Well, well, well, look who’s back: Jesus, and as always, he's having a bad day. Can’t that guy ever catch a break? He’s like Chevy Chase in a National Lampoon movie.
Today is Good Friday and this Sunday is Easter, and Andrew Lloyd Weber is celebrating the occasion by exhuming a moldering corpse. For this weekend only, Sir Andy’s “The Shows Must Go On” YouTube channel will stream the 2012 revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, featuring the talents of Melanie C from the Spice Girls (!!!) and a Jesus played by some guy chosen on a reality TV show.
Amazingly, it is worth watching.
At least, I think it’s worth watching. The production came in for some particularly harsh criticism, hailed as a messy fiasco by some critics and a clever triumph by others. Jesus: He’s controversial!
JC Superstar seems like a catastrophically bad idea, a concept album by a rich 21-year-old twerp that was turned into a touring arena rock show and then turned into a Broadway musical. It’s about the last days of Jesus, seen largely through the eyes of those around him: It ping-pongs between nervous growling government officials, a group of carefree friends with 5-dimensional polyamory vibes, and one very high-strung gossip.
My own perspective on the show is … weird. I was raised in a climate of particularly acute atheism, so my understanding of this season was a vague miasma of zombies emerging from caves, rabbits with eggs, ash-dotted foreheads, and, primarily, candy. That people also seemed to think it was a good time to watch an energetic musical was enjoyable enough, though bewildering, like watching a Friar’s Club roast of Telly Savalas — full of references that clearly resonate with someone, just not me. Who are all these people?
But a bit of confusion is all part of the appeal, and JC Superstar works as well as it does because it affords so much room for big bold weird ideas. Set the show in the ancient Middle East, set it in modern times, put it on the moon, make it super gay, set it at a monster truck rally, whatever. Stranger is better with this show, and the only versions I’m disinterested in seeing are the ones that aspire to be tasteful.
And that brings us to the 2012 version available to watch this weekend. The show is a bit doomed by reputation: Producers notoriously staged a reality show competition to find their lead actor (just as Jesus would have wanted) and picked Ben Forster — who, in spite of the loathsome casting method, is actually quite excellent. He doesn’t display much of a range beyond woefulness as Jesus, but my understanding is that aside from a few table-flips Jesus was fairly consistent in his own temperament.
The concept of the show was novel for 2012: The events of the show are imagined as taking place at an Occupy protest. The tents, scruffy apparel, and media scrums would have been familiar to audiences at the time, likewise for the battle of activists versus oligarchs. It’s a clever conceit, and it makes the gaudy weird excesses of the ruling class seem even stranger when contrasted with the relatively realistic encampments.
Another pleasure here is Melanie C, who was once known as Sporty Spice and is now known as someone I just find really really pleasant to watch. This particular interpretation of Mary Magdalene is a placid pixie dreamgirl with, regrettably, dreadlocks. (She’s not the only white cast member with this affliction, I’m sorry to say — in fact, it’s an overwhelmingly white cast, which is a poor choice.) At any rate, she has an easygoing nonchalance that is very easy to watch.
I do wish the show was more energetic, though. The voices are fine, but the acting reminds me a bit of the one Catholic Mass I’ve ever been to: A recitation of words passed down so many times they can be recited on autopilot. I’m not sure if I’m referring to the story of the Christ or to Tim Rice’s lyrics, but either way it’s all a bit listless.
Still! I find the Occupy theme to be a compelling take, even if it does upstage the performances on occasion. It’s especially provocative a decade later, since it’s hard not to note that we were in the middle of an economic disaster then, and we’re in another one now. How will the capitalists manage to deflect blame this time? How will we manage to make things even worse for ourselves? Why do our ideals die around us?