Recently released on VHS and DVD is the third entry in the series of video films of Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals that began with Cats and continued with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Unlike those titles, Jesus Christ Superstar had an earlier film version, the ambitious but unworkable one directed by Norman Jewison in 1973, shot on location in Israel and applying to the piece the concept of a troupe enacting the story.
While not shot directly off the stage, the new film is based on Gale Edwards' theater production, but on the version that toured the UK and played Broadway rather than on Edwards' earlier, superior staging (designed by John Napier) that played London's Lyceum Theatre (with the likewise superior Jesus and Mary of Steve Balsamo and Joanna Ampil).
The film was shot prior to the Broadway mounting, and features its Jesus, Glenn Carter (who was originally Simon and the Jesus cover at the Lyceum). The video also has Tony Vincent as Simon; Vincent was playing Simon in the Broadway revival until its Judas was dismissed and Vincent moved up to that leading role.
The video's Judas is Jerome Pradon; like Carter, he was one of the actors who played The Man (thought to be Jesus by some youngsters) in Edwards' West End production of Lloyd Webber's Whistle Down the Wind. Pradon also had a principal role in the original London cast of Martin Guerre; played Chris in the West End Miss Saigon; created the title role of Napoleon in Toronto; starred in Nine in Paris; and can be heard as Marius on the Paris cast recording of Les Miz that also features the Fantine of Louise Pitre (Mamma Mia!) and Valjean of Robert Marien (10th anniversary Broadway Les Miz).
While the Superstar video features the basic Peter Davison scenic design (pillars, steps, rising bridge, grafitti-covered back wall) and Roger Kirk's contemporary-looking costumes seen on Broadway, the sets have naturally been expanded to fill the studio, with all-new creations devised for the abodes of the priests and Pilate.
If it's still possible to make a contemporary audience connect with Superstar, this production fails to do so. Employing the basic conception seen in New York--a police state with storm-trooper priests--Edwards' staging remains a busy, incoherent muddle that never really conveys a clear take on the property. But it's much more watchable on video than it was at the Ford Center: The thousands of quick cuts, shifting angles, and lighting effects turn the production into a 112-minute music video, a better way to experience this staging than in a straight-on theatre seat.
Carter looks right; his Jesus remains undersung and somewhat vapid, but comes across better here. Vincent is a stellar Simon, Rik Mayall is a suitably sardonic Herod, and Renee Castle doesn't leave much of an impression as Mary. But Pradon is one of the more interesting musical theater leading men of the moment (he even made Whistle Down the Wind play better), and his smoldering, troubled Judas is this production's chief asset. The good-looking, youthful ensemble should give this production appeal for younger viewers.
The DVD includes a 35-minute "making of" documentary, including a history of the property and interviews with the creative team and principals. In addition to the VHS/DVD releases, Sony Classical has released a single-CD soundtrack condensation (79 minutes), and PBS' Great Performances airs the tape next month (Thirteen/WNET New York on April 11).
The Lloyd Webber video film series will continue with Starlight Express, and the recent Pittsburgh production of By Jeeves is being taped in Toronto.