The Portrayal of Jesus as a Rock Star Phenomenon

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1715

In a recent interview Tim Rice admitted that from an early age he was fascinated by the character of Judas. Without Judas, he said, there would be no Christianity since it was Judas who directly caused Christ’s martyrdom and thus gave the world a tragic heroic figure around whom a whole religion would coalesce. Rice wanted to put Judas on the stage, by taking the sketchy, known ‘‘facts’’ about him and hypothesizing a set of logical reasons and a psychological make-up that could have led to his devastating betrayal. That Rice succeeded in his endeavor is without question. His Judas has a clear, if not forgivable, motive, and his tale of emotional remorse and suicide ring truer to life than the dispassionate reporting of the Bible, which merely states that Judas repented and hung himself. Rice’s Judas realizes that his soul is forever tarnished with his act, that his name will forever be ‘‘dragged through the slime and the mud.’’ Jesus Christ Superstar begins from Judas’s point of view and ends with his observations on the Christ phenomena; however, to make Judas the character come to life, Rice also needed to create a viable Jesus as his protagonist. Rice eschewed the persona of Jesus familiar in Biblical stories and the art these stories have inspired over the ages, since that persona of pure goodness makes any opponent appear foolhardy and heinous for martyring the messiah. The Jesus of familiar artistic renderings is a ghostly, divine figure, whose perfection and goodness exude through his otherworldly bearing and patient suffering with eyes confidently cast heavenward. Rice needed a different kind of Christ, a flesh-and-blood saint, an imperfect martyr, whose activities would not be above reproach. Therefore, to suit the Judas of his imagination, Rice created a Jesus complete with doubts and frailties, a worldly saint far removed from the ideal figure of Renaissance paintings. The Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar is a fallible human.

The story of Jesus’s anger at the sellers in the temple market is a commonplace; Rice has him shriek, past the edge of self-control. Rice also portrays a healer who runs out of patience with the endless demands of the sick and poor, who claw at him and enclose him, chanting, ‘‘Won’t you touch, will you heal me Christ?’’ The superstar Jesus also regrets having accomplished little in his life, and feels show-stopping doubt when faced with sacri- ficing his own life and can only rouse himself through spite and anger, ‘‘Alright, I’ll die! See how I die!’’ Although fallible, Jesus is a charismatic leader, who draws to him an immense and loyal crowd. To this crowd and to his disciples, he is the messiah, the savior for whom the Jews waited for centuries, whose coming was prophesied in Isaiah and elsewhere in the Hebrew Bible. Being a charismatic savior who nevertheless grapples with human faults made Rice’s Jesus a ‘‘flesh-and-blood human being,’’ as Clifford Edwards of Catholic World observed. Those closest to this human Jesus, such as Judas, see that he has faults and that he is not a blameless god. Mary Magdalene even momentarily wonders about falling in love with him, a speculation that seems impossible to have about the Jesus of, say, Michaelangelo’s ‘‘Pieta’’ or Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘‘Last Supper.’’ A flawed Jesus then, raises the possibility that he is yet another false messiah, who will lead the Jews to destruction, not heaven. His very popularity increases the risks for the Jews if Jesus is not what he thinks he is, since, as Judas points out, the crowd is ‘‘getting much to loud’’ and ‘‘they’ll [the Romans will] crush us if we go too far.’’ It is in this way that Rice’s version of Jesus provides Judas with a clear and defensible motive for betrayal: to avert the wrath of the Romans, which the priests anticipate as ‘‘our elimination because of one man.’’ In this sense, Rice has fashioned the classic conflict, one that contains within it the seeds of two conflicting outcomes, a hopeful one salvation for the Jews and its opposite, their destruction.

The play opens with Judas’s apprehensions, instantly shifting the focus away from cliched reverence for Christ’s goodness to the more complex concern over success that might swell the unconventional rabbi’s head or turn him into a ‘‘superstar.’’ Unlike Christ’s other followers, who idolize a messiah as the road to their own salvation, Judas is more skeptical, and less innocent. Judas resents Mary Magdalene’s use of costly ointments to soothe the tired prophet because it diverts money from the poor; possibly this symbol of messianic status (messiahs alone warranted anointment) offends him as well. Judas accuses Jesus of immodesty, chiding him that ‘‘You’ve begun to matter more / than the things you say.’’ Jesus is too popular, and his ‘‘followers are blind, too much heaven on their minds’’ to see the danger they are in. Caiaphas, too, objects to Christ’s popularity, for it draws followers away from his sphere of control. Even so, Caiaphas begrudgingly has to admit that Jesus is a smooth operator, ‘‘No riots, no army, no fighting, no slogans / One thing I’ll say for him Jesus is cool.’’

To be ‘‘cool’’ in 1960s parlance meant that one could win respect without making any overt effort. The word ‘‘cool’’ connoted being ‘‘hip,’’ or fashionable, smart, and impressive; a ‘‘cool’’ person could maintain the aura of outward calm, while generating excitement in others, like an Elvis Presley or other rock star. A successful rock star appeared disinterested while the crowd went wild. Rice’s Jesus epitomizes coolness: he is a ‘‘superstar’’ with a winning style, who draws large audiences, yet his inner calm rarely ripples. As such, he inspires both jealousy and disdain from Judas, who goads himself into action by calling Jesus ‘‘a jaded mandarin,’’ a fallen idol. The Christ of Jesus Christ Superstar is not simply a humble saint or martyr, but a rock star, whose star status is buoyed up and defined by and dependent upon the crowd’s enthusiasm. This novel re-fashioning of Jesus was the coup de grace that launched the album and later the stage production into the public eye. The concept of a rock star Jesus seemed to many a contradiction of terms, for how could a saint be hip or cool, how could a humble martyr be nonchalant or even suave? Religious leaders were affronted by the rock Jesus. It was an invasion of territory Jesus fit the mold of the classical symphony hero, but not the mold of the heathenish rock musician.

According to Reverend Billy Graham (who occasionally used the Superstar music in his revivals) to ignore Christ’s divine status in this way ‘‘border[ed] on blasphemy and sacrilege.’’ Frank Garlock, a minister and music theory chair at Bob Jones University (a Christian school) rankled at comparisons between the Superstar opera and great classics of reverent music, saying ‘‘This comparison is so ludicrous that it is absurd. The opera is certainly not talking about the Lord Jesus Christ in honor of whom Handel composed the Messiah and for whose glory Bach composed some of the greatest music known to man.’’ Others found the comparison refreshing, as did Derek Jewel of the London Sunday Times, who found Superstar ‘‘Every bit as valid as (and . . . often more moving than) Handel’s Messiah.’’ The worlds of classic opera and rock music were as opposite as they could be: the one a marker of highbrow, conservative taste and the other a kind of ‘‘in your face’’ protest against conventionality. Jesus Christ Superstar offended by yoking divine content to a profane medium. It recast a revered saint as a dubious rock star, thereby presuming to raise sacrilegious rock music to the level of respectable classical music. In doing so, Rice and Webber recreated the shock and excitement that Jesus must have engendered. Jesus achieved ‘‘star status’’ in his short life; he was the Biblical equivalent of Prince, Elvis, or Madonna. Rice and Webber’s use of rock music is a profound statement about the tremendous impact he must have had in Galilee. The composers of Superstar suggest that the Galileans responded to the Christ ‘‘happening’’ as the contemporary world would respond to the meteoric rise of a new rock superstar.

Rice explains, ‘‘It is undeniable that Christ made more impact on people than anyone who has ever lived an impact of colossal proportions.’’ They re-contextualize Christ’s controversial appearance in terms that reflect modern sensibilities, thus revitalizing the worn cliche of the icon called Christ. At the same time that their Christ is brought squarely to earth, such that ‘‘A common reaction to Superstar is ‘It was the first time I ever thought of Jesus as a real person,’’ he is also a superhero. Although his divine status is stripped away, Christ is catapulted to superstardom. As Yeats observed in ‘‘The Second Coming,’’ the religious center did not hold; Rice and Webber suggest that pop culture as culture’s core can hold. With religion shoved to the margins, the twentieth century still seeks sacred heroes. Herod speaks for the swarms of groupies who exist from show to show, waiting to bow down to the next pop hero. With Herod, the modern being beseeches each new pop star to rise beyond human frailty to star status, saying, in the words of the Superstar libretto, ‘‘I’m dying to be shown that you are not just any man.’’ Perhaps, as Judas complains at the end of the play, Christ appeared in the wrong century after all; ‘‘Israel in 4 B.C. had no mass communication,’’ no way to honor a star of Christ’s magnitude. Judas chides Jesus, ‘‘Why did you choose such backward land and such a strange place?’’ Rice and Webber plunk him down into a happening place, and, ironically, their Christ and their Judas succeeded where their historical counterparts failed: they ‘‘reached a whole nation.’’ However, Jesus Christ Superstar the rock opera reached those nations not by the path of faith but by the route of rock.

Source: Carole Hamilton, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000. Hamilton is a Humanities teacher at Cary Academy, an innovative private school in Cary, North Carolina.

Jesus Christ Superstar—Two Views: A Priest Says, It Doesn’t Have a Soul

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 670

Can Jesus survive ‘‘Jesus Christ Superstar’’? Sometimes it is ‘‘Love Story’’ in Jerusalem. Other times it is only ‘‘The Greening of the Box Office.’’. . . But is it a serious work of art? And how does it deal with the Passion of Christ?. . . .

In a myriad of details gone wrong, the show bears little resemblance to the New Testament. Yet, what is most important, Jesus’ mission got misplaced somewhere from drawing board to Star Chamber.

Is this the Jesus of a significant counter-culture? Not at all. For we see him reject the sick and distressed victims of society who come to him for help. We see a restless and tired ‘‘star’’ Jesus arrogantly send Judas away to do the work of betrayal. Fatigue and introspection could have legitimately been portrayed. But despair looms too centrally in Christ, conveying a sense of mission lost and purpose forgotten. (p. 1)

[There] is clearly the absence of a cross rooted in earth in ‘‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’’ Such lack of specificity leads to those quasi-religious fantasies which obliterate detailed truth. I am not one of those purists who decry the show’s bypassing of the resurrection. After watching Jesus hang on a Daliesque golden triangle (an avant-garde symbol of the cross?) for a glamorous simulation of the crucifixion, I offer thanks to the pantheon of gods that we were indeed spared a resurrection. But in its failure to come to terms with the sacrifice of a Christ-figure, or the Passion of Christ, ‘‘Jesus Christ Superstar’’ also fails to become a seriously motivated and constructed rock opera.

It is several things: a Rockette operetta, a Barnumian put-on, a religioso-cum-showbiz pastiche, and a musicalized ‘‘Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Judas Song.’’ The Jews seem to be guilty, once again, of causing Jesus’ death. . . . We are thrust against energy without exuberance, torture without tragedy, in this collage-in-motion. . . . (pp. 1, 7).

The sharp intrusion of sex—again and again and again—into the show can only focus attention on Jesus’ own sexuality. Is he Gay? Bisexual? Straight? Asexual?. . .

The sexuality of Jesus will undoubtedly comprise the Exhibit A controversy about the show. He and Mary Magdalene fondle and kiss each other; I felt an implicit acceptance of the fact that they have enjoyed intercourse. The exposure of this side of Jesus’ humanity drew cheers from the audience, perhaps in reaction against the celibate Jesus of churchianity who has been used traditionally as a major argument against sex outside of (and before) wedlock as well as against homosexuality.

Jesus as a human being (as well as the Son of God) with sexual feelings may be far overdue in our puritanical, sexually hypocritical society. Yet I feel that his sexuality was not handled sensitively or with taste in this gaudily inhuman parody. . . .

The show gives us a confused, tired but plucky Jesus who is going to the cross even if it kills him. Mary Magdalene is a cool, mod and sincere chick who digs Jesus but senses that he is very different from other men whom she has known. She sings a gentle ditty about the love for him that she feels. However, it is clearly not sufficiently deep a love to bind her to him through his torture and death. . . .

Judas’ feelings about Jesus provide the real basis for the utterly fictional story line that links the musical numbers. Judas feels that he is trapped in a terrible role, one scripted by God and directed by Jesus. . . . Judas’ acceptance of a predestination to damnation smacks unappetizingly of Calvinism with bitters. So Judas plays a role instead of being himself.

It is an absurd irony that a simplistic success . . . has come out of the ambiguity and violent paradox of Jesus’ Passion, presented here with all dimension flattened. Even the controversy of Jesus, intellectually ignored in this show, is made marketable in a plastic-ware production. It doesn’t have a soul. (p. 7)

Source: Malcolm Boyd, ‘‘Jesus Christ Superstar—Two Views: A Priest Says, ‘It Doesn’t Have a Soul’,’’ in the New York Times, October 24, 1971, pp. 1, 7.

Christ’s Passion Transported to the Stage in Guise of Serious Pop

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 404

Nothing could convince me that any show that has sold two-and-one-half million copies of its album before the opening night is anything like all bad. But I must also confess to experiencing some disappointment [with] ‘‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’’. . .

It all rather resembled one’s first sight of the Empire State Building. Not at all uninteresting, but somewhat unsurprising and of minimal artistic value. . . .

Mr. Rice’s intention was clearly to place Christ’s betrayal and death into a vernacular more immediate perhaps to our times. His record sales would presumably indicate his success in this aim, but he does not have a very happy ear for the English language. There is a certain air of dogged doggerel about his phrases that too often sounds as limp as a deflated priest.

It is surely unfortunate, even bathetic, to have Christ at his moment of death remark solemnly: ‘‘God forgive them! They don’t know what they are doing.’’ The sentiments are unassailable, but the language is unforgivably pedestrian. . . .

The music itself is extraordinarily eclectic. It runs so many gamuts it almost becomes a musical cartel. . . . [Mr. Lloyd Webber] has emerged with some engaging numbers.

The title song, ‘‘Superstar,’’ has a bounce and exaltation to it, an almost revivalist fervor that deserves its popularity. I also much admire the other hit of the show, ‘‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him.’’ This also shows Mr. Rice at his best as a lyricist, although it is perhaps surprising to find this torch ballad sung by Mary Magdalene to Jesus Christ— even a Jesus Christ Superstar. There is a certain vulgarity here typical of an age that takes a peculiar delight in painting mustaches on the ‘‘Mona Lisa’’ and demonstrating that every great man was a regular guy at heart. . . .

[This] is not an important rock score in the manner of ‘‘Tommy’’ by The Who. It is, unhappily, neither innovative nor original. . . .

For me, the real disappointment came not in the music—which is better than run-of-the-mill Broadway and the best score for an English musical in years—but in the conception. There is a coyness in its contemporaneity, a sneaky pleasure in the boldness of its anachronisms, a special, undefined air of smugness in its daring. Christ is updated, but hardly, I felt, renewed.

Source: Clive Barnes, ‘‘Christ’s Passion Transported to the Stage in Guise of Serious Pop’’ in the New York Times, October 13, 1971, p. 40.

Jesus Christ Superstar: Electric Age Messiah

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1194

[In Superstar the] Christ of faith gives way to the Jesus of history. Rice and Webber have acknowledged modern scholarship’s discovery that the New Testament picture of Jesus is colored throughout with propagandistic interpretation more intent on convincing the reader that Jesus is the divine Godman than in giving an historically accurate picture of the flesh-and-blood man of Galilee. (p. 218)

Rice and Webber attempt to dramatize the lifestyle of the historical Jesus in the midst of the lifestyles and forces at work around him.

Is there any value in bypassing ecclesiastical propaganda to seek out this life-style? To an emerging culture suspicious of the establishment’s propaganda, it allows a new and honest attempt to stand where the first hearers did, feel for oneself the impact of the Galilean’s style, and answer for oneself, ‘‘Who do you say that I am?’’ . . . Superstar attempts to dramatize Jesus’ life-style in the midst of competing life-styles, and then leaves one with questions rather than with answers. . . . (pp. 218–19)

Although the ‘‘opera’’ has no single, obvious climax, musically and dramatically the climax seems to be Judas’ disintegration and death at the beginning of record four. . . . Judas and his life-style are of special significance.

How is one to characterize this Judas? He can perhaps best be described as the ‘‘Uncle Tom’’ of the Jesus movement, the personification of a ‘‘failure of nerve’’ within the emerging life-style, a failure of nerve which turns back in fear and betrays the emerging culture to the existing power structure. . . .

[The] very strength of Superstar is its willingness to raise hard questions while refusing to supply simple answers. The complexity of personal motives and the tangled consequences of our actions in real history become evident in Judas. No only are we uncertain of Judas’ real motives and culpability, but we become aware that Judas is uncertain of his own motives. He protests too much that he is not betraying Jesus for his ‘‘own reward.’’ He sulks because Jesus does not give him his due as ‘‘right hand man.’’ At the Last Supper he seeks to blame what he is about to do on the requirements of Jesus’ own ‘‘ambition.’’ Before he dies, Judas realizes that the consequences of his betrayal have been hastened along by forces beyond his own control. . . . [There] is the recognition that complex forces in society magnify the consequences of our actions, that demonic powers can be set in motion far beyond our intentions and cannot be called back. . . .

The important place given Judas in Superstar contributes a problematic or ambiguous quality to the ‘‘opera,’’ for who knows how far one should trust the observations of a Judas. It is this ambiguity which leads the audience toward the realization that it must arrive at its own interpretation of the figure of the Historic Jesus.

Mary Magdalene suggests the life-style described in Timothy Leary’s advice: ‘‘Turn on and drop out.’’ Whether the instrument of her turning on is acid, pot, yoga, or zazen, the end result is a detached, euphoric quality. . . . Jesus accepts the Magdalene’s ministrations and defends her against Judas’ criticism, but her oceanic feeling that ‘‘everything’s alright’’ is transcended by the passion of his own search for ‘‘truth’’ or ‘‘God,’’ and by the dramatic forces already unleashed. However, as with Judas, the portrayal of the Magdalene has its complexities. In a second solo, ‘‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him,’’ she sings of her consternation that Jesus should so disturb her ‘‘cool.’’ . . . Apparently the oceanic feeling can be shattered by an encounter with Jesus. Lest one be tempted to make too much of the Magdalene’s relationship to Jesus, it should be noted that Webber and Rice have Judas wail this same love song to Jesus. For both the Magdalene and Judas, and we suppose for their spiritual descendants today, an encounter with Superstar is pictured as engendering love, fear, and mystery. . . . (p. 219)

In stripping away ‘‘the myth from the man,’’ Webber and Rice find no profound philosopher, enlightened reformer, or heroic leader. The great strength of their portrayal of Jesus is their recognition that apart from the myth we have only the whisper of a voice and the outskirts of the life-style of a man. The triumph of Superstar lies as much in what Webber and Rice have not done as in what they have done. They have refused to create a fictional character to fill the void. . . .

Where does the portrayal of Jesus focus? On Jesus as a flesh-and-blood human being. Even the outskirts of Jesus’ life-style reveal his real humanity. Having his face cooled ‘‘feels nice, so nice,’’ he joins the crowd in a happy ‘‘Hosanna, Heysanna,’’ screams at the temple merchants, and admits ‘‘I’m sad and tired’’ and ‘‘scared.’’ . . . A common reaction to Superstar is: ‘‘It was the first time I ever thought of Jesus as a real person.’’ The phantomlike portrayals of an otherworldly Christ on decades of funeral-home calendars and Sunday School walls apparently makes the focus on Jesus as a real person a remarkable revelation to this generation. . . .

The words he speaks are drawn largely from the Gospel pronouncements, with very few original contributions by Tim Rice. He advocates living in the present, claims that he could give ‘‘plans and forecasts’’ unfathomable to those around him, and admits that earlier he was ‘‘inspired’’ but now is ‘‘sad and tired.’’ He defends the Magdalene, cleanses the temple, and sings ‘‘Hosanna’’ with the crowd one moment while screaming at it to ‘‘Heal yourselves’’ at another. At critical moments Rice supplies Jesus with the lines ‘‘To conquer death you only have to die,’’ and ‘‘I look for truth and find that I get damned.’’ These along with a Gethsemane prayer, are the closest Rice comes to providing Jesus with a summary of his life and mission. In Gethsemane Jesus pleads: ‘‘I’d wanna know my God, . . . I’d wanna see my God,’’ and this possibility encourages him to accept the death his God seems to require. It is suggested that his death might make all he has said and done ‘‘matter more,’’ but its full meaning is not revealed. (p. 220)

After Judas’ death, the events involving Jesus seem almost anticlimactic as he maintains a nearsilence through the trials and speaks essentially the traditional words from the cross. As if to fill this vacuum, the voice of the dead Judas returns to raise the questions we might ask of Jesus. . . . (pp. 220–21)

Superstar concludes with two minutes of tranquil music (‘‘John 19:41’’) suggesting the garden containing Jesus’ tomb. The audience is left to decide for itself whether this is the quiet following an honest man’s death or the peace of a new Eden prepared by a greater Adam for his descendants.

Superstar is a conservative attempt to express the counterculture’s interest in Jesus, and its very conservatism has prepared a solid foundation for more creative and imaginative works in the future. It has avoided cliches, sentimentality, and mere fictionalizing, presenting Jesus’ real humanity forcefully while allowing the audience great latitude for personal interpretation. (p. 221)

Source: Clifford Edwards, ‘‘Jesus Christ Superstar: Electric Age Messiah’’ in Catholic World, Vol. CCXIII, no. 1277, August, 1971, pp. 217–21.

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