatures, for example the 5/4 in "Everything's Alright," giving the listener the subconscious impression that the title is ironic. Or the purposeful use of leitmotif, as in "Judas' Death," which quotes numerous musical passages from earlier in the show, including "I Don't Know How to Love Him." Even more moving is the use of the musical phrase that underscores the lyric "Then I saw thousands of millions..." from the premonitory "Pilate's Dream." Lloyd Webber repeats the phrase during the scene in which Pontius Pilate pleads with Jesus to assist him in saving Jesus's life, and the emotional callback is stunning.
(Interesting footnote: I saw this Jesus Christ Superstar on the same day that I took in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying for the second time, and was reminded that the first six notes of the "Jesus Christ Superstar" title number are virtually identical to the first six notes of "Rosemary" from How to Succeed. And remember that How to Succeed was written about seven or eight years before JCS. Just sayin'. I have absolutely no larger point to make here. Nope. Just sheer coincidence. Yup.)
But if Lloyd Webber's music is more interesting than anything he's written since, Tim Rice's lyrics for Jesus Christ Superstar have aged far less well. The quips, the schoolboy snark, the anachronisms, which I found refreshing as a teen, in context work against the tone of the piece. For instance, during "The Last Supper," the apostles sing, "Then when we retire, we can write the gospels so they'll still talk about us when we've died." It's clever, sure, but it calls attention to the lyricist rather than revealing something meaningful about the characters. The show is also replete with slant rhyme: "fire/messiah," "fighting/riding," and most egregiously, "apostle/gospel."
The show also has detrimental holes in the narrative. For instance, we never really learn why Judas turns Jesus in to the authorities. We see him kvetch and moan before and after, but we don't really know why he did it. Now, someone might say that the Bible never really explains this either, and that this question has been the subject of debate for nearly two millennia. But Jesus Christ Superstar isn't a theological treatise. It's a musical-theater piece, and it would have been perfectly appropriate for the author's to fill in the blanks, as it were, to make the piece more dramatically compelling.
(Also, has "Herod's Song" ever worked? In context, it seems stunningly out of place. It doesn't help that Bruce Dow, who appears as Herod in the current production, plays the role like a drag queen in pants. I must admit, I've always really liked the song as a song, and even imagined myself playing the role, but when you're sitting in a theater and experiencing the score in order, the song is a real head-scratcher.)
[SPOILER ALERT: I reveal a significant piece of staging in the paragraphs below.]
So, for a variety of reasons, Jesus Christ Superstar doesn't really work as a show. What about the merits of the current production beyond the words and the music? Well, director Des McAnuff seems to have returned to his Jersey Boys form after the painful misstep that was the most recent revival of Guys and Dolls. McAnuff makes a number of smart and additive choices in staging the show, particularly in the prologue, which compellingly evokes a sense of police-state persecution and establishes Jesus for what he most likely would have been at the time: a wanted man, a subversive figure, a danger to the men in power. McAnuff makes only one major misstep, during Judas's death scene. At first, it seems that McAnuff is content to suggest Judas hanging himself by having 30 pieces of silver fall from the fly space, which was extremely effective. But then McAnuff gilds the lily by having the feet of a dummy Judas suddenly appear dangling from the top of the proscenium. Which was extremely laughable.
McAnuff stages the show with a constant sense of motion. Unfortunately, this sometimes gives rise to some showboating dance moments from choreographer Lisa Shriver. (For more examples of showy, crowd-pleasing, and not entirely thematic dance maneuvers, watch for my review of Newsies in the coming weeks.) Some of the dances feature rather impressive but dramatically questionable ninja-like acrobatics, which seem decorative, superfluous, and ultimately counterproductive. What's more, a number of the members of the chorus were continually pulling focus, giving the impression of a number of regional performers who were clearly thrilled to be making their Broadway debuts. (I mean, bully and congrats and all that. But, "Don't pop the head, Cassie." Know what I'm saying?)
Most of the comments I've heard about the show focus on the cast, and there are certainly some standouts. Paul Nolan as Jesus has piercing eyes and killer rock belt, but there didn't seem to be much emotion going on behind those eyes. Josh Young as Judas Iscariot could certainly act the role, but his vocal technique didn't seem sustainable, although perhaps that's more a function of the illness that has caused him to miss quite a few performances. Young seemed to be focusing more on making the role of Judas believable and sympathetic, and less on the vocal pyrotechnics that typically accompany this role. Young did, however, appear to be very uncomfortable during the title number, and couldn't seem get into the groove of the music, although that may have been due to the tight, unflattering, bright blue Vegas tuxedo he was forced to wear in this number.
For me, the best person on stage was new to this production. As you may know, this Jesus Christ Superstar started at the Stratford Festival in Toronto, followed by a stint at the La Jolla in San Diego. Tony winner Brent Carver originated the role of Pontius Pilate, but dropped out before the California production. In his stead, we have Broadway stalwart Tom Hewitt, who has both the vocal and the acting prowess to bring this role to vivid life. Hewitt is simply outstanding, and it made me wonder what the production might have been if more of the performers had Hewitt's well-rounded profile of performance abilities.