Don’t hide your light under a bushel, Jesus said, and director Tom O’Horgan shines his all over “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Each scene throws surprises at the eye, beginning with a 40-foot wall that folds back during the overture to become the stage floor. Silver discs, Lucite globes, tambourines the size of bicycle wheels, a giant pair of teeth—all carried by people—parade through. Flying platforms present scenes in mid-air, and a piston reaches out to serve us J.C. on the half shell.
What does O’Horgan’s circus have to do with the “Jesus Christ Superstar” of England’s Tim Rice and Andrew Webber? I found out only by looking at the libretto after the show. Sitting mid-orchestra at the Mark Hellinger, I missed half the words, partly due to the theatre’s sound system, partly due to my own. Little inspired me to listen. Not only does the ocular dazzle distract from the story, but the story, as told here, exerts little dramatic pull.
And small wonder. “Superstar” rates neither as a musical drama nor as the opera it’s advertised to be. Yes, most of its words are set to music, but it lacks opera’s built-in dramatic action. It’s really an oratorio (an opera without action). At the Mark Hellinger it looks like a record that’s been reproduced on stage with visual filler by Tom O’Horgan. I hold producer Robert Stigwood responsible for doing it this way, because that’s the kind of conventionally stupid decision commercial producers make. So let’s nail the producer on a cross next to O’Horgan, before Stigwood becomes the Judas of American musical theatre.
Record companies are already the largest investors in musical shows, and I can hear some bright executive noting, “Ah ha, Stigwood found the golden path.” Instead of pouring money into staging a musical, then if it’s a success, producing the record, the company can produce the record first, at a fraction of the cost, and if the record catches on, then do the show. Like Stigwood, the corporate men will reason that, because the record has sold, the show must reproduce it without change.
If this happens, and I believe it will, you can kiss musical audiences goodbye. They’ll come once, even twice to pseudo musicals like “Superstar,” then they’ll fade away. The impoverished theatre experience doesn’t justify the high cost of tickets.
Making the Rice-Webber oratorio into something that works on stage necessitates such changes as dropping a song, adding dialogue, focusing the action. Otherwise, it’s better to do it openly as an oratorio. More than the O’Horgan version, this straight approach will make clear the virtues of Rice’s lyrics.
Jesus, according to Rice, has ceased being the guru from Galilee, the healer, the debater, parable demonstrator. No longer a man of action, he’s a preening, petulant superstar who believes his own myth. On the record, Webber’s energetic music holds our bodies, while Rice’s hip, satirical commentary goes to our heads. On stage, we discover that the center of this passion play lacks both passion and charisma. Jesus becomes not human but plastic. If a magnetic rock star like Joe Cocker were to play him it might help, but not enough. Although Jeff Fenholt sings well and looks like a tintype hippie Jesus, you just can’t believe he was ever a superstar.
Having a moment or two of passion and inner conflict, Judas, according to Rice, works better on stage. Recalling “The Passover Plot,” Rice’s Judas is a rational, graspable man with whom we sympathize. “For we are getting much too loud,” he sings, “and they will crush us if we go too far.” When he gets the chance, Ben Vereen makes a superb Judas. As Pontius Pilate, Barry Dennen is good. And in “Superstar’s” closing moments, the stage comes brilliantly alive as a campy Herod (Paul Ainsley) taunts Jesus in ragtime, “Prove to me that you’re divine, change my water into wine. Prove to me that you’re no fool, walk across my swimming pool.”
But overall, the show illustrates two morals. One, from the New Testament, has to do with throwing the money changers out of the temple of drama. The second, from Tim Rice, is expressed through Judas, who sings of Superstar’s fans, “All your followers are blind, too much heaven on their minds.” Buy the record, or see O’Horgan’s better show about a Jewish martyr, “Lenny.”