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Best Easter pageant ever? Half a century of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ | Columnists


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Henry Bial, University of Kansas

(THE CONVERSATION) Within the days main as much as Easter Sunday, Christians around the globe will take part in retellings of the story of the final days of Jesus’ life, from his entry into Jerusalem to the Final Supper and to his trial, crucifixion and resurrection. They might stroll the Stations of the Cross – a processional ritual marking key factors within the biblical narrative – attend a pageant or just collect in church for non secular providers.

And a few folks will view or take heed to “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the 1971 rock musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert,” that includes R&B star John Legend within the title function, was first broadcast on Easter Sunday 2018 and re-aired for Easter 2020. This 12 months, if you end up in Dallas throughout Holy Week, you would possibly even rating a ticket to the most recent touring production.

As I element in my e book “Playing God: The Bible on the Broadway Stage,” “Superstar” is essentially the most commercially profitable adaptation of a biblical story in Broadway historical past, with effectively over 1,000 performances spanning a number of productions. In some methods, that is unsurprising. Church reenactments of biblical scenes were foundational for the event of Western theater, particularly the “quem quaeritis trope,” a Tenth-century dialogue that reenacts the second when Jesus’ physique is supposedly found lacking from the tomb. Put one other means, Christians have seen drama as an applicable strategy to talk the story of Jesus’ ardour and resurrection for greater than a millennium.

But one thing about “Superstar” has at all times appeared a bit unbelievable, and its depiction of Holy Week set off controversy from the beginning. Composer Lloyd Webber has recounted how London producers initially regarded the mission as “the worst idea in history.” Many spiritual audiences seen the play with deep suspicion for what they thought of an irreverent strategy, questionable theology and its rock ‘n’ roll-influenced rating.

As a theater professor, I see “Superstar” as an vital step within the evolution of the Broadway musical, a groundbreaking rock opera that paved the best way for up to date hits like “Mamma Mia!” and “Hamilton.” However the musical’s now-canonical standing was something however inevitable.

The present’s irreverent angle is encapsulated in its title song, which mixes a hovering choral hook (“Jesus Christ, Superstar, Do you think you’re what they say you are?”) with a collection of pointed and ironic questions by way of rock melody – “Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?”

Although set within the Jerusalem of two,000 years in the past, the play makes use of trendy language – “Jesus is cool” – and imagery, corresponding to paparazzi following Jesus by way of the streets. By representing Jesus as a charismatic movie star whose fame spirals out of control, “Superstar” provides audiences a recent framework for understanding the traditional biblical narrative. That is underlined by self-aware lyrics that supply commentary on how the Ardour story would go on to be advised. In the course of the Last Supper scene, for instance, Jesus’ disciples sing:

All the time hoped that I’d be an apostle Knew that I might make it if I attempted Then after we retire, we will write the gospels So that they’ll nonetheless discuss us after we’ve died.

For conservative Christians, such lighthearted paraphrasing of Scripture might have been offensive. Extra troubling, within the eyes of many spiritual leaders, was the musical’s theology. “Superstar” is structured equally to a conventional Christian Ardour play, depicting Jesus’ remaining days. But it surely abruptly ends with the crucifixion, omitting the resurrection that’s at the heart of the Easter story – and Christianity itself. What’s extra, the play hints at a romantic relationship between Jesus and his supporter Mary Magdalene, and provides a outstanding function to Judas, the disciple whom the Gospels say betrayed Jesus – in actual fact, Judas is arguably the present’s main man.

All this prompted many Christian leaders to dismiss the show as blasphemous. Others argued that, whereas well-meaning, “Superstar” was overly centered on Christ’s humanity, to the exclusion of his divinity.

In the meantime, Jewish organizations expressed concern that the play would encourage antisemitism by perpetuating the concept that Jews bear accountability for the demise of Christ. A trio of Jewish clergymen sings “This Jesus Must Die,” and later pressures a reluctant Pontius Pilate to have Jesus crucified.

In 1971, this was a very sore spot for Jewish-Christian relations. The concept the Jewish folks bore collective guilt for killing Jesus had lengthy been a part of antisemitic rhetoric from Catholic leaders just like the Rev. Charles E. Coughlin. Actually, it wasn’t till 1965 that the Vatican officially declared, “what happened in [Christ’s] passion cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today.”

Nonetheless, most early objections to “Superstar” have been pushed much less by its content material and extra by its type. The mere concept of turning the Bible right into a loud, flashy, rock ‘n’ roll spectacle was usually seen as a sort of sacrilege. As faith scholar David Chidester and others have noticed, conservative Christian teams have traditionally complained in regards to the superficial and amoral nature of American in style tradition, with explicit distaste for its music. On this view, rock lyrics advocate sin whereas the loud, sensual and unrestrained nature of the music encourages it.

For such critics, “Jesus Christ Superstar” appeared to pose a risk just by juxtaposing the sacred narrative of the Bible with the profane environment of the rock live performance.

But half a century after its premiere, the musical now not generates a lot controversy. The popularity and appreciation of Jesus’ humanity has regularly become more acceptable amongst American Christians, although to not the exclusion of his divinity. In contrast with earlier generations, Technology X and millennials are less likely to read Scripture, and due to this fact much less more likely to be involved over nice factors of theological interpretation.

Rock music, in the meantime, is aging along with its fans, whereas the rise of the American megachurch has blurred the line between rock live performance and church service, between celebrities and non secular leaders. Not are electrical devices, flashy costumes, spotlights and microphones seen as disrespectful or inconsistent with worship.

Maybe most importantly, at present’s audiences, each non secular and never, might merely have a higher regard for so-called superstars. For many individuals within the Nineteen Seventies, the musical’s comparability of the deification of Christ and the idolatry of a rock star was inherently derogatory, undercutting Jesus’ non secular significance. But at present, in an period when Woman Gaga has six times as many Instagram followers as Pope Francis, arguably the title – and the musical itself – reads as a extra honest type of appreciation.

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This text has been up to date to right the lyrics to “The Last Supper.”

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