“Jesus Christ Superstar”: A Passion Play

Italy, Tuscany, Florence, San Marco Convent, cell 1. Whole artwork view. Jesus Christ risen Mary Magdalene tomb grass garden trees.

As Christians the world over celebrate Lent and the Easter season, many of us are enjoying the opportunity to rewatch  the great Biblical epics of yesteryear. Films such as King of Kings, The Greatest Story Ever Told, Ben Hur, and of course, The Ten Commandments endure in their Technicolor glory, despite the sometimes campy dialogue and pious schmaltz characteristic of the genre. We return to them annually because for Christians, the representation of the story of our faith through artistic means renders their meaning and significance in literally graphic terms immediately accessible to most people. For this reason, the iconoclasm of some late-ancient Christians was by the sixth century AD defeated as visual art was recognized for its utility as a biblia pauperum or “Bible of the (illiterate) poor.” By the ninth century the imitation of events such as the visit of the three Marys to the tomb of Christ and the discovery of his Resurrection began to be incorporated into Catholic liturgy. By utilizing theatre in this way, the Church appropriated and rehabilitated an ancient pagan practice in much the same way as it repurposed sacred pagan spaces as churches under the patronage of a local saint. 

Along with this liturgical drama, other forms emerged such as the cycle plays of England, performed on pageant wagons during the feast of Corpus Christi; Nativity plays; and Passion Plays, which were written and performed throughout western Europe in both Latin and vernacular languages during Lent and Holy Week. They vary in style and structure, but all are focused on events occuring in the final week of the life of Jesus of Nazareth, which include his arrest, trial, and execution by crucifixion. Some are incredibly innovative, exhibiting theatrical and literary techniques that put to flight the notion that these plays were primitive precursors from which the glorious Renaissance theatre “evolved.”  

The set for the Valenciennes Mystery Play of 1547, which took 25 days to stage in its entirety.

For example, the Ludus de Passione (“A Play about the Passion”), discovered in the Carmina Burana manuscript in the 19th century, is organized episodically but not chronologically, interspersing scenes from Christ’s mission with scenes of his Passion in one of the earliest known uses of the flashback. Interestingly, the play places intense focus on Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Jesus, and includes interpolations not found in the Gospel accounts. We see Mary Magdalene portrayed as a frivolous harlot under the influence of demons; singing bawdily in German, she seduces men and purchases make-up and perfume, until she transforms into a faithful disciple after meeting Jesus. Mary the mother of Jesus is given a beautiful planctus (“song of sorrow”) at the end of the play as she and the audience contemplate the spectacle of the murdered Christ. The play is written in both Latin and vernacular German, suggesting the presence of a tiered audience of peasants, clerics, and aristocrats; whoever it was who put this together knew his audience, had an almost prescient sense of modern dramaturgy, and understood well how to leverage the artistic flexibility allotted to him by his superiors at a time when the legitimacy of theatre as a vehicle for catechism and worship was contested. 

Cover of the “Brown Album,” 1970

We could expend pages discussing the trajectory of Passion Plays since the Middle Ages, but for the sake of brevity, we skip directly to a landmark of 20th-century musical theatre: Jesus Christ Superstar, with lyrics by Tim Rice and music by Andrew Lloyd-Webber. It is an annual tradition during Holy Week in our house to listen to the “Brown Album,” released in 1970 in anticipation of the show’s Broadway/West End runs, and to watch the movie version produced in 1973. In its time it was regarded as shocking and blasphemous, while also being recognized as a watershed moment for musical theatre, fusing opera with rock (the “vernacular” for our time) with medieval religious drama to create a thoroughly original masterpiece. From the ominous electric guitar strains that announce the overture to the symphonic, hypnotically lachrymose finale as Christ hangs dead on the cross, Superstar crackles with hippy exhuberance and naivete without seeming too dated. Like its medieval antecedents, Superstar takes liberties with the Gospel accounts and in this instance refocuses the story on Judas, the betrayer of Jesus. Judas is depicted as a thoughtul individual sensitive to the needs of the poor and deeply disappointed by Jesus’s failure to lead an insurrection to topple the Romans and establish the Kingdom of God on Earth. He is seen as being drawn inexoribly to a terrible fate, set up as a cosmic patsy destined to be reviled, “damned for all time,” so that God’s inexplicable plan that Jesus be tortured to death can be fulfilled. Jesus is represented as questioning his own mission, not fully understanding what God wants from him other than to die, with Judas being the unwilling instrument.

Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdalene

Mary Magdalene is unrequitedly infatuated with the Master, voicing her anguish in “I Don’t Know to Love Him,” a song that crossed over from the stage to reach the Billboard Top 40 in both the US and UK. It is one of many indicators of the characters’ utter lack of agency: all are at the mercy of a distant God who governs the universe by fiat and caprice, who treats human beings as marionettes in a drama with no moral. Even as he places the noose around his neck and scales a tree to commit suicide, Judas shrieks repeatedly at God, “You have murdered me!”  He takes no responsibility for what he has done and is about to do, as if he had no volition at all. 

(This element of the Passion tradition, the Hanging of Judas, is responsible for the theatre lore of Judas being a role associated with bad luck, as throughout history actors have been killed when rigging failed during the performance of this stunt). 

Although it is great theatre, Superstar is bad theology: no medieval cleric would have sanctioned the performance of a play which so blasphemously represents the Savior as morose and self-doubting, Judas as the real victim, and God the overall villain of the piece. Nevertheless, we find in Superstar a brilliant conflation of the old and the new, a work that masterfully triangulates the Middle Ages, the early Seventies, and our own time.

Ted Neeley as Jesus; note the Roman soldier in modern dress in the background, a visual tactic common to religious art that ties the events depicted to the millieu of their depiction.

If you have some time, watch the 1973 film version directed by Norman Jewison. One of the more interesting aspects of the film is in how it is “framed.” It opens with a yellow school bus travelling in the desert toward ancient ruins. When it arrives, a cast of hippy actors emerges and begins preparing the performance of the rock opera/passion play we are about to see. The actors don a pastiche of ancient and modern attire, similar to how some religious art of the Renaissance depicted the Roman soldiers and the crowds of people in contemporary garb. At the end, when the actors reboard the bus and prepare to leave, we get a sense that they have been transformed by the experience of re-presenting this titanic story. They depart without the actor who plays Christ (Ted Neeley), leaving the audience unsure of what has happened—which is appropriate as, since the time of Christ, no one can say what actually happened, absent faith in the Gospel. Superstar, then, does what theatre always does; that is, to serve as a microcosm of the zeitgeist, which in our time is animated by postmodernism, with its boundless skepticism and crippling uncertanity.

Carl Anderson as Judas Iscariot

Toward the finale, as Jesus hangs on the Cross, Judas appears to him in a Motown-chic apotheosis, lowered from the rafters in a white, billowing, Elvis-evoking one-piece suit, accompanied by gyrating lady back-up singers dressed to look like provocative angels wearing white Afro wigs. He sings the title song to Jesus and asks him a number of questions, the most salient of which is, “Jesus Christ, Superstar, do you think you’re what they say you are?” The question makes sense in light of the doubt postmodernism casts on received tradition of any kind. Beneath the pitiless scrutiny of the postmodern gaze, it is unequivocally the case that the truth claims of Christianity have no more validity than any of the several “narratives” constituting the truth claims of other religions. Since there is no such thing as Truth-with-a-capital-T, there can be no such thing as falsehood (sin) and the need to be redeemed from it; without a need for redemption there is no need for a Redeemer, so the only issue to be resolved for the postmodern mind is not whether Jesus was the Redeemer but whether he believed himself to be so.

However, there is an unstated complement to that question, one directed not at Jesus, but at us, the audience, a question that stands for all time: Do we think He is who He said He is? As you watch or listen to this milestone of musical theatre history, consider the implications not only of the work itself, but of the story it is telling; and let the experience of this and indeed, of all theatre, lead you to comtemplation of the things that really matter. 

William Conte, Ph.D.

Artistic Director                                                                                                         

The Chorus dances joyfully during “Simon Zealotes.”

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