So I like the album Jesus Christ Superstar alot. At this point it’s the only Easter tradition I repeat every year. I was listening to it all holy week, culminating in divvying up the parts and singing the entire thing through with an atheist friend who also loves the musical. It’s basically a passion play disguised as a rock opera. Or a rock opera disguised as a passion play. Musically I find the thing pretty outstanding. Spiritually speaking its a good way to connect me to the story of Easter.
You get to feel the rawness of the emotions coming from Jesus as he struggles with his impending destiny, the anger of Pontius Pilate as he deals with this nuisance of a ‘king’ who won’t even defend himself in the face of death, and the openness of Mary Magdalene as she encounters a man who is complicated far beyond the usual men she has dealings with.
I could muse at length upon her story. The bible doesn’t say much about her; popular cultural belief is that she is a reformed prostitute. JC Superstar hints at the latter and that is how I tend to think of her. I wonder about her untold background. How did she come to her profession? Was it a choice or out of necessity? Does she long for a way out or is she using her self-employment as a shred of independence which most women would have no access to? Obviously she is important to Jesus, perhaps closer than the other apostles. Considering Jesus in more human terms, it’s possible he was in love with her. She seems to wonder so herself. But they do a good job making Jesus an enigma. Does he love her or is he on another plane she cannot quite touch?
JC Superstar does an incredible job fleshing out the story of Jesus and Judas. Written off in the gospels as merely a thief, Superstar paints Judas as a worrier, concerned that Jesus is going to doom them all. He sees the way the priests take notice of Jesus-rabble-rouser and he fears for all their lives. He seems to believe turning Jesus in will result in a slap on the wrist for him. He is shocked that they plan to have him killed. The Judas of JC Superstar is convinced he’s doing the best thing available to him. It’s interesting how this means Judas could actually be the closest one to Jesus. I seem to remember this being the plot of the gnostic gospel of Judas- that Judas is really Jesus’ closest friend. In the gnostic version of the story Judas is the only one who understands that Jesus needs to die so he can rise again. This makes Judas a more heroic figure. In JC Superstar he is more tragic, not understanding the terrible consequences turning Jesus in would have. You really feel for Judas, wondering if it all could’ve happened some other way that wouldn’t have destroyed him.
But my favorite interactions by far are those between Jesus and Pilate. Pilate is intensely angry, perhaps because the Jewish leaders put him in such an impossible spot by demanding that he punish someone whose crime is iffy at best. Perhaps Jesus’ sense of calm determination is too much for Pilate to fathom and pushes his frustration to the limit. Pilate has some of the slickest, suavest, and evilest lines in the musical. He is charmingly terrible, almost as if he’s toying with Jesus, until he snaps and shouts out “Die if you want to, you misguided martyr!” Pilate’s part is always the best to sing; first because it is musically awesome, and second because it allows one to act very nasty and not actually cause harm. It gives me something of an excuse to feed impulses I might have to be mean. But hey, I’m doing it for Holy Week so God has to be cool with it!
I think pretending to be Pilate also brings us back to our humanity- that same humanity that Jesus took onto himself. That same humanity couldn’t handle Jesus’ ideas and had him put to death. Sometimes I think Jesus died because of our sins, simply in that our impulses to kill and have power were the reasons he died. That’s in all of us. Jesus died to show us it’s time to take that away. We can stop being terrible to each other and we can help each other more than necessary. I think that’s a decent way of looking at it.
One Reply to “JC Superstar”
Very interesting observations, Tracey. Certainly your choice of topic brought back memories – I was in my 30’s back when this musical was “a la mode.” In many ways it hasn’t lost its appeal. However, having been brought up on Roman Catholic/High Church Anglican Holy Week liturgical “drama,” I guess it wasn’t something so earth-shattering for me. And from a musical drama perspective, I was nurtured by participation in performances of MESSIAH, the PASSION settings of J. S. Bach, VIA CRUCIS by Franz Liszt, among others. And having attended the Oberammergau Passion Play, the story put on stage was not novel to me.
However, from a theological perspective, you bring up some good points. Some of these have deep association with many of the “mystical poetry” which is used in the Orthodox Holy Week Services. The human nature nuances of the characters of Mary Magdalene, Judas, Pilate, Peter and others, and their relationship to Jesus, can be found in many of the hymns that are sung throughout the week in the Orthodox Church. They offer not so much a didactic or analytic understanding and appreciation of the whole event – beginning with the Raising of Lazarus in Bethany and continuing all the way to the last moments on Calvary and finally the empty tomb – as they do a real personal experience for the believer who participates in these Services. The three hour rock opera is overshadowed by the 8 day “liturgical drama” of Orthodox Great & Holy Week, which we will celebrate from Sat. April 27 until Sat. night, May 4. “COME AND SEE!”