Can I be honest? I’ve never liked these live televised musical events. I completely skipped Sound of Music and Peter Pan. And proceeded to hate-watch Grease Live. The second truth about me: I’ve never liked Jesus Christ Superstar. Despite being a self-proclaimed Broadway Baby (and despite loving Cats and Phantom as non-guilty pleasures), Superstar has never made it on my radar.
I fell asleep watching the 1970s film. I’ve never listened to the full album. I’ve never seen a production. Maybe this is due to the fact that I went to Catholic School as a child, and felt no need to hear this story more than I already had. But that’s a different story for a different time.
What I will say is that I found NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live to be a pleasant surprise. I expected to despise everything, in the most delicious way. I mean, isn’t that the point of a hate-watch? But instead, I found this production to be fun, refreshing, and while it is less complex than Fox’s Grease, its simplicity made it all the more impressive.
What made this production different? For starters, it was less of a musical and more of a rock concert. Fewer places to travel meant a simplistic set. Filmed in Brooklyn at Marcy Armory, it looked like a warehouse-party-gone-Broadway. Scaffolding, stairs, lights, and ladders told us where we were and that was all that was needed.
All of this to facilitate a live audience on two sides. A live audience made all the difference. It was like watching a Grammy’s performance instead of a filmed theatre performance. This is how Fox’s Rocky Horror should have been filmed, but I digress.
Another pro for this piece was getting actual Broadway performers. Because you know who’s watching these live musicals? Broadway nerds. And you know who we really want to see? Broadway people. People like Jin Ha (Hamilton/M. Butterfly), Jason Tam (A Chorus Line/K-Pop), Norm Lewis (aka my favorite Javert, and currently starring in Once On This Island).
Even Sarah Bareilles has been getting her own Broadway reps in by starring in Waitress, the show she also wrote the music and lyrics for. Tony-Award nominated Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas was brilliant casting! Then again, he holds a special place in my heart as my first Aaron Burr. And though the show is named after the Son of God himself, it’s Judas who really leads the show, starting and ending it with gusto.
With such a stellar supporting cast and a killer ensemble, John Legend almost gets lost in the crowd. The man can sing, there’s no doubt. But he doesn’t so much carry the show on his shoulders as much as shake it all off during his rendition of “Gethsemane.” He does perfectly fine, but I won’t find myself rewatching his songs anytime soon. I’m too busy rewatching Erik Grönwall sing “Simon Zealotes” on repeat.
Final touches of the show were spot-on. The dystopia of the set was exactly what was needed. Doomsday is when people start finding God, so it only makes sense that this world look apocalyptic. Camille A. Brown’s choreography was to die for, and the costumes flowed with the bombastic dancers. Chrissy Teigen and I feel the same about those deep V shirts.
The cameo appearance of Alice Cooper was fun, and he made a perfect King Herod. I wish the sound mixing had been better, as I couldn’t understand the words to some of the songs. Alas, what can you do?
All-in-all, Jesus Christ Superstar was a fun, frolicking musical that has been stuck in my head for days. After a string of mediocre musicals, it’s refreshing to watch a dynamic performance that balances drama and camp. Hopefully, we have more staged concerts like this one to look forward too. Here’s looking at you, Bye Bye Birdie. Good luck!