A new production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” opened in London this month to the delight of composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, who told the opening night audience that he had waited 42 years for this.
Hugging his “latest” Jesus fashioned by the votes of an ITV celebrity show, Webber declared that his dream for this rock opera had finally been fulfilled.
It was loud, raw, in your face, body-wrenching stuff. Blinding light, voices at the edge of pitch and expression, visually overwhelming, the actors dwarfed by both the size of the event and story.
Ah! The story. What had been done to the story of Jesus?
This, of course, has been the question hanging over this musical since its arrival, a child of the ’60s in a two-vinyl album with psychedelic cover. And since it went to stage at the Palace Theatre in London in 1972, it has divided people.
Was such a depiction of Jesus the right thing to do? Were some Christians right to be hurt and flabbergasted to have the Lord of their life likened to a superstar? What was to be gained by the selective use of Scripture but distortion and misrepresentation?
It was a disconcerting experience for me then and at the first night in Greenwich this year. In contrast, to say “Godspell,” “Superstar” cloaks any respect for Jesus in a style of production and interpretation that both offends and fascinates.
Back then, at the beginning of my ministry, I was ready to seek ways of communicating faith in Christ that went beyond the conventions of church sanction but could I go as far as Tim Rice? At the time he declared: from a very young age I had wondered what I might have done in the situation in which Pontius Pilate and Judas Iscariot found themselves.
This production of Webber’s work as composer with director Lawrence Connor takes Rice’s questioning to a different level.
The story of the last days in the life of Jesus is set against the riots of last summer and in particular the tented villages on the likes of the steps of St. Paul’s.
Emerging from the brazen challenge to global capitalism Jesus forms a small band of followers. The elders of Israel have become the “money-men” of the city.
Pilate is a slick business-type, the Temple an after-hours night club. Jesus is in the revolution and becomes the revolution.
This is what disturbs Judas who through Tim Minchin’s extraordinary portrayal moves from troubled friend to a shrieking fury of frustration and hurt.
The battle between him and Jesus becomes two faces of human experience. When deep sources of power clash who suffers and who is meant to suffer?
This makes for a puzzling portrayal. The first century religious setting is almost lost making some of the names and lyrics meaningless.
It is a surprise when reference to God comes up in the second act in the powerful struggle of faith, prayer and obedience that was Gethsemane.
The scene in which Jesus rejects the clamor of the sick seems to have no relevance and his frantic despair at the complacency of his disciples has no roots.
So there is much to take issue with as there always has been.
Yet the theme of power and who holds it, which is central to the Passion of Jesus in John’s gospel, is there still. “Superstar” raises uncomfortable questions about the relationship between the Kingdom of God and discipleship as was played out on the steps of St. Paul’s last year.
I was made to ask again: Where would Jesus stand when the action of the protester speaks up for the victims of greed?
It is also a powerful and relevant reflection on the nature of our celebrity culture. Does the blessing of notoriety become the curse of death from gossip, paparazzi-stolen images and the betrayal of disappointed friends?
So I bought the program and got out my recording of the original cast and listened to the debate of my companions who were there with me in 2012 but not alive way back then. And they wondered where the Christians were with placards protesting against this fake portrayal of their precious Lord?
And I wondered that too but also where were the other Christians who saw this as an opportunity to join the debate about Christ that Jesus has always provoked.
For in the end, I was left pondering this. Since 1972, whole generations of people have lost touch with the story of Jesus and have the thinnest awareness of what it is about.
Yet this tour is going to expose more of those very generations to the story of Jesus (however fake or fair in the eyes of any Christian) than any number of church services or “Soul Survivors” and so on can offer in its running time.
Is this a cause for gratitude, worry or opportunism?
John Rackley is a freelance writer and a Baptist minister in Bath. This column first appeared on The Baptist Times.