The subject under discussion is the revival of Tim Rice's and Andrew Lloyd Webber's Jesus Christ Superstar. Though the now-celebrated pair concocted the property when they were in their twenties--initially, as a concept album--it may still be fair to characterize the result as juvenalia. Much worse, however, can be said about the sung-through show that follows Jesus during the brief span of time between his triumphant arrival in Jerusalem and his brutal crucifixion. This work is deeply sacrilegious. Indeed, were someone to suggest that it is even blasphemous, he or she would get no argument from this quarter.
The reasons for Jesus Christ Superstar's startling effrontery are multiple and begin with Rice's lyrics, which reduce the focal character, his followers, and their persecutors to illiterate rabble. Perhaps when Rice began to people the show in his mind, he thought to make Jesus et al. accessible to audiences by having them speak the language of the streets--not a totally misguided approach, but one that doesn't automatically call for everybody on hand to mouth banalities consistently. There would be a lot of fun in quoting Rice's leaden-footed words were his trivialization of the characters' modes of expression not so unrelentingly insulting. For instance, at the Last Supper (perhaps a Seder, during which leavened bread is served in this production), the disciples repeat the inane couplet: "Always hoped that I'd be an apostle/Knew that I would make it if I tried."
Who wouldn't be tempted to hoot at that imbecilic, communal boast? And yet, it's not really very amusing that Rice has failed to differentiate these 12 men, who have each made the decision to attend someone he accepts as the Messiah. How lazy of Rice to have them talk in advertising-copy shorthand. Moreover, Rice's Jesus demonstrates no oratorical skills of his own; having been reduced to a cipher, he sings nothing throughout the piece that explains why anyone would think to recognize him as humanity's savior. This is a man who, railing at God in Gethsemane, insists, "You hold every card." For additional anachronisms that fall flatly on the ear, there's "I Don't Know How to Love Him," in which Mary Magdalene--like a cliche-prone analysand--declares, "I couldn't cope, just couldn't cope."
If it's not the vocabulary of a mass, but of a mess, that Rice invokes, Lloyd Webber's music is no more sophisticated. When it was written 30 years ago, the score begged the description "rock opera," but--as was pointed out then--the music is not rock but traditional show music with rock instrumentation. The influences of predecessors like, say, Richard Rodgers can be heard distantly but distinctly in it. The influence of Tom Lehrer is even more easily discerned in the show's one comedy number, "King Herod's Song"; it's likely that this derivative ditty would never have come to be had not M.I.T. funnyman Lehrer already brought forth "The Vatican Rag."