Monday, April 9, 2018

Movie Review: Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert

Stars: 2 out of 5
Pros: The production was great
Cons: The theology was way off
The Bottom Line:
A great production
Filled with bad theology
I can’t recommend

An Excellent Production of a Questionable Musical

While I’ve been a fan of Godspell for decades, I have never seen Jesus Christ Superstar.  I’d heard from some Christians that it was blasphemous, which was one reason I’d stayed away.  But I’d been curious, so with the recent Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert production airing on NBC, I decided it was time to give it a try.

This rock opera follows the last week of Jesus’ life before his crucifixion, but with a twist.  It is told from Judas’ (Brandon Victor Dixon) point of view.  We see Jesus (John Legend) as He enters the city of Jerusalem in triumph and then watch as the crowds turn and the Jewish leaders conspire with Judas to arrest Him.  Meanwhile, Mary Magdalen (Sara Bareilles) struggles with her relationship with Jesus.

I wasn’t sure what I was going to get when I sat down to watch this production of it Easter Sunday night.  Since it was “in concert,” I thought it might just be people singing.  That wasn’t the case at all.  There was a stage, and the singers were acting.  However, there was a live crowd as well, and at times their cheering made it hard to hear the singing.

The set was simple, which worked well for this production.  We didn’t need elaborate sets, and it felt like seeing the play live.  I enjoyed that aspect of it.  The costumes were more modern and not attempting to fit in with the historical period at all, but the entire thing had a modern feel, so it worked.

And the cast was great.  I must admit, I’m not familiar with most of them, but I found their singing and acting to be wonderful.  I was most worried about Alice Cooper when I heard he was in it, but he had one of my favorite scenes.  His Herod was spot on, and he delivered his lines with hilarious perfection.  The person I felt sorriest for here was Ben Daniels’s Pilot.  This version of the stories does a perfect job of capturing the no win situation he was truly in.  Being an Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice musical, there’s just singing here, and the cast doesn’t miss a note.

However, I can certain see the concerns I’ve heard about over the years.  In fact, I share many of them.  An obvious one is that this musical ends with the death of Jesus.  However, given that this is from Judas’ point of view, I can understand that one.  Godspell also ends the story at that point, so, while disappoint, it isn’t a deal breaker.

Other issues arise because of a smaller cast.  One weird scene involved what looked like a drug fuel party made up of the disciples.  It was only when Jesus appeared on the scene that I realized it was the money changers in the temple.  Given that this is a product of the 60’s and early 70’s, I’m more forgiving of this once I figured out what is truly happening in the scene, however, if the cast were large enough to not have an ensemble all playing many very differing characters, it would help.  It’s also the result of a smallish cast, and another issue that Godspell definitely has.

My bigger concerns come from portrayal of the three main characters, Judas, Jesus, and Mary Magdalen.  Let’s start with Mary.  The musical clearly adheres to the legends that there was a romantic interest between Mary and Jesus.  I mean, her biggest song is “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”  There are other times when Mary is advising Jesus to take time off because we don’t need Him for an evening.  Really?  That’s not what you tell God.

Meanwhile, Judas has clearly missed who Jesus truly is.  This one doesn’t surprise me too much.  Since the real Judas betrayed Jesus, he clearly didn’t understand what was happening.  Some of his lines, especially in the opening couple of numbers are cringe worthy from a theological point of view.  I understand the context of them, but they still really bothered me.

The worst problem I have with the musical is how it portrays Jesus.  At times, it feels like it is trying to correctly make Jesus out to be God.  There’s the scene at the last supper where Jesus predicts Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial.  And yet, most of the time, Jesus comes across as a man who has accepted His fate with no control over what is happening to him.  This is especially true in “Gethsemane.”  This is Jesus’ moment to shine, and it’s a powerhouse of a song, but the lyrics are troubling.  Early on, He sounds like He is just giving up because His mission had failed.  The opposite is true.  This is the moment He came to Earth for.  I really do feel the musical has missed the point of verses like “No one takes My life from me, but I willingly lay it down.”  (Mark Baker paraphrase of John 10:18)

Of course, there is the issue with going to a musical for your theology.  I’m sure any musical would have issues no matter who wrote it.  But since this last one is a major tenant of my faith, I find it troubling and misleading.  However, I know people who have been deeply moved by this musical.  Is it that I am being too harsh?  Or is it that God will use anything despite serious theological flaws?  I truly don’t know.

Overall, the theological issues with the way the story is presented got in the way of me enjoying the great production that was Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert.  Since I’d always been curious, I was glad I watched it, but I won’t be seeing this musical again in any form.


  1. Thanks for your review. I have never seen Jesus Christ Superstar either and forgot to record it on Easter. Your review confirms what I have heard in the past and some of my thoughts about the musical. I thought about checking it out On Demand but think I will pass.

  2. My brother auditioned for an amateur production of this show once. He got the bright idea of auditioning for Herod - show-stopping song and you didn't have to go to rehearsal every week. Unfortunately, everyone else got the same idea - they have about 3 each trying out for Jesus and Judas and 37 auditioning for Herod! He was offered the role of the High Priest, but said he wasn't travelling all the way out into the Dandenong hills from Melbourne just to sing, "Tell the rabble to be quiet, I anticipate a riot..."

    He did do Godspell some time later, as a member of the band, and got a duet with Jesus! (He can sing, but couldn't dance, so wasn't in the cast)

    Not my religion, so the things that bothered you don't bother me. I suppose you'd better avoid Monty Python's Life Of Brian, though it really is quite respectful of Jesus, only sends up people's tendency to follow anything, including political groups, and a decout Christian friend of mine loved it.

  3. PS Alice Cooper, eh? It must have been quite some cast!