"Jesus Christ Superstar" began its life on the stage as a rock concert in huge arenas all over America, first in Pittsburgh in July, 1971, in front of an audience of 12,000 fans. A few months later, the Broadway version was a surreal circus, with a full battery of laser beams, smoke and wind machines, dancing dwarfs, and a crucifixion scene set on a dazzling golden triangle. The conflict between rock concert and stage show is uniquely confronted in this new television version, based on the most recent London and Broadway revival by the Australian director Gale Edwards.

Whereas the 1973 movie directed by Norman Jewison presented the show as an impromptu set up by a band of hippies in the middle of the desert, this new version conveys a sense of civic unrest among politicians and idealists in a flexible, interior setting, a sort of scenic magic box, transformed by lighting.

First, we see graffiti on the walls, catchphrases of freedom, and freedom fighters caught up in the swirl of Jesus' radical religious message. The Disciples, and the crowd, are dressed in T-shirts, leather jackets, and combat fatigues. One has spiky hair; another, tinted shades. The youth of the day is revolting, and they have found a new champion. The High Priest Caiaphas and his sidekicks assemble in a blue council chamber to stamp out this threat to their supremacy, and then the officers descend on the public forum like riot police. The crucial moment for Glenn Carter's crinkly-haired Jesus, traditionally garbed in a white robe, is the revelation that his own followers, his fan club, are armed and seek a violent revolution. This bears out Judas' point that Jesus' reputation has got out of hand, and Jerome Pradon as the treacherous disciple is both jealous and critical of him on two points: his political ascendancy, certain to end in tears; and his affectionate reliance on Mary Magdalene, so sweetly played and sung by Renee Castle, who knows how to calm her man down and soothe his sorrows.

Lloyd Webber's musicals have often been thought to be timeless, or lost-in-space nostalgia. They do not appear to address the real world any more than did "The White Horse Inn" or "The Desert Song" in a previous generation. They were just about Lloyd Webber's music and the incidental stories of Joseph, Jesus, Evita, and the Phantom. Or were they? One theme that runs through all the Lloyd Webber musicals is that of redemptive love. Like Verdi and Puccini in opera, this capacity for love overrides all obstacles, and the tender moments in "Superstar" -- between Jesus and Mary, between Jesus and even Judas -- are written as musical encounters of the most personal and bewitching kind.

The symbiotic relationship between Jesus and Judas in "Superstar" is perfectly articulated in the direction of Gale Edwards, and in the performances, as a sarcastic, taunting shadow play. Judas sees himself as the true victim, and his suicide is followed by his own resurrection on the road to Golgotha. As Jesus carries the cross, Judas perches at his shoulder, a leering accomplice in a red leather jacket, while angels in skimpy black patent-leather costumes sing him to his destiny.

Jerome Pradon, a scowling, charismatic actor, presents Judas as a warped malcontent, who fully expresses the central theses in Tim Rice's lyrics that Jesus is frail and impenetrable as both man and myth. How could such a creature be trusted, let alone be loved? Jesus finds room for Judas in the larger scheme of his own sacrifice, but how?

This is a perfectly reasonable question to ask at a time when we turn to the public confessionals of the new messianic gurus on daytime television. Oprah Winfrey, Ricki Lake, and Jerry Springer encourage a spirit of rabid revivalism and emotional hysteria among their audiences of desperate non-believers. The new harshness of "Superstar" now lies in its absolute refusal to buy that sort of false comfort, while pointing out the dangers of cultish spirituality. The show isn't a Christian rock musical after all. It is a statement of agnostic cynicism in a faithless age. This new production touches on all sorts of modern manias: obsession with celebrity, political power-brokering and loyalty, sexual anxiety, and spiritual crisis. The world on screen evokes both a timeless vacuum and a specific series of events, while retaining an essential element of showbiz propaganda. Ethereal lighting, threatening low chords, full-on rock and roll, a Jimi Hendrix-style guitar riff, a Las Vegas cabaret in which Herod issues the unforgettable challenge to Jesus: "prove to me that you're no fool, walk across my swimming pool." The musical covers a wide scope, while maintaining its own inimitable, irreverent, individual voice.

At the center is a portrait of the Messiah at odds with his own role in life (and death). Rice and Lloyd Webber show Jesus discomfited by stardom, impatient with disciples, tired of his own destiny, and ready for death. It is an increasingly contemporary portrayal that gathers moss with every roll of the boulder. And that boulder is one of the greatest rock musical creations of our time, and indeed of all time. This film is a wonderful testament to that achievement.

  By Michael Coveney
PBS Online