Christianity in Theatre, or Why Jesus Christ Superstar Caused Such a Fuss

Christianity in Theatre, or Why Jesus Christ Superstar Caused Such a Fuss

A few days ago, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Tim Rice, and John Legend all became EGOT winners for NBC’s thrilling concert of Jesus Christ Superstar. The trio won Emmy awards for producing the Easter special, and it’s possible that the special will win more at the Emmy Awards broadcast next week.

“I loved this TV version,” Lloyd Webber gushed in an interview with Page Six. “Thrilled NBC did it the way we wished it had been done 45 years ago. It was live and felt live — but I thought the Broadway production loud and vulgar. What happened was the recordings became a hit in America before the show was really ready, and I hated it.”

Indeed, Jesus Christ Superstar is a massive hit. In 1970, the rock opera’s original concept album topped the US Billboard Pop Albums, and the show went on to be developed as a Broadway stage musical one year later before branching out into countless other stage productions and concerts. The show now has two film adaptations, and this year’s TV special marked the first time Lloyd Webber’s prized project has enjoyed a live, televised performance. To say that this musical has a large fanbase would be an understatement.

However, where Jesus Christ Superstar was at first praised for its revolutionary style and creative concept, there were also many groups that protested against the piece, arguing that the content was “blasphemous” and had no place being presented to impressionable young minds.

From which community did these riled up protests come? Why, of course, it was the Christians!

Now wait! Please know that this isn’t a hit piece against Christians or the idea that anyone could have an issue with Superstar. In fact, I want to take a look at the show’s content and decide for myself whether or not there is merit to these criticisms.

Jesus Christ Superstar, obviously, deals with a subject matter that is deeply, intricately important to many people. I am a Christian. I believe that Jesus Christ is our Lord and Savior, and that he sacrificed himself on the cross for our sins. This is an extremely important belief to me, and I like to think that, in a story surrounding this event, the narrative will focus primarily on why this event is so crucial to the Christian faith. Evidently, many other Christians feel the same way.

So, with that being said, does Superstar hold up as a proper adaptation of the Gospels that many religious people hold near to our hearts? Not really.

Superstar takes the events of the Gospels and both eliminates and tosses in elements in order to portray the characters the way the writers desire them to be portrayed. Jesus Christ, instead of infallibly being understood as the Son of God, is presented as a fame-loving, self-absorbed pop star figure with delusions of grandeur. Mary Magdalene, instead of being portrayed as a loyal and holy follower of Christ, is presented as a sex worker who has fallen in love with Jesus. (In fairness to Rice and Lloyd Webber, Mary Magdalene being a sex worker was widely accepted as Christian canon until recently, when it was decided that there is nothing in the Bible to support that claim.) And finally, Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Jesus and ultimately caused the Messiah’s temporary downfall for selfish reasons, is instead portrayed as a sympathetic pessimist who makes his decisions for honorable reasons.

Glaringly, Jesus is not the central force in this story; the one driving the narrative is actually Judas. In making the decision to write their opera this way, Lloyd Webber and Rice, whether intentionally or not, shifted the meaning of the story to be seen through a rather secular lens. By that, I mean that the audience is constantly being directed to Judas’ conflict. Judas believes that Jesus is not the Son of God, so as the central player in the story, Judas ends up forcing the audience to see Jesus the way he does. Jesus can’t perform real miracles, because he wasn’t really granted the divine powers he claims he was granted. The resurrection of Jesus isn’t seen, because someone who isn’t the Son of God shouldn’t be able to get up and walk around three days after suffering through an agonizing death. Jesus is just a normal man with flaws, so he’s constantly losing his cool and exploding into fits of anger and passive aggression. (One of the most problematic examples is during the Last Supper, when instead of proclaiming the bread and wine to be his flesh and blood as a way of connecting his followers to him, Jesus sarcastically remarks to the disciples, “For all you care, this bread could be my body, etc.”)

What’s more, presenting Judas as a sympathetic, understandable character ends up hurting the message that the Bible preaches. In the Bible, it’s said that Satan enters Judas, and so Judas betrays Jesus as a result of Satan’s influence. We are to understand that Judas commits an inherently evil act in betraying God, so his actions are not excusable. Superstar, on the other hand, claims that Judas betrays Jesus both out of frustration for what he perceives to be false teachings and so he can donate the blood money to the poor. The narrative entirely changes the reasoning behind what Judas does and makes him seem justified in his choices. Now, adding a more layered motive for Judas isn’t a problem in and of itself. However, when his reasoning becomes the sympathetic center of the show and makes the audience want to side with Judas, then from a Christian perspective, it becomes a problem in regards to how it presents the aim of the story.

But, all of that being said, I have to wonder whether or not the musical was really meant for a Christian audience in the first place.

Musicals that take historic events add nonhistorical “fluff” to the narrative all the time. Hamilton, as our newest contributor Addison pointed out, isn’t entirely faithful to the way the Founding Fathers really were. 1776 is also guilty of changing events to make for a more interesting story. I don’t think you could say that these shows are written for an audience of strict historians; the shameless tossing aside of facts and the stuffing in of fiction both make for a scholarly historian’s worst nightmare. Similarly, one could say the same for religious people and our texts. While the actual historicity of religious events will likely always remain a subject of debate, those of us with faith like to think that the stories we’ve studied actually happened. To Christians, the Bible is a history book. So just as a historian likes to see historical events played out as factually as possible, a Christian likes to see religious events played out with a strong degree of accuracy in relation to the Bible.

But shows like Hamilton and 1776 are meant to entertain. They present historical events loosely while changing things up in order to provide elements that draw in a mainstream audience. Historians can choose to enjoy these shows for what they are, or they can reject the shows entirely and move on with their lives.

Personally, I enjoy Superstar, not as a proper adaptation of the Bible, but rather as a fictional work that draws relative inspiration from the Gospels. Its existence isn’t hindering my own faith, nor is the show claiming to be any sacred extension of the Bible. It’s a piece of art that Lloyd Webber and Rice decided they wanted to make, so they went and made it. It’s nothing more than that.

There isn’t an easy answer to whether or not the church-fueled protests were justified. On the one hand, it’s understandable that Christians would feel that the rock opera wildly misrepresents our text and beliefs. On the other hand, though, it’s important to look at Jesus Christ Superstar as a work isolated from the Bible and examine it as a solitary piece of theatre. Neither side is inherently right, and neither side is inherently wrong. How should we approach stories of faith moving forward?

(Photo credit: NBC promotional material)