What is truth?
Is it unchanging laws?
We both have truths.
Are mine the same as yours?
– Pilate, “Trial by Pilate”
Welcome to my latest review! This time I have decided to review the pathognomonic rock-opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. Written in 1970 with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice, it has been resurrected many times over its forty-two year history. Its latest incarnation is the 2012 UK arena stage production starring Tim Minchin, Melanie Chisholm and Ben Forster, which is the version I shall be reviewing today.
I guess you’re wondering by now, out of the many memorable lyrics from this much-loved musical, why I picked the verse above from Trial by Pilate to introduce my review with. Well, the reason for that is simple – it pretty much surmises the entire premise of this retelling of the Jesus crucifixion story.
Anyone who knows me knows I am not the most religious person in the world, but they would realise I respect everyone’s religious views as long as they don’t encroach on the freedom of others or endanger life. I am also rather fascinated by religious history. I went through a bit of a phase when I was around thirteen or fourteen of trying to work out what I believed in – in regards to heaven and hell and God and everything else. I spent a lot of time looking into religious history – mostly Christianity but also other religions such as Judaism, Islam and even Ancient Egyptian – to see what influenced how people saw life and whatever comes after it. The eventual conclusion of my investigation is also surmised by the above verse – we all have truths, but they are not necessarily the same. We’re all right but wrong at the same day, and at the end of it all, it doesn’t really matter.
JCSS’ retelling of the crucifixion story is very traditional in its plot but at the same time is very radical in its interpretation. For one thing, the headlining character in it is Judas – played by my constant favourite, Tim Minchin. It spends a lot of time focusing on Judas and his concerns regarding the religious movement he is a part of and how it’s losing its original vision, and his fears of its eventual demise and that of its figure head, Jesus Christ. Judas wars with himself on what is the right cost of action, and ends up sacrificing Jesus to try and save what they had created. When he discovers that his once-time friend is being tortured and will die, Judas kills himself from guilt. Judas is no more a villain in this version but is more a victim. He is lost and overwhelmed by events going on around him, and does his best he can in these circumstances.
Jesus himself is having a crisis of faith. He’s overwhelmed by the movement that he’s made and is unsure of what long-term effects – if any – it will have. He has realised that he’s only one man and he can only do so much. He is also aware of his coming downfall, and the fact that he’ll die. He is terrified that his death will be in vain and in spite of being told that it’s necessary, does not want to walk this path. In Gethsemane, he ponders over this dilemma in one of the most poignant and moving songs I have heard in a musical. In the end, he decides to follow God’s will and sacrifices himself for his movement, realising that his death is the greatest gift he has to give it.
The musical also touches on the politics behind the need for Jesus’ crucifixion, involving the priests and their manipulation of the legal system (involving Pilate and King Herod) to get rid of Jesus for their own purposes. Even without the religious aspect, it makes for compelling story-telling. In fact, I think the absence of God as a character and not including the resurrection made it a more powerful story-telling tool. It allows the audience to forget that they’re watching what is effectively a religious play and removes the supernatural from a story about two men who are struggling to get by in morally bankrupt times.
The 2012 UK cast of Jesus Christ Superstar reimagines the telling of Christ’s crucifixion occurring in the modern-day around the time of the England riots and the Occupy movement. To me, this was a risky move.
In late 2011, a young man was shot dead by police during part of an investigation to his activities. In response to this, a protest was held, and when another young man lashed out against police, it descended into a riot. What followed from this across the country is loosely described as such, but mostly it was just opportunistic looting. Most of the criminal activity that occurred had absolutely nothing to do with the tragic incident that spurred events – it was just a chance for people to steal and supposedly get away with it. Not the most glorious event in British history.
As for the Occupy movement, to me it just seemed an excuse for people to protest. Why are we protesting? Because we can! The movement claimed it was protesting against social and economic inequality by highlighting the damage corporations were doing to the common man. However, this stopped none of the protesters from living their corporately run lives – not a day were they out of touch with their iPhones, Twitter or Facebook – all symbols of a corporately run world, and were frequently spotted at corporations such as McDonalds or Starbucks. In fact, many of them complained that they didn’t have access to free WiFi. Had they actually had any commitment to their moral stance, I would have expected that they would have eschewed such technology and business for more grassroots products and produce.
So yes, the premise for both events in 2011 were pure, and I’m sure those who started the movement had good intentions when they started, but both events became so popularised that many people took part in it just to be part of it, as opposed to promoting the message that they were meant to. In doing so, they lost their message and the power and respect of their actions that came with that.
In many ways, I guess that was what made that time period the perfect time to set the 2012 revival of Jesus Christ Superstar. These times reflected many of the same issues facing Jesus while he was still contemporary. He started his movement with pure intentions, but his followers were getting so swept up by Jesus the celebrity and being part of a movement that their initial message was being lost. Judas alone could see the way this was heading, and the risks that came with it, so wanted to salvage what he could out of their original message. It’s really quite compelling.
Judas – Tim Minchin
The headlining role – and my favourite character in the musical – was played by none-other than musical comedian, Tim Minchin, who is also the composer and lyricist of the musical, Matilda.
Admittedly, I have a very soft spot for Tim Minchin. I have listened to his music for years, seen him perform live three times, and I find that once you cipher through the shock-value swearing and imagery, he is actually a deeply insightful person with opinions from topics as varied as natural therapies to religion. My favourite Tim Minchin performance, Storm, is a beat poem about his encounter with a woman who holds alternative beliefs, and I have to say, as a doctor, what I wouldn’t give to be able to say what he did in that performance?
Tim Minchin as Judas is glorious. For a part which has such a range, he pulls it off wonderfully. He also manages to plunge to the emotionally raw depths the role requires. His reprieve of Could we start again, please? at the end of Judas’ death was beautiful. I know I felt my heart break a little bit with him when he cried out “Does he care for me?”
I have to admit that after I left the theatre (I saw it in the brief cinema screening in Australia, and now have it on DVD. I had to – I couldn’t get the music out of my head), I did find myself Googling Tim Minchin a bit. He’s buffed up a lot from when I had previously seen him (which I presume is for the role), but that’s not what I’ve been Googling. I’ve been trying to work out whether he smokes (doctor’s fascination, although I’m sure that was an artificial cigarette he used as Caiaphas merrily palms it in the performance) and whether he has tattoos. I know – the things our minds get fixated on.
Mary Magdalene – Melanie Chisholm
Okay – another confession. I was eight when the Spice Girls came out, and I loved them. I bought all their CDs and their dolls, and even occasionally dressed up as them with friends. That being said, Baby Spice was my favourite Spice Girl – not because she was the best singer, but because she was all about the pink and the pigtails, and at eight, I very much was at that time as well. No, I have always acknowledged that the best singer out of the group has always been Mel C, otherwise known as Sporty Spice.
As such, when I went to see Jesus Christ Superstar, I was not surprised that she could pull off the role, as some of the people who I went with seemed to be. Mel C suits the role down to the ground and makes a very convincing dredlocked prostitute (that doesn’t sound like a compliment, but it is!) who is in the throws of love with the idealised head of the movement she’s become a part of.
While I was growing up, my parents loved Jesus Christ Superstar, so I had heard it on multiple occasions during my upbringing, and it was always the songs sung by Mary Magdalene that I would sing to (still do). I thought she did a fantastic job of singing songs that were so close to my heart.
Jesus – Ben Forster
The role of Jesus in the arena version of Jesus Christ Superstar was decided – through all things – through a reality TV show called Superstar.
I have to admit, the thought of this terrified me. Admittedly, I had never actually watched the show (I’m Australian, it’s not aired here), and I know reality shows these days are rather selective about the talent they let on them, but I was still concerned about what type of Jesus they would actually decide on.
My fears were unfounded in their choice of Ben Forster. He’s fantastic, and carries off the role seamlessly (I really need to start giving more than good reviews on here!). I can’t really say that much more about him – he was just really, really, really, ridiculously good (to paraphrase Zoolander).
So I’m guessing Chris Moyles is some kind of British celebrity, because when he walked on stage there was a massive round of applause. Admittedly, he is just glorious as the game-show style King Herod. Even with the threat of Jesus’ fate looming over our head, it was a very fun piece.
Alex Hanson was also very convincing in his role of Pilate. He scrubs up very well in the semi-legal outfit they have him in, although I must admit I was a little bit grossed out while he was spitting/drooling during Trial by Pilate – I’m sorry! I just don’t like spit, or anything fluids from the mouth, for that matter. I know, not a good trait in a doctor, but I deal with it.
The pair playing Caiaphas and Annas were also quite complimentary to each other’s voices, although I have a feeling that Peter Gallagher (Caiaphas) does not usually sing in that register.
So, now getting into the nitty gritty of what a musical is all about – the music.
Now, there are many types of musicals in the world, and Jesus Christ Superstar is the quintessential Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, in spite of (or maybe because of) being a rock opera. Like all ALW musicals, there are no spoken parts – it’s all sung.
I only really started getting into musicals once I had grown up and started travelling. When I went to London with a friend just after turning twenty, we went and saw Wicked in London’s West End, and after that I was hooked. It was only then that I started going back and investigating musicals that I hadn’t heard in nearly twenty years (like this one). Now the musicals I wet my palate with all had one thing in common – they had spoken sections. This meant that the actual musical pieces were stand alone pieces of music, and did not necessarily have to blend into the ones before or preceding it.
Not so with Jesus Christ Superstar. Because there are no spoken sections, it means that each piece of music has to seamlessly blend in with one and other, but it’s also affected by the need to have seemingly independent sections. That means that throughout the production you’re constantly jarred by the sudden thematic adjustments made to tell each part of the story, followed by a refrain harking back to the original melody. For someone who has never really sat through this type of musical before, it’s quite disconcerting, but after going back and listening to it again, it makes much more sense.
It’s also very clever the way ALW has gone about doing it. In the introduction, while the riots are going about on stage, the band (not orchestra, in this case – rock opera) goes through all the major themes from each of the pieces, introducing them to the audience early so they’re able to pick up the themes later. For those who have already seen the performance before, it also effectively tells the entire story through music in the introduction alone.
As I mentioned before, I heard a lot of the music of Jesus Christ Superstar as a child through my parents, although this was through CD and not the actual stage production. So in my own way, I was always aware of many of the major pieces in this musical – Everything’s alright, I don’t know how to love him, Could we start again, please, (told you I was a Mary Magdalene fan), and Superstar. Having had a chance to listen to the performance as a whole, I find my musical interests have shifted somewhat. Heaven on their minds, Pilate’s dream, Gethsemane (OMG – pun intended), Judas’ death and Pilate and Christ are the stand-out pieces lyrically and musically. Oh – and King Herod’s Song is the most fun piece of music in the entire thing.
So I guess you’ve all worked out by now what my conclusion is by now – I loved the 2012 UK arena production of Jesus Christ Superstar. I only wish I could go see it in person. What I wouldn’t give for it to be performed (with this cast) in Australia? Oh well, we all have dreams. And DVDs.