There exist, I suppose, people for whom Jesus Christ Superstar (Neil Simon Theatre) is a pivotal, maybe even a transcendent, work of musical theater; there may even be some who find it meaningful in some spiritual or theological way. I feel sure they have a right to their opinion, so you won’t catch me casting the first stone against them. For me, it’s strictly a lame work that time, failing to emulate the title character, has done nothing to heal. This is the third time I’ve sat through Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s celebrated opus, it having had two notable previous Broadway productions, and—well, it is what it is, and it hasn’t changed. Those who like it won’t find me obstructing their path.
A production of Jesus Christ Superstar could be dressier and more ornate than this lucid, clean-lined, efficient rendering, by Des McAnuff, brought down from Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival. The original 1971 Broadway production, by Tom O’Horgan, was dressy, splashy, and loony-outrageous as all get-out. But O’Horgan’s directorial style, which mixed something like Ziegfeld on acid with the raffishness of a band of medieval strolling players, was one of the extraordinary phenomena of its time. McAnuff, at his best a good, capable, rational director, is of a whole different era and outlook. His work is tidy. He tells the story. O’Horgan was much more interested in the effect of acres of billowing chiffon against a candy-box starlit sky.
Thus, O’Horgan’s gaudy original sweetened the deal for those who, like me, didn’t think much of the Rice-Webber score on first hearing. McAnuff has his lavish moments—the money changers Jesus drives out of the temple look like a big, showy Vegas act—but in general, his stark approach makes words and music the principal focus. So you pay attention, and finally learn that Webber’s melodies, especially in the first few numbers, carry some mild interest—or would if they weren’t wedded to Rice’s stupefyingly flat-lined lyrics. As a way of conveying Christianity’s meaning to the young, which is how the whole enterprise began, Jesus Christ Superstar misses the point immaculately, and gets even stupider when it strives to explore matters like Judas’s psychology. I kept hoping that Jennifer Holliday might come out as Pilate’s wife, and tell him, “Your arm’s too short to box with God,” But that was in a different musical. Like Jesus Christ Superstar, I’m starting to show my age.