"Jesus Christ Superstar" (7-9 p.m. Wednesday on Channel 9) is a fresh take on the Tim Rice-Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera that shook up the musical stage in 1971. To mark the 30th anniversary of the show, PBS' "Great Performances" commissioned a film version of the recent, edgy London revival, which had a Broadway run last year.
The result is exciting and unsettling. The music, written in the vibrancy of Lloyd Webber's youth, remains fresh and infectious; the lyrics are some of Rice's smartest.
But this is no happy, hippy-dippy "Superstar." The show was never remotely lighthearted, but the ragtag 1970s costumes, which the 1973 movie immortalized and most revivals have preserved, were a colorful and convenient distraction from the wrenching story unfolding around them.
As reconceived by director Gale Edwards and costumed by Roger Kirk in clothing plucked off the streets and out of the clubs of any big city, this "Superstar" is as contemporary as a Quentin Tarantino movie, and just as raw.
The hero, needless to say, is Jesus (Glenn Carter), but the emotional center is Judas Iscariot (Jerome Pradon). Rice and Lloyd Webber, who join in a "making of" special following the movie, constructed the show from Judas' point of view, finding him a complicated character faced with difficult, even impossible, choices. The subtext: Everything that happens, even Judas' betrayal of Jesus, was inevitable, ordained by God.
"Jesus is not the main character," Rice says in background notes on the show. "It's much easier to identify with Judas." But neither Rice nor Lloyd Webber aimed to make Judas heroic, they say. "All I was trying to say was that this is what I might have done in that situation," Rice adds. "You can draw your own conclusions."
"Jesus Christ Superstar" opens with Jesus at the peak of his popularity with followers. In the story, told entirely in song, Judas worries that they have gone too far by declaring their leader a god, taking the focus off the mission to help the poor. The high profile also puts Jesus at risk; while Mary Magdalene (Renee Castle) sings "Everything's Alright," enemies declare, "This Jesus Must Die."
In the end, of course, the threat comes true, and Judas is destroyed as well -- although he returns from hell, dressed in red patent leather, to sing a bitter, Vegas-style "Superstar" ("Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, do you think you're what they say you are?")
The depiction of Jesus' torture and crucifixion is unsparing, vivid and bloody, especially through the intimacy of television. "Jesus Christ Superstar" was controversial in the beginning and seems likely to remain controversial today, giving viewers lots to think about and plenty to debate.
Pennington, TV critic
St. Louis Post-Dispatch