“Jesus Christ Superstar Live” Got the Live TV Musical Format Right

Posted on April 02, 2018

In retrospect, while there was much to love about NBC’s live concert of Jesus Christ Superstar, we think our favorite part of the experience was the part of it that happened on social media. There was a swift and near-unanimous reaction when the overture ended; a collective response that can best be summed up as, “Wait, they’re really doing this? Like, doing-doing this?” After that, it was fun to watch and partake in the growing response after each number that basically came down to, “Am I crazy or is this really good?”

After a half-dozen or so attempts at live network television musicals in the last several years, ranging from painful to not-bad-at-all (but mostly residing closer to the former than the latter); after too many tweaks to the musical theater format that left certain productions entombed in an empty space without audience reactions and other productions literally risking their lives as they careened from one massive set to another in golf carts between and even during numbers; after suffering through stunt-casting after stunt-casting (and the accompanying frenzied yeoman’s work undertaken by the Broadway pros in supporting and background roles in order to make up for said stunt-casting), it would seem that we, like so many of the audience who tuned in, simply did not expect quality and artistry on the level it was delivered with Jesus Christ Superstar Live. It would seem the effect of so many mediocre attempts at live musical theater on television had left the audience with the impression that they couldn’t expect any better from the format.

From the very opening notes, we had this slightly inexplicable reaction of “Oh, wow. They’re really doing Jesus Christ Superstar.” We don’t know that we honestly expected otherwise but we suppose in retrospect we assumed some sort of vaguely ironic, winking, American Idol-esque take. JCS is a beloved album, film and show, but theatrically, dramatically and at times even musically, it can get downright goofy. In addition, it’s tied very closely to a post-hippy, pre-metal sound and aesthetic that doesn’t always update well. Plus there’s the treatment of the subject matter, which can be seen as unquestioningly reverent or downright blasphemous, depending on your point of view. And let’s face it; some of those songs are nearly impossible to sing.

But JCS Live “solved” pretty much all of those problems by … simply ignoring them, it would seem. In other words, we – and we think a large percentage of the audience, judging by the reactions – didn’t come into it expecting them to perform a really well-executed but more or less standard production of Jesus Christ Superstar. As a production it “solved” the format problems so many previous musical theater television productions had by simply … putting on a show, in front of an audience, with an orchestra, some dancers, and some great singers with theatrical voices all moving around in a finite and limited space (also known as a stage). No one tried to over-think this one and that was entirely to the production’s benefit. Jesus Christ Superstar Live was the very best of the live network musicals, mainly because it didn’t try to be anything other than what it always was – goofiness and all.

Part of the show’s success came down to its suitability for the format of television. Jesus Christ Superstar has a more performative quality to it than a standard musical theater production. There’s much more facing the audience and singing than there is straight-up acting – and there’s no dialogue at all. Staging, sets and acting choices can and probably should all be left as broadly outlined as possible, since all of the drama comes from the music and singing. It was a concept album before it became a stage play or movie, and JCS Live smartly scaled back on the production design and staging while literally placing the musicians center stage at times.

Having said that, the spare, crumbling classical architecture of the set was extremely well-used. In fact, the entire production was beautifully designed. While the costumes of the background dancers were just a little post-apoc generic and at times gave them a slightly Walking Dead vibe (especially during the “see my eyes I can hardly see” healing-the-lepers bit), the trio of Jesus in soft, layered whites and grays, Judas in black leather and red, and Mary in a warm, sunset-toned orange made for some visually dramatic moments on stage and perfectly underscored the nature of each character. Ben Daniel’s gold-and-leather Pilate made an appropriately sneering dandy (and his half-leather coat provoked very loud gasps on our couch), and the “Science Council of Krypton” Issey Miyake-inspired robes of the Pharisees were absolutely stunning. With the addition of some highly dynamic and dramatic lighting design, there were times when the set itself seemed to be emoting and performing. The final shot of the glowing cross symbol made the perfect coda to the production – and probably could only have been accomplished on television, making it one of the few times the production got a little fancy with itself. Keeping that nearly cinematic moment to the very end gave it that much more power. It was a literal jaw-dropper of a moment and probably secured the inevitable Emmy nominations to come.

Although that probably pays short shrift to the performers, who were well-cast, high-energy, and absolutely devoted to making each of their songs stand out. We’ve long maintained that these live TV musicals do much better when they combine pop stars and musical theater stars in the casting, which is exactly what they did here and another big reason why this production was so well-received. Theater pros can handle the lyrics, staging and dramatic expectations of musical theater, while pop stars have a ton of on-camera singing and dancing experience and a well-cultivated charisma that allows them to command attention. John Legend secured his bona fides with the electrifying performance of “Gethsemane,” Sara Bareilles was simply perfect every time she sang, giving her Mary Magdalene just the right touch of strength combined with emotional rawness and vulnerability. Brandon Victor Dixon  centered the entire production around his raw, angry and scared Judas, absolutely nailing the title number and bringing the audience to a standing ovation well before it was over. Alice Cooper did not do what we assumed he was going to do – offer up some sort of attention-seeking star turn that brings the story to a halt – and simply allowed his natural talent and total Alice Cooperness to win the audience over in his one number. Other standouts were Norm Lewis and Jin Ha as Caiaphus and Annas, as well as Erik Grönwall as Simon Zealot. 

It was not without its wobbles and slow starts, however. There were definite issues with the sound and the audience. The former had the music overwhelming the performers several times, and the latter was apparently coached to be as loud and involved as possible, which tended to become a bit distracting – and even seemed to throw the performers off slightly in the beginning. And while the performances were largely very impressive, there were limitations to some of them. Ben Daniels had the acting part of Pilate down cold, but he simply couldn’t sing, and the last word he utters barely escaped his lips at all because he couldn’t hit the note. John Legend also struggled with some of the high and low notes. And he’s also too gentle a performer to accurately portray the level of anger and despair the role requires. He’s great at the hosanna stuff; not so great at the “get out/heal yourselves” stuff. We thought Brandon Victor Dixon came out a bit wobbily, but we wound up arguing on the couch over it, with Tom insisting that Judas’ songs are so packed with clumsy lyrics (I SHALL BE DRAGGED THROUGH THE SLIME AND THE SLIME AND THE SLIME AND THE MUD) that they’re practically impossible to sing. Both our mouths were shut on the matter when he came out in those silver pants and brought the damn house down. And while the production made the admirable and smack-your-forehead smart choice of not getting too fussy with the production design and staging, there were times that choice was negated by the sloppy and frenetic camera work. Obviously, you can’t just plop a camera down and shoot this like a soap opera, but the swooping and rapid cuts worked against the performances at times. And there were too many times when the camera was tight in on a singer’s face when you could tell there were about a million things going on behind and around him that you couldn’t see. Don’t make those dancers spend weeks rehearsing just so you can cut them out to show us Alice Cooper in extreme close-up.

But these complaints are fairly mild. It was a surprisingly entertaining night of television; one that deserves whatever awards and accolades come its way. Everyone involved should be justifiably proud of their work and anyone attempting to mount another of these types of shows just had the manual written for them. Rent Live, the ball’s in your court. Top this.

 

 

[Photo Credit: NBC]

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