My religious background is that I attended 12 years of Catholic school, most of which was filled with the “memorize this and believe this” mentality. It wasn’t until high school that we were introduced, little by little, to cracks in the doctrine / the bible as literature / the books in the “other bible.” When my Christology teacher in my senior year recommended that I read the gospel of St. Thomas, I was like, “THERE’S A GOSPEL OF ST. THOMAS?” One of the books we read in that class was The Song of the Bird, which combined stories and philosophies of different religions and which is one of the only religious books I would actually recommend reading. It’s not a preachy book; it’s just quiet and thought-provoking. Oh, and it was also in that class that the teacher said in passing, “You know, Jesus probably had a crush on a little girl down the street.” After he said it we all sat there blinking at each other. You could have heard a pin drop. Then by the time I was in college where I was surrounded by people of all different experiences and faiths, my world expanded exponentially. And I started going to church less and less.
My boyfriend went through more years of religious education than I did — grammar school, high school, college, AND a pre-seminary program.
Neither of us go to church anymore, but Catholicism is in our roots. We have religious discussions once in a while, about everything from churches to saints to what the “eye of the needle” really means.
I bought tickets to this show because it’s one of my boyfriend’s favorite musicals. My only familiarity with this show was that once in grammar school I saw a performance of “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” as part of a presentation in which different classes performed different musical numbers on the school’s stage (my class performed “To Dream the Impossible Dream,” in case you were wondering). Other than that, I’d seen about ten minutes of the musical on TV once, but I didn’t remember much of it.
So we get to the theater, open our Playbills, and I see a note that Judas Iscariot is going to be played by an understudy. I show the note to my boyfriend, and naively ask, “Is that important? Does he have a big part?” He tells me yes, that in some ways Judas is “bigger than Jesus,” which is not something you expect to hear that often. And it was only because I had that conversation in the back of my head that I figured out that the first big singer must be Judas. Because otherwise I would have assumed he was Peter, or Paul, or John … You know. One of the biggies.
Anyway, the structure of the show was kind of unusual. I’m used to musicals in which there’s some talking and some singing, where characters will be talking one minute and then bursting into song the next. Jesus Christ Superstar is structured more like The Who’s rock opera Tommy (which I just saw a week ago, coincidentally). Anyway, rather than dialogue mixed with songs, Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar are ALL SONGS ALL THE TIME. Which also takes some getting used to. When something needs to be conveyed to the audience that isn’t in a song, it’s done through dance or pantomime or other visual cues.
So now that the structure of the show is out of the way, let’s talk about the music.
MAN, that stuff is catchy!
I was singing these songs under my breath for weeks afterwards. And no, I’m not going to list the songs here, because if I look up the titles then I’m going to get them stuck in my head AGAIN. But let me just say that the music is written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and that they’ve got a pretty good track record of creating catchy and compelling music. And I’ll also say that the sweeping, powerful songs made me feel like I was on a roller-coaster while I was watching the show. Sometimes I was mesmerized, and sometimes I cried. The whole show was incredbly moving.
But I brought up my high school Christology class for a reason. And that’s because this show made me think more about the character of Judas Iscariot than I ever had before. I left the show thinking about bible stories as STORIES, with characters and plot devices. I thought about history being told through the voices of the victors. I thought about the gospels with their more or less omniscient narrators, including my favorite, John, because he used to refer to himself as “the disciple Jesus loved.” What a card, that one!
Anyway, I highly recommend seeing Jesus Christ Superstar if you can. The film version is available on DVD and other formats. But if you get a chance to see it on Broadway or in another live venue near you, it’s definitely worth it because it will add an immersive dimension to the experience.
Either way, this musical will make you want to sing, and dance, and think, and that’s a pretty unusual combination.