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."
Amateur and professional theater historians might want to know how the current outing compares to Tom O'Horgan's 1971 version: unfavorably. O'Horgan's specialty was putting a high gloss on second- and third-rate material. There are observers who maintain that, the less good the basic ingredients, the better an O'Horgan presentation was likely to be, because a top-flight script often seemed to stand between him and the vision he wanted to impose. Edwards, who cut her teeth on the likes of Shakespeare and Chekhov, comes at a play from a different angle. She pays close attention to the words--an approach that, ironically, may be her undoing here. Handed vulgarity, she grasps it firmly and reaches the finish line with something so vulgar it could be used to define that word in Webster's next update.
So, where does this leave the cast? Aside from Maya Days, who sings the part of Mary Magdalene with a graceful conviction, and Paul Kandel, who gives Herod a Las Vegas brusqueness, the members of the ensemble seem to have been cast for their stamina and their biceps--not for their acting prowess. Hard-working and industrious, they are herded around the stage by choreographer Anthony van Laast (he's the fellow responsible for the dreadful dancing in London's Mama Mia), who has apparently encouraged them to punch their fists in the air whenever they get the urge, to hug one another regularly, and to scowl when the religio-political climate darkens. Led by Tony Vincent as an alternately swaggering and sniveling Judas, they look like the crowd assembled for the ads Gap is now running. They're the Jeans, and Glenn Carter--as a long-haired Jesus in an earth-toned tunic--is the lone Khaki. Poor Carter! Dealt nothing of substance to chant, he's left to draw on whatever gestures and grimaces he can conjure to appear Christ-like. His most degrading moment occurs when, being "nailed" to the cross, he's video-cammed with a grimace on his fake-bruised face.
And to think that outraged parties picketed Terrence McNally's Corpus Christi!