NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar – Live”… Did It Make You A Believer?

Anyone familiar with the original rock opera concept album, Jesus Christ Superstar and the later adaptations of it into one of the most recreated theatrical and motion picture productions in modern entertainment history will not flinch at NBC’s latest rendering of it on Easter Sunday night.

They’ll look past the fact that the lead roles of both Jesus Christ (Grammy-, Tony- and Oscar-winning singer John Legend) and his betrayer Judas Iscariot (Tony Award-winning actor/producer Brandon Victor Dixon) are played by black men, or that the biblical story of Jesus’ last days – as retold in the famous musical – is set almost entirely to rock music composed by lyricist Tim Rice and musician Andrew Lloyd Webber.

They’ll certainly understand the incorporation of 21st century smart phones into the show’s story. After all, each new production of the history-making rock opera has included elements of modern-day pop culture or technology. In this case, cell phones are part of the mob scene in which Jesus is questioned by a blood-thirsty paparazzi after He is arrested by Roman soldiers following Judas’ betrayal in the Garden of Gethsemane.

People familiar with the original album and the earlier adaptations (and those who got their artistic license as they played loose with the New Testament) will be happy to know that Sunday’s production was true to the original concept, with Webber and Rice listed as co-executive producers along with John Legend, who gave a stellar performance as Jesus. (Question: Does the fact that this was a live stage production that aired on TV make it eligible for Emmy or Tony Awards? While it’s unlikely, it would be nice if Legend could become an instant EGOT, that’s Emmy/Grammy/Oscar/Tony winner, based on one night’s work.)

John Legend as Jesus in “Jesus Christ Superstar.” (Photo: NBC, April 1, 2018)

Yet even with all the understanding that people familiar with the history of “Jesus Christ Superstar” might have and the reckoning that it is, after all, just a musical, John Legend was instantly placed in the unenviable position of being the most scrutinized man on the planet not living at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Well, at least for the two hours and 20 minutes that NBC’s live concert show aired.

Legend was tasked with not only playing Jesus Christ on Resurrection Sunday, perhaps the holiest of days for Christians worldwide, but he would have to knock this performance out of the park – live and on stage – in front of millions of TV viewers, many of whom likely couldn’t get past the notion that he didn’t have “the European look” of Jesus.

It was the cruel juxtaposition of Easter Sunday and April Fools Day – a quirk of this year’s calendar – timed with this airing,  that could have made Legend and NBC fodder for many a bad, ill-meaning joke.

But, happily, that scrutiny has been scarce (I, for one, haven’t seen much of it), and quite frankly, the tallest task didn’t really belong to Legend, but to Dixon, whose Judas was always the person whose perspective this musical captured the most.

Brandon Victor Dixon Plays Judas Iscariot in the NBC live airing of “Jesus Christ Superstar” on April 1, 2018.

As in the previous concoctions of JCS, Dixon’s Judas had the best musical numbers, including the opening solo (“Heaven On Their Minds”) and the rousing climax (“Superstar”). In the latter, a post-suicide Judas returns in spirit to question (haunt) Jesus about why He made the decisions that ultimately led to His crucifixion.

Dixon also shows off his vocal range in the album’s best song (IMHO), “Everything’s Alright,” a joint performance with Legend and Sara Bareilles, who respectably plays Mary Magdalene, the prostitute whose more-than-friendly relationship with Jesus (as it is depicted in JCS) has always been the source of controversy.

Bareilles’ performance of the song that captured the complexity of Magdalene’s relationship with Jesus – or her desire for one – was as good as the 1970 original (by Yvonne Elliman) or its popular cover version (by Helen Reddy). Both of those versions competed on the charts in 1971, along with the original “Superstar” by Murray Head, while the original concept album was dubiously making Jesus Christ into a rock star.

Alice Cooper’s King Herod interrogates Legend’ Jesus in “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Speaking of rock stars, ‘70s shock-rocker Alice Cooper’s appearance as the unsympathetic King Herod was perfect casting. He playfully, or perhaps tauntingly sang the uptempo “King Herod’s Song (Try It And See)” to a downtrodden Jesus, Who was brought to Herod to be tried for His alleged “crimes” of plotting against the Roman Empire. Most impressive about Cooper was his still-intact singing voice. At one point in “Herod’s Song,” I had visions of him segueing into one of the many singles Alice Cooper placed in the top 20 during the 1970s.

Norm Lewis as Caiaphas in “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Other notable (and diverse) appearances included actor Norm Lewis who, again, asked us to suspend preconceived notions as Caiaphas, the deep-voiced (and grayishly corn-rowed) high priest who ultimately sends Jesus to His doom, and out actor Ben Davis as Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea, who reluctantly orders that Jesus be crucified after unsuccessfully trying to convince the townspeople at His trial that Jesus’ crimes were not worthy of death, but imprisonment.

But alas we all know Jesus’ fate, and His crucifixion was powerfully depicted in the final scenes of “Superstar.” It was as captivating as it was emotional, with tears (mine) accompanying Legend’s portrayal as he sang “The Crucifixion” and his body rose through the large illuminated space that served as the cross.

Sara Bareilles (Mary Magdalene) looks on as Jesus is crucified in “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

Moments later, it was over. And for those moments, it was easier to focus on the underlying story depicted in this production than it was all those controversial elements that have characterized “Jesus Christ Superstar” since its inception 48 years ago.

That’s a testament to Legend’s performance, and perhaps even more so to that of show-stealer Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas.

Both men capably handled what had to be the most daunting of acting and singing tasks any performer could take on given the day – both on the calendar and the time in which we live.

It was Easter Sunday, but it was also 2018 in America.

Happily, they rose to the occasion, as did all the performers on stage that night.

Kudos to NBC for handling it so well.


The Crucifixion scene and John Legend

Fast facts:

“Jesus Christ Superstar” – the original concept album topped the album charts twice in 1971 (February and May), spending 40 weeks in the top ten and ranking as the biggest album of the year according to Billboard.

The main single from the album was Murray Head’s “Superstar” (with the Trinidad Singers), which itself charted three times – once in 1970 and twice more in 1971, before finally rising to its #14 peak in May/June.

Two versions of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” charted simultaneously – the original by Yvonne Elliman (#28 peak) and a cover by rising star Helen Reddy (#13). Both women would go on to have bigger hits later in the decade, including four No. 1 songs (three for Reddy, one for Elliman).

Several recording stars have emerged from various international productions of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” including ‘70s/‘80s hitmakers like Paul Davis and Paul Nicholas and the two principal members of Air Supply, among others.