Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Passion of Jesus Christ Superstar

Regarding my last post, written two weeks ago, I have to say that I was extremely disappointed with the production of Jesus Christ Superstar, the Ted Neeley (playing Jesus) tribute performance, that came here to Normal, Illinois. I don't have definitive proof, but I suspect that it was sanitized of its subversive elements for mainstream church-goers. Compared to the 1973 version, which questioned Jesus' divinity and openly compared the Jesus movement to the 1960s counterculture against violence and traditional authority, this production emphasized supernatural biblical themes such as the purported miracles and divinity. The musical even opens with a miracle during the overture and ends with ascension. Most of the whitewashing happens by a subtle shift in mood and mannerisms, such as Jesus' constant mumblings to some unseen force in the sky. But at one point, they even change the words to make sure no devout person is offended. To Pilate Pontius, Neeley's Jesus says "There might be a heaven somewhere, if you only knew" instead of the much more doubting statement "There might be a heaven somewhere, if I only knew."

While I enjoyed the songs, and thought that they were well-sung except for those parts sung by Ted Neeley, this sanitized version left a bad taste in my mouth. I understand that it is supposed to be a tribute to Neeley, but I wondered how he could participate in such a travesty. If the musical wasn't made palatable to the devout, I could forgive Neeley's raspy voice playing a man 32 years his younger. But when he sings, "I have tried for 3 years, feels like 30," I had to laugh. The worst part came at the end, when after Jesus' ascension to heaven, some people were crying at his death and resurrection. In the 70s, the controversy of the musical was to problematize the conflict between Judas and Jesus, to force a reconsideration of who Jesus was and what his death on the cross means. It inspired hate among devout sectarians. Today, the musical might as well be named The Passion of the Superstar. As my wife said on the way out, it was like the story I heard in Sunday school, the rock music version, and perhaps a little more interesting.

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