Last night the NBC TV network broadcast a live performance of this rock musical to coincide with Easter Sunday. I started watching the high-energy 2½ hour show but gave up after 40 minutes. This was not because I thought it was bad. I liked what I saw but the frequent breaks for commercials finally got the better of me. It seemed like for every 8 minutes of the show, we had a break for about 4 minutes of commercials. I understand the business model of ads paying for free programming, but the time spent on ads was just too much and they were so frequent that it destroyed the sense of engagement. If a DVD comes out, I may well watch it but today clips were made available and I embed some below.
The record album, dealing with the last week of Jesus’s life leading up to the crucifixion, first came out in 1970 and was followed by a Broadway play in 1971 and a film in 1973. From the inception it was controversial among the Christian orthodox because of the very idea of creating a rock musical of something they considered sacred. The fact that it ended with the crucifixion and did not show the resurrection was troublesome to them, as was the suggestion that Jesus was having an affair with Mary Magdalene who was implied to be a prostitute. Judas and Pontius Pilate, rather than being portrayed as outright villains, were sympathetically treated as trying to do the right thing but weak and overcome by circumstances. There were also charges that the production had anti-Semitic overtones. In addition, Judas is really the star of this musical, having by far the best and most songs, right at the beginning and the end and in between. Jesus really has only one great song in the garden of Gethsemane.
The minister of my Methodist Church in Sri Lanka was English and pretty progressive and he quickly got the album when it was released and played it to the church youth group. I was instantly hooked and went to see the film as soon as it came there. It has long been one of my favorite musicals and I have listened to the soundtrack many times, so much so that I pretty much know all the words. And the words by lyricist Tim Rice are really what lift this well above the other output of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.
In the film Jesus (played by Ted Neely) was shown as seen in so many icons, as a blue-eyed man with long flowing blonde locks. This was perhaps to mollify the orthodox, despite it being so unrealistic for a Middle Eastern man in those times. Judas was played by a black actor Carl Anderson and and Mary Magdalene by Yvonne Elliman of Hawaiian ancestry. In last night’s production, Judas was again played by a black actor but we also had a black Jesus (John Legend) which might have rankled some Christians, a black high priest Caiaphas, and a very diverse group of supporting actors.
Here is the big opening number from last night by Judas (Brandon Victor Dixon).
One of the funniest scenes (and songs) in the album and film is where Jesus is taken before King Herod. Last night Herod was played by Alice Cooper, hamming it up in grand style though not as outrageously campy as Josh Mostel in the film. Here is that scene.
Here is Legend singing his big number in Gethsemane.
And here is the culminating scene, with a show-stopping number by Judas.
For comparison, here is that same final scene from the film. On balance I think Anderson delivers the better performance as Judas, playing him brilliantly with an intensity that borders on the manic, as opposed to the more restrained performance of Dixon last night.
As I said, what I saw of last night’s production was good. It was too bad that I could not stomach so many commercials.
UPDATE: Here is also the Gethsemane scene from the film, where I think Neely was at his best in delivering an intensely moving song, showcasing Rice’s inspired lyrics.