Jesus Christ Superstar - (a)Live?
Now that some time has passed (and I like waiting until a little time has passed), let’s talk about Jesus Christ Superstar: Live on NBC, shall we?
I know what you’re thinking…Dave, don’t ruin this for me.
It’s true, sometimes I’m a bit of a ruiner. I recall really disliking what the writers and producers were doing in the final season of the TV show phenomenon LOST, and my distraught roommate at the time (who loved what they were doing) pleaded with me not to ruin it by, you know, talking about it at all.
And I’ll say this, I don’t enjoy ruining things. In fact, I’m very much an exhorter, someone who really believes in building people up constantly, encouraging them, hoping they find their place in this crazy world. I’ll sit through many an audition, and when someone comes in that really does a job that other people disparage, I always think of how much bravery that person has to follow their dreams, especially in and industry for them that seems like endless rejection. Sure, it’s the life they’ve chosen (for now), but there’s a toughness involved that I always respect, and I try to give them some positive vibes and feedback. I’m not a fan of tearing people down.
But I think it’s different when people start to OVER-praise things. I think when the mass populace REALLY likes something, that there’s a sense of “ok, these aren’t helpless people, these are artists, and a little healthy criticism is great for breaking down why things work and don’t work”.
I put things like the film LA LA LAND in that category. No one’s ripping apart some people who have low self-images, or people who are on their last thread. This is a half-a-Billion-dollar enterprise, and amidst the fawning (and there’s LOTS of great things in LA LA LAND, for sure), there’s some absurdity to the idea that it’s PERFECT. You can throw other things on the list, from MAD MEN to BREAKING BAD to the movie LINCOLN. Everyone’s got their own, so if you disagree with these, you’ve got your own.
Which brings us to Jesus Christ Superstar: Live on NBC. There might be an exclamation point in there that I’m forgetting, but so be it.
Let’s get a couple of things out of the way first. Did it have good things in it? It sure did. We’ll list them in a moment. Was it the best of the musicals being performed “Live” in the last 10 years, since this craze began? Good question. I think so? Overall, probably yes. Was it tremendous? No, I don’t think so, and I’m not sure that if you’re a musical theatre professional that you’re being honest with yourself if you think it’s TREMENDOUS. But, let’s go a bit more in depth. Can’t wait for you to disagree with me heavily, and thus foster in depth discussion!
ON A STAGE
Well, the fact that it was shot on a stage in front of a live audience in one place was super helpful. Theatre is meant to be performed that way. And yes, let’s try new things using the medium of television OF COURSE. There are many fantastic movie musicals, obviously, that move around. But there’s something about these “Live” experiences that are helping to get more people interested in musicals. I think putting this in that Armory in Brooklyn was a great idea. Nice big stage, smart lighting design, theatrical elements.
I think that using the musicians the way that they did - featured, visible the whole show, a part of the storytelling - was a strong choice. I’m not saying that every musical should do that, but JCS is a great example of how the score is very much a central part of this storytelling, with this show having of course begun as a concept album. Also, the musicians were pretty terrific. No real new arrangements to speak of (small things here and there, retaining most of ALW’s licensed orchestrations, giving him credit), but very solid playing. Using electric violins/cellos was a great feature. And hey, when you’ve got a nice budget, you can afford to do cool things. But someone needs to know enough about WHAT cool things to do, and it seems the music department was truly on top of it.
THE FINAL MOMENT
It was pretty beautiful how they ended the show with the cross flying back and out, using the white light, and the panels. It was an arresting moment, and a great example of using the space well.
We’ll get to some of the leads in a minute. But almost all ensemble soloists nailed their material. It reminds me of those great Les Mis 10th and 20th Anniversary concerts, where someone has 1 solo line for 4 measures, and you think “Wowzers, that person is no joke…”. You do have the pick of the crop (no pun intended) a bit with these TV musicals, but people really worked it out. Big props again to Mykal Kilgore, who decided to take the Old Man solo in “Peter’s Denial” up the typical (for him) octave. One day these “Live” musicals are going to get even smarter and start featuring him more heavily. He did the same vocal acrobatics in THE WIZ – Live! And this is his 3rd separate production of JCS in the past year or so, having played Judas at Paramount Theatre in Aurora, IL, and also set to appear as Simon in the production at The Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Another truly standout performance was Erik Gronwall as Simon. Fantastic unique voice, well-trained and supported, and not a note awry. It was full of passion and energy, something that was missing among MANY moments throughout the night. But a definite standout in a pretty thankless number, all things considered. But the metal vibe he brought actually reminded us, maybe for the first time, that this is a rock score. Or was at least written to be one.
Norm Lewis – he could go in the good or bad category, but not because of his performance. He was wonderful, as always, and could truly sing the low stuff, which is of course impressive, especially when you hear his high stuff as well. His High Bb in “Eddie and Mae” from LaChuisa’s WILD PARTY is aural magic. But it’s hard to jive with the fact that he was brought in to be one of the “token real musical theatre guys”, and he seemed a bit wasted here. I felt bad for him that he was sharing the stage with some of these performers, to be honest.
Sara Bareilles – Well, she was good in some ways. I thought she acted her material well, something that isn’t a given for all Marys in these productions. But without any real beltiness, and everything seeming very smooth and connected, she was the personification of much of what was wrong with the evening…No real stakes, no real thrills, everything kind of muted, and when there was a BIT of excitement, it was so manufactured with that AUDIENCE (crowd). We’ll get there, too…
Anything else good? Well, I think the fact that these events are HAPPENING? That’s good. The more they happen, and the more successful people perceive them to be, the more they can CONTINUE to happen, and the closer they get to genuinely great musical theatre experiences, and getting more people interested in musical theatre.
THE QUESTIONS/THE PREMISE
Here’s the deal, before I delve into this any further: What is the point of these TV musicals?
I think it’s very possible that I’m in no way the target audience. I think I AM the target audience for movie musicals…I think they’re making those for everyone. But these Live Events seem like they’re targeted for people who know very little about musical theatre, and this is a sort of crossover introduction. It’s very possible that the higher-ups that put this event on were sitting in a boardroom somewhere predicting this EXACT response of mine from people like me, saying “He can not like this part or that part. Oh well, that’s not why we’re doing this.” And if that’s the case, which of course I can respect, then there’s still the issue of how do you find the right balance of appealing to people outside of musical theatre professionals, without doing these works of art a huge disservice. And it’s here that I think it’s a good idea to talk about casting.
John Legend was truly a depressing choice. Now, he’s some acting experience (who can forget how Ryan Gosling saved Jazz from the likes of John Legend in LA LA LAND), and he has some singing experience. Ok, quite a lot of singing experience. But not THIS kind of singing experience. The Acting-While-Singing kind. And also, he can’t vocally handle the role. His range limitations were on full display. And we can talk about YOUR preference on how you like to hear a cast of JCS, especially how you prefer your Jesus and Judas. One need only to look at the vast differences between Glenn Carter of the 2000 TV Version, to the OG Ian Gillan of the band Deep Purple. And my personal favorite, though mostly only vocally, John Farnham from the Australian production that featured some boss orchestrations. If you’ve never heard it, and you’re a JCS fan, you’re in for a treat. More on THAT later…But whether you prefer a rockier sound or a more legit sound, Legend had neither, really. He had a pop sensibility that was coupled with a limited range, popping pivotal notes into a weak falsetto throughout the evening.
Now, I understand, it’s tough when you’re trying to get a “name” to headline your event. He’s not the SILLIEST choice. And I know you can’t just GET any performer you might want. They have to want to do it, be available, etc…but I think to myself how much better the entire evening would have been if you subbed out John Legend with, let’s say, Bruno Mars. Someone who can legitimately sing the role. And though he’s older, even someone like Brian McKnight, who has Broadway credits in addition to being one of the most prolific R&B artists of all time. There’s truly no limit to that man’s upper register.
But are we really so desperate to like John Legend that we forget that he isn’t up for the task? I see a lot of parallels here to other baffling performances in the “Live” series to date, such as Ariana Grande in HAIRSPRAY…Maybe you never know until you get too deep, but you’ve gotta know at SOME point, right? His acting was quite suspect, especially later in the piece, and unfortunately the bigger moments of the role revealed his true limitations, such as “Gethsemane” and his stuff on the actual cross in the final moments.
Brandon Victor Dixon – Yeah, this will probably make people mad, but this was a disappointment, too. I wanted to like him, and he absolutely had good moments. Some of Judas’ Death was good, some of Superstar was good, but as with the rest of the evening, there were basically no stakes at all. So Judas, who we’re supposed to see as quite the polarizing figure, ended up having very little effect. Very few ad-libs to make the role his own, very few impressive happenings in the trickier vocal passages. He looked nice and ripped, but there was no pathos being flung about. There was no far-flung passion in a consistent manner. Now, to be fair, this is one of the hardest roles in all of musical theatre to do well. The demands of the singing are some of the hardest, bar none. Also, we have to understand where he’s coming from, and see the juxtaposition of Jesus through him. If you’re not going to sing it exceptionally, and you’re not going to bring some terrific new artistry to it vocally, or make significant choices, then it becomes a bit of a Devil’s Advocate role, which isn’t terribly compelling. I do think he got better as the night went on, but that’s also because the material for him is better as we head into Act 2, so I’m not sure how much of it was him.
Alice Cooper – Well, he didn’t really do anything…If you’re Alice Cooper (and he is), then basically you’re crazy and everyone is accepting of that fact. So you basically have complete reign to do ANYTHING you want, and we’d be cool with it, because we know you’re crazy. And then the performance turned out to be incredibly stiff, self-aware and basic, none of which helps the show at all. Which is truly quizzical, because he’s actually sung the role before, joining the 1996 West End Revival cast in the recording studio (though he was not part of the theatrical production).
Ben Daniels' Pilate was the very definition of low-impact. Once again, very few stakes, and with this staging and interpretation, very little context to construct a narrative in which we care about him. I mean, Barry Dennen is an unfair standard, as he appeared in the Original Concept Album, the Original Broadway Cast, and the Film. But there’s something about such a loose world that they’ve set it in, where the concept seemed to be post-apocalyptic grunge matrix. Which isn’t all that helpful. The Occupy Wall Street theme from the O2 Concert was significantly more helpful in establishing Pilate’s authority. In this, Ben Daniels came across as particularly simplistic. Though, to be fair, in his interactions with John Legend, came across looking like Michael Redgrave.
But I think one of the biggest things that hurt the piece as a whole was that audience/crowd/concert goers. I’m 100% in favor of having a live audience. One of the things that hurt THE WIZ LIVE so much was the lack of laughter at some genuinely funny jokes. It made the evening seem like nothing landed, when with an audience maybe it would have had more momentum? But this was an “American Idol/The Voice” crowd, and all it did was continually take the viewer out of the moment. Remember, there’s not a large amount of levity in JCS. Not a lot of laugh lines. Arguably the only thing that’s meant to be funny is King Herod, which in this version wasn’t at all. So having an audience whoop and holler after any semi-impressive note in the middle of a song was a real action-stopper. All it did was reinforce the fact that this isn’t really a dramatic evening of musical theatre. Sure, you’re using a musical to story-tell, but it seems like the message they keep wanting to send with these Live Events is “It’s best if you don’t think of this as a musical.” This is why I think I’m simply not the target audience for this. I think it’s meant for people who know John Legend and have watched The Voice. And therein lies the end of their experience with musical theatre. Except maybe for Hamilton’s cast album.
Overall, I think there’s real potential for these “Live” TV musical broadcasts. And even if I wasn’t as glowing as some people’s reviews on it, the fact that it was received well is great for the genre. Hopefully it means they could make some more of them! I think the key is really finding bigger names that can legitimately command some of the roles (I know it’s not the easiest thing to do), and pair them with some real musical theatre TALENT. And this is not to take away from the talent that surely is there with some of these performers. With one or two glaring exception, everyone on that stage earned the right to be on a stage in front of that many people.
But finding the right mix is tough in a cast. I’ll tell you some times where I think some films have gotten it right, though:
James Marsden/Zac Efron in HAIRSPRAY (the movie). Perfect example of 2 folks that are known more for their film work, but give terrific performances in HAIRSPRAY. Completely believable, infectious, and certainly up to the task vocally and acting-wise. Now, these parts aren’t as difficult vocally, sure…but both of them handled their dancing well, something not required much from our JCS leads.
Beyonce in DREAMGIRLS (the movie). This is a hard role. Probably in the top 25 musical theatre roles, vocally, in terms of difficulty. But she acted quite well throughout, sounded terrific in Listen, and understood how to have the smoother sound for the plot’s necessity. And was obviously a huge name.
Catherine Zeta-Jones/Renee Zellweger in CHICAGO (the movie). Both did quite well, I thought. And once again, not the hardest vocally, but those 2 gals really had to dance well, and pulled it off tremendously. And John C. Reilly was pretty terrific as well.
So it’s POSSIBLE.
Overall, I’d give the evening a C+, which is pretty good, honestly. There were a lot of things that worked right. But let’s not get all crazy thinking that this was some next-level stuff. Let’s save those expectations unfairly for the upcoming THE LION KING. I jest.
And for those of you curious about the personal opinion of this writer when it comes to JCS, I’ve compiled my own humble submission list for the best tracks of each song from this show. Listen at your peril, and hopefully there may be some on here that you haven’t heard before!
1 – Overture – I think I have to choose the 1992 Australian Cast Recording, which you’ll see on here a few times. It used some fantastic new orchestrations that were approved by Webber, but never approved for anyone else to use again. One time an answer was “well, a lot of the orchestrations weren’t written out or saved.” Then someone offered to transcribe them so they could use them, and they said no. It’s probably my favorite album of JCS all around, though there are some hit or miss moments…I also have some love for the Original Concept Album as the OG, and I also liked what the 2018 Concert did, prominently featuring the musicians (as discussed above). But I’ll start here.
2 – Heaven on Their Minds - Well, I don’t want to be biased, and there isn’t a full recording of this anywhere, but it’s probably Mykal Kilgore for me, from the Paramount Theatre production that happened last year (2016) in Chicagoland. Here’s just a clip of the end of it, but when you have a Judas that’s hitting high-D’s like he could do it for months on end without a scratch in the voice, there’s something special on display. Mykal’s range is consistently ridiculous.
3 – What’s the Buzz/Strange Thing Mystifying – For me, this one is easy. Have to go with the original Concept Album. When Ian Gillan slams into that double-high A while Mary sings “Let me try”, the album comes fully to life. The first real time the album blows you away. Many productions have tried to emulate this moment with Mary being the one to hit the high-A, but I haven’t heard too many a Jesus successfully replicate this ear glory.
4 – Everything’s Alright – Well, I wanted to say I’d go with the 2003 U.S. Tour here, the one that starred Sebastian Bach and Carl Anderson (the original film Judas). Still in incredible voice at his age, he’d be diagnosed with Lukemia on this tour, and died just a year later. Natalie Toro is also quite strong as Mary, early in her career. But the only video that exists on YouTube of it is actually not tremendous…You can see it if you like, but without there being a great option, I’ll go with the original cast on this one. Everyone’s in great voice, both Murray Head and Ian Gillan nail their Bs, and Yvonne Elliman deserves some love for being one of the 2 triple-featured cast members, playing Mary in the Original Concept Album, Original Broadway Cast and the film. Also love the random tenor singing the high B harmony at the end as he repeats “everything’s all right, yes”. Love random tenor ensemble singing, such as the overly-strong vibrato of Lamar Alford in the original cast of Godspell…
5 – This Jesus Must Die - Gotta go with the OG on this one here as well. Victor Brox as Caiaphas bellows out that low-C# on “Ah, gentleman”, and you hear something very special in this show. The ranges represented are certainly extreme, and it’s what makes this show have the largest range required of its male singers in all of the musical theatre canon (unless I’m wrong? Prove me wrong?)
6 – Hosanna - I’ll go with the 2018 Concert for this one. Norm Lewis is commanding, the ensemble is great. Love the entrance with the musicians on their electric strings instruments. It’s also one of the rare moments where having a raucous, annoyingly loud audience plays well for the piece.
7 – Simon Zealotes - Love the 1992 Australian recording for this one. The arrangement, the vocal sampling in the background, just a dynamite track that breathes more life into the song. Honorable mention: The 2018 Concert. Erik sounded great, and injected some energy in the show right when it needed it. Depending on your browser, this video may not open up in the exact spot for you, as this is the full video of Act 2. So jump to 24:50
8 – Poor Jerusalem - This is John Farnham for me, hands down (of the 1992 Australian). The alternate notes are very satisfying, the echo on the voice, the commanding power of a Jesus who’s range is endless, it actually dramatically helps a difficult section of the show. (Just continue watching from link above!)
9 – Pilate’s Dream - Gotta go with the 2005 Amstetten, Austria cast here. Rob Fowler does great work, and the scenic/multimedia design is suberp.
10 – The Temple – Love the Original Concept Album on this. Ian Gillan’s screaming throughout is exactly what JCS is to me, when it comes to Jesus.
11 – Everything’s Alright (Reprise)/I Don’t Know How to Love Him – Call me crazy, but I think I like Melanie C. here the best, from the Occupy Wall Street-themed 2012-13 UK Arena Tour. I think her look really adds to the self-doubt, anguish and humanity inherent in the song. I find it the most authentic, although she’s certainly not the best vocalist who’s played the role. But if Mary is all voice and nothing else, this show really goes backwards.
12 – Damned For All Time/Blood Money – Gotta say, I like Drew Sarich the best here. Truly acted, you get a good idea of the turning point for Judas. Great vocal adlibs, great presence. Also, love the portrayal of Annas in this production.
1 – The Last Supper – Love the rare recording with Drew Sarich playing Jesus (not Judas), and does a tremendous job on these vocals. Serkan Kaya is a solid Judas as well, especially with English not being his first language.
2 – Gethsemane - This is a tough one, because there are some solid versions out there…but vocally speaking, I have to go to John Farnham performing this. When he’s up the octave on the “Can you show me now”, it’s chills-inducing. Fully belting high E-flats left and right, and bringing the drama consistently. Probably the best version there is. I do have a lot of love for Ian Gillan as the OG.
3 – The Arrest – Really like the 2018 Concert version of this one. Love the choice of the full embrace after the kiss from Judas, love that you really see the regret creep in for Judas at that early moment. And all of the ensemble soloists were terrific. One of the best moments from the concert, honestly…
4 – Peter’s Denial – Ok, I’ll got with 2018 Concert…just for the 3 ensemble soloists…No other versions really stick out.
5 – Pilate and Christ – Really like the 1992 Australian on this as well. One of my favorite Pilates, love the growl. Depending on your browser, this video may not open up in the exact spot for you, as this is the full video of Act 2. So jump to 21:50.
6 – King Herod’s Song – Gotta go with Jack Black on this. He is literally the perfect choice for what this song is trying to accomplish. I can’t find video of it anymore, but here’s some pretty terrible audio.
7 – Could We Start Again, Please? – I think I go back to the Arena Tour, the Occupy Wall Street-themed one. Melanie C and Michael Pickering are tremendous in the context, and having the rest of the cast sitting on the steps really lends a ton of situational drama to the idea that they’re completely without a leader now, which perfectly encapsulates the issue with the real-life movement itself. Though there are many issues with this production, I do think it’s the most cohesive concept put on the show that I’ve come across. If you haven’t seen the whole thing, and you’re a fan of the show, it’s certainly worth watching.
8 – Judas’ Death - This is a tie between the Original Broadway Cast with Ben Vereen and the 2005 Amstetten, Austria cast with Drew Sarich. Ben Vereen approaches this song with much more pathos than other versions, and his passion is on high display as he does the “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” section in the octave where it’s written, which nearly no one does except him and Murray in the Original. Also, when he goes into the part where he loses his mind, it’s much more haunting than other Judases. Drew Sarich sings the snot out of this score, and it’s a healthy sound, so it’s great for the kids to listen to. A little too covered on his top notes at times, but when he belts out that screamy high-G on “God, I’ll never know…” you’ll see how an actor can really make this role their own. Also, the interesting concept and staging works very well with the set and the gun.
Ben - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hK342w646uY
9 – Trial Before Pilate - 1992 Australian Cast, no doubt. The harmonies added for the “We have no King but Caesar” theme in the ensemble, the terrific 2 and 4 beats from the snare when the rhythm really kicks in with “Remember Caesar, you have a duty…”, I think it gives this moment in the show a very scary and intimidating feel, and really propels the audience through the rest of the show. Best example of how the mob is really out for blood in a terrifying way.
10 – Superstar – I think Drew Sarich’s version from the Austrian cast is probably my favorite. I really like the staging taking place with what’s happening with Jesus throughout, and the vocals are obviously on point. There’s a smoothness about it that’s quite unsettling. Judas’ irreverent interactions with Jesus are kind of shocking, and I think it lends a lot of audience sympathy back to Jesus, something that many productions don’t do well, making Judas seem like the “fun one”. When he hangs his hat on the cross while Jesus is on the ground, or when they go into that quiet instrumental break while Jesus is climbing the stairs, and Judas adlibs “So, what’s the buzz?”, the audience recoils a bit. I think this production was very well directed.
11 – The Crucifixion – Hands down the 1992 Australian album. The orchestrations and effects are chilling. Really some of the best arrangements from this album. Depending on your browser, this video may not open up in the exact spot for you, as this is the full video of Act 2. So jump to 42:30.
12 – John Nineteen, Forty-One – Without a doubt, the 2018 Concert does this very well, making it my favorite. Stunning final moments, love the white light, etc…everything I mentioned above.
And obviously, if you’ve checked out these links, you’ve probably seen that there are full videos of the 1992 Australian production, and the 2005 Austrian production. If you’re a true fan, you’ve got to see them.
How long are blogs supposed to be? This wasn’t very long, right? Maybe let's stop calling this a blog...