Andrew Lloyd Webber's much-mocked rock opera is actually a classic work of '70s spiritual exploration -- and besides, Our Lord is hot.

(...) More recently, a new "Jesus Christ Superstar" was launched in the U.K. and wound up making it to Broadway for a revival in 2000. This production's staging, by Gale Edwards, was captured on film for PBS' "Great Performances" in 2001. For this updated foray, Christ was played by the overly perfect Glenn Carter, whose crinkled locks and buff physique made him seem like the Lord as interpreted by Calvin Klein. But the real star of the show here, as always, was the great betrayer, Judas Iscariot. Much as Carl Anderson's rendition of the disciple-gone-wrong stole the show in Jewison's movie, balding Frenchman Jérôme Pradon emotes his doomed ass off in the new version. Brooding anti-Jesus Pradon is thin and dark where Carter is sculpted and golden, and the hints of homoeroticism in Judas' jealousy over Christ's friendship with Mary Magdalene add a contemporary queer-studies twist. Truth to tell, by the end of the video, I had a new crush object, edging Jesus to one side for the first time in years.
While Webber and Rice's story wouldn't seem to need much explaining -- being, you know, a loose chronicle of the last seven days of Jesus -- for those poor souls who managed to miss the "Jesus Christ Superstar" train as it's chuffed through every station in the country over the past 30 years, a brief synopsis might be in order.
The eerie overture kicks off with a wailing guitar lick that builds with ominous intensity, a frantic mélange of sounds presaging the score's major numbers. It's an anxious layering of riffs and fragments, blending orchestral flourishes with hard rock's escalating tension, until the rhythm finally melds together into a lavish celebration of the familiar chorus to the title track, which is immediately cut short by faint wailing voices and discordant notes. Five minutes in, the listener is already exhausted and exhilarated.
 No time to rest: As the story opens, Judas is freaking out, big-time. His pondering quickly escalates to wailing doubts about Jesus' exploding popularity, the cluelessness of His followers and the inevitability of conflict with the authorities ("We are occupied, have you forgotten how put-down we are?"). Cut to the apostles, a bunch of useless slackers forever milling about and asking: "What's the buzz, tell me what's happening."
There's a hint of the old nudge-nudge, wink-wink when Mary Magdalene steps in to soothe Jesus, punctuated by Judas' sneering take on how all this female attention is just another troubling symptom of the direction Jesus is heading. In the first great exchange between the pair, Judas sneers that the former prostitute "doesn't fit in well with what you teach and say." Mary attempts to defuse the situation with the placating ditty "Everything's Alright," but Judas blows a gasket. While the two men keep ragging on each other, Mary continues to insist that all is copacetic. It's not.
Meanwhile, the high Jewish priests are discussing the Jesus problem. An insinuating bass line keeps their conversation building with ominous foreshadowing for the carpenter from Nazareth. In the end, it's decided: "This Jesus Must Die." Uh-oh. With unfortunate timing, Jesus and His supporters pick that moment to hosanna their way past the priests' council. Inside, the priests strategize the best way to deal with resistance: "His half-witted fans will get out of control." Oblivious, the crowd continues to sing and prance about like mindless twits.
Horns sound as the parade swells to Lollapalooza-like numbers, and an infectious piano line kicks into a groovy sing-along: "Christ, you know I love you, did you see I waved?" Jesus' follower Simon Zealotes slyly advises Him to "keep them yelling their devotion, but add a touch of hate of Rome." Like the rest of the apostles, Simon wants a revolution. He wants a Jewish homeland. He wants the "filth from Rome who rape our country" to get their comeuppance. Bad move, Simon. Jesus is a lover, not a fighter.
Cut to Monday morning. Pontius Pilate sings a soft lament about his premonition that bad shit's about to go down. The tempo kicks into high gear when Jesus enters the temple, where decadence and depravity abound. A driving riff plays off the line, "Roll on up, for my price is down." Jesus pitches a fit and smashes everything all to hell. He muses sadly about how the end is coming, then is promptly hit with pleas from beggars who reprise the temple riff ("See my eyes, I can hardly see"). Overwhelmed, Jesus ends up telling them -- with an anguished rock 'n' roll howl -- to heal themselves.
Mary Magdalene's sweet love song diffuses the tension. She's conflicted over her love for Jesus. He's just a man. She knows all about men. Nonetheless, she doesn't know how to love this one.
Come morning, Judas has decided to turn traitor, almost in spite of himself. Relentless rhythms punctuate his rationalizations that he really didn't come of his own accord. Whatever, shrug the priests, who toss him some coins and tell him it's not blood money, just a fee. When Judas takes the money and tells them where to find Jesus, a mournful chorus intones, "Well done, Judas. Good old Judas."

The Last Supper finds the apostles behaving like blithering fools as usual, drinking wine and dreaming of their post-Gospel immortality. Jesus knows He's doomed and finally tells them the buzz they're incessantly asking for: He's going to be betrayed and denied, and then He'll wind up dead. They act clueless when He asks them to remember Him via the old bread-body, blood-wine analogy, and He blows up at them: "Look at your blank faces. My name will mean nothing 10 minutes after I'm dead." As the tension builds to near-unbearable tautness, Judas screams out his disillusionment, sneering that it would serve Jesus right if he didn't turn Him in after all. But of course, he has no choice. Once the useless apostles fall asleep, it's time for Jesus' showstopper: his obligatory, if temporary, loss of faith. He howls his doubts to God, whose silence is deafening. The song builds to a bombastic crescendo, but in the end, of course, He acquiesces. He has no choice, either.
Right on cue, Judas shows up with some soldiers and gives his betrayer's kiss. The apostles are ready to kick some ass, but Jesus tells them to chill out. "Why are you obsessed with fighting? Stick to fishing from now on." The once-adoring crowd turns fickle, clamoring for His thoughts and feelings. ("How do you view your coming trial? Have your men proved at all worthwhile?") He doesn't respond, which pisses everybody off.
After Peter's denial, the action jumps to Pontius Pilate, who's unimpressed, and sends Jesus off to be judged by King Herod. He's trotted over to the wacky monarch, who merrily warbles a ragtime ditty, urging Jesus to "rock the cynics" and prove His deity. No dice, dude, so Herod sends Him away with all the petulance of a spoiled toddler.  
Judas can't stand the guilt; in a reprise of his earlier "doomed for all time" tune, he belts out his realization that he's "been spattered with innocent blood." His howls are briefly softened when he echoes his own doubts about how to love Him ("When He's cold and dead will He let me be?"), but soon enough he's back in bummersville and kills himself. The (heavenly?) chorus kicks in with a mournful buh-bye: "Poor old Judas. So long, Judas."
The priests demand that Pilate do their dirty work, and reprise an earlier melody ("Hosanna, superstar") into a new, grimmer sentiment ("We need him crucified"). As the music drives the action forward, Pilate finally agrees to have Jesus whipped; guitar riffs ripple and build for 39 lashes, in a distinctly sexual rhythm, as the beat gets faster and faster and faster. While Pilate begs Jesus to speak, to save Himself, the crowd keeps shouting for blood, and Jesus finally speaks. "Everything is fixed and you can't change it." The crowd screams for blood. Finally, Pilate howls out the death order in despair: "Die if you want to, you misguided martyr!"
Stand back, give them room, 'cause it's time for the glitzy title track, the grand finale belted out by Judas in the afterlife, backed up by a soulful female chorus. It's the biggest of this show's showstoppers, designed to get an audience on its feet and swaying like an old-time gospel chorus while Judas poses pesky theological questions like, "Did you mean to die like that? Was that a mistake or did you know your messy death would be a record-breaker?"
As the last note fades, eerie laughter, faint discordant notes and the pounding of nails punctuate Jesus Christ's last few words. It's all over. A subdued echo of the overture brings us full circle. Curtain.

As an art form, rock operas never really took off. The oeuvre came and went during the early '70s and consists, pretty much in its entirety, of the unholy trinity of "Jesus Christ Superstar," "Tommy" and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." Just as well, probably.
While "Cats" and "Evita" were still ahead of them, for my money, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's collaboration never again reached the sublime heights of "Jesus Christ Superstar," whose score and lyrics are woven together with near seamless momentum. The pair's abysmal first effort, "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," was written while both were still at school. It shows. ("Joseph" is mainly of interest because of how silly Donny Osmond looks in the film version's title role -- and for a few hints of musical themes that anticipate "Jesus Christ Superstar," their next effort.) The phenomenal success of JCS, as fans call it, made millionaires of Webber and Rice and led them, for good or ill, to a long career as theatrical collaborators.
Lord knows there's no credibility to be had in proclaiming one's love for "Jesus Christ Superstar." In most quasi-sophisticated circles, finding JCS anything but pure drivel makes a person suspect, not just as a critic but as a music lover and perhaps as a human being as well. Witness all the terrible reviews the work has gotten over the years: "Bombastic kitsch that [doesn't] rock," said Rolling Stone. "The lyrics are pedestrian and often absurd," harrumphed the Nation. "Flat, pallid, actually pointless," sniffed the New York Post. Infidels, every one.

Of course, religious sorts had kittens over the whole thing from the start. Devout Christians howled in protest at Webber and Rice's blasphemous gospel, which puts Judas squarely at center stage and doesn't include the Resurrection. (Which is, after all, sort of the point of Christianity.) When the show opened on Broadway in 1971, religious groups protested en masse. A pamphlet put out by the Faith Free Presbyterian Church in Greenville, S.C., cautions the faithful to keep their distance from JCS: "'Jesus Christ Superstar' is a conscious blasphemy against Christ ... If you do not wish to fill your mind with Satan's evil misrepresentation of the Son of God, you should avoid 'Jesus Christ Superstar' ... Tim Rice plainly stated that he did not believe that Jesus Christ was God ... His opera constantly drives home this denial of the Son of God. He has Mary Magdalene say, 'He's a man, he's just a man.'"



By Julene Snyder
March 19, 2002

Julene Snyder is a writer living in San Diego. She is finishing her first novel.