Jesus Christ Superstar Live Ruled; and You Should Go Watch It
Jesus Christ Superstar Live Ruled; and You Should Go Watch It

NBC’s live production of Jesus Christ Superstar was pitched to audiences as a “Live in Concert” version, which led some to expect a straightforward performance of the songs. It turned out to be an inventively staged production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock-and-roll gospel, so passionately imagined that it set a new standard for this type of event.

The “Live in Concert” aspect seemed to have more to do with the venue at the Marcy Avenue Armory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn — an enormous space filled with sets, lighting, and design accents that owed as much to Mad Max, The Matrix, and Dune as to any old-fashioned Biblical spectacular, as well as costumes by Hamilton’s Paul Tazewell, and simple, effective choreography by Camille A.
Brown. The audience was arranged in steeply raked bleachers, complete with a mosh pit at the base where cast members could offer handshakes and high-fives as if at a nightclub or arena show. Spectators were apparently encouraged to react spontaneously and loudly, as if they were watching Beyoncé play the Staples Center — one of many touches that lent the broadcast a sense of immediacy. It came at the expense of sound mix problems that improved throughout the night, but were never entirely overcome.

The production fittingly gave rock-star entrances and exits to John Legend’s Jesus, introducing him in a burst of white light (like the bottom of the mothership opening up in Close Encounters) as he entered the story at ground level, then raising him to the heavens at the end. Jesus’ ascension goes on a short list of the most visually astonishing final images I’ve seen in anything: the stage-bloodied Legend was somehow affixed to a cross and then raised upward as the back of the stage split vertically, making it seem as if Christ were being beamed up to Heaven in a shaft of bright light, as the camera slowly zoomed up and out. When he passed a certain point, the back of the stage split again — horizontally this time — letting more white light in and creating a cross-within-a-cross effect. This shot played out for a very long time without a cut as we watched the hero move slowly backward into the frame until he was finally swallowed up in the light from whence he came. (The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.)

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The geometric beauty of this image evoked (knowingly, I bet) the final act of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which turns 50 this week. Like many memorable images scattered throughout the production, it was conceived for the camera, with sets, lighting, and staging all contributing to the integrity of a composition that audiences would ultimately perceive within the rectangular frame of an electronic device.

This seems like an obvious thing to point out because, in theory anyway, everything that appears on your TV is conceived for maximum visual impact. But in reality, this is not often the case. Thanks to time, budget, or material constraints, what you see on television is often merely a record of people talking (or singing), and this has unfortunately also been true of every live musical-theater production you’ve seen on TV during the broadcast networks’ musical-theater craze. Even the good ones have felt like live theater events that happened to be covered with multiple cameras cutting rapidly from performer to performer, in the manner of musical numbers created for the Grammys, the Oscars, or the Super Bowl halftime show.

Although there was a bit of that kind of thing here, live TV director Alex Rudzinski and stage director David Leveaux tried whenever possible to think about the totality of every shot’s impact, building certain sections out gradually, like sequences in an action picture. Among the best of these were the scene where Jesus is overwhelmed by lepers, beggars, and the disabled, all asking to be healed, climaxing with a (literal) God’s-eye view shot looking down on the performers encircled by a sickly green oval evoking a sample in a petri dish; Jesus’ scourging, staged with a series of performers leaping toward, away from, and past the camera, miming vicious blows as the stage floor blossomed with gelled red pools of light suggesting splattered blood; and the guilty retreat of Judas (Brandon Victor Dixon of Broadway’s Hamilton), which followed him up several layers of scaffolding until he disappeared above the top of the frame line, right before a ladder fell into view.

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The sung-through nature of Webber and Rice’s musical helped keep the energy level high throughout, a factor that future producers might want to take into consideration. Often when there are spoken or “book” sections, live telecasts of stage musicals tend to rise and dip in excitement more drastically (as Rudzinski surely knew when directing Grease Live!, the previous high watermark in this genre). There was some debate among viewers afterward about whether the breaks sapped the momentum anyway — I’d prefer if all the ads were bundled into a single interruption, labeled as an “intermission” — but the picture-in-picture juxtaposition of the commercials and shots of the actors and crew getting ready for the next number compensated. In any case, it’s hard to imagine any commercial broadcast network production completely overcoming this issue. (How long before a cable channel or streaming platform gives something like this a go?)

The strongest performances were Dixon’s Judas (always the highlight, even in bad productions); Legend’s Jesus (who reached peak Messiah when he unveiled a falsetto that would send an atheist to church); Sara Bareilles’s Mary Magdalene, who brought strength and centeredness to a role that is often pliant and simpering; Norm Lewis’s rumble-voiced, cornrowed Caiphas; and Jin Ha’s Annas. They were so superb, in terms of their acting as well as their singing, that they diminished other performers who might have been singled out as scene-stealers in lesser productions, such as Alice Cooper’s King Herod (a decent one-scene cameo that cried out for a sinister clown in the mode of Alan Cumming, although his moldy-tangerine suit deserved its own round of applause); and Ben Daniels’s Pontius Pilate, who gave the role his all but was ultimately a bit too action-film macho for the recrimination and self-flagellation the part requires. I was moved, however, by the way his voice gave out at the end from all that anguished rock-and-roll wailing. Like other “mistakes” in the broadcast, it seemed less a flaw than proof of commitment, and a byproduct of how fresh and bold the whole thing was.

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Minute for minute, NBC’s Easter spectacle was one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in the 20-plus years I’ve been writing about TV. I wish I’d recorded it so that I could have watched it again right away to savor its visual and musical grace notes, such as the way that the Romans deliver Judas’ silver in a red bag (evoking the containers used to store human remains) to the way Dixon’s falsetto becomes reedy and constricted as he chokes back tears, at one point sounding like Miles Davis’s trumpeting on Sketches of Spain. This Superstar was the closest that live television has come to creating a hybrid new form, combining elements of epic cinema, the stage musical, and the concert film. It’s a minor miracle.

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