Tag Archives: jesus christ superstar

Jesus Christ Superstar (Barbican)

Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s clever rock opera is now approaching its fiftieth birthday, and yet has lost none of its power as it depicts the last few days in the life of Jesus.

Ricardo Afonso as Judas

Ricardo Afonso as Judas

This production was first seen at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park a couple of years ago, and has now come indoors with a new principal cast at the Barbican Theatre.

I’m very familiar with the 1973 film, the original concept recording, the 90s stage version (later filmed), and most recently, the arena version.

A pulsing score and thoughtful – if occasionally dated – lyrics bring the story to life, especially the tense relationship between a Jesus who loses confidence as the cult around him grows and a Judas who watches with concern and incredulity until he is compelled to betrayal for thirty pieces of silver.

Robert Tripolino as Jesus, Sallay Garnett as Mary

Robert Tripolino as Jesus, Sallay Garnett as Mary

You know the plot. This production opens with a dancer who almost conjures a feel of black magic, before she is joined by the fervent followers. Judas and Jesus have to have the charisma and powerhouse vocals to carry both the drama and the music, and in Ricardo Afonso and Robert Tripolino those roles are more than adequately filled.

Utilising hand-held microphones which are sometimes passed from one character to another, sometimes used as plot props (bound in the hands of Jesus at trial, thrown down by Pilate, dropped with a long trail of red wire at the death of Judas), sometimes works and sometimes doesn’t, but it is a different approach to shackling main characters with radio mikes.

Ensemble of Jesus Christ Superstar

Ensemble of Jesus Christ Superstar

Sallay Garnett’s Mary is the strong prostitute you would expect her to be, but I didn’t feel her vulnerability until the trial scenes. Matt Cardle’s Pilate,first seen smoking and crushing a beer can, exudes Roman bravado, but completely breaks under the realisation he’s been used just as much as Judas: his vocals are absolutely fine, too, especially in his final couple of lines.

Samuel Buttery as Herod

Samuel Buttery as Herod

Also of note are Cavin Cornwall’s menacing and deep-voiced Caiaphas, Samuel Buttery’s drag queen Herod with his long eyelashes, gold cape, and air of genial menace, and Tim Newman’s Simon.

Tom Scutt’s design is deceptively simple – a platform, some arches, galleries for the band to play in and characters to observe from, some trees, and recurring cross motifs which are particularly effective in the temple scene.

Ensemble of Jesus Christ Superstar

Ensemble of Jesus Christ Superstar

Timothy Sheader’s direction and Drew McOnie’s choreography perfectly complement the score, and although I missed the hand-held cameras that used to bring us close to the cruxifiction, there are new innovations I do like, and moments of closeness, clarity and even humour (the freeze frame of the Last Supper) that make this show as relevant as it has ever been.

Two images that stood out for me: Judas with silver paint on his hands after the betrayal, and Jesus being taken from the cross and removing his crown of thorns in a kind of tired and resigned resurrection.

This is an important revival of a modern classic. Jesus Christ Superstar continues at the Barbican until 24 August, and if you’re so inclined, you can see the other Lloyd Webber/Rice musicals in London this summer, with Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the London Palladium, and Evita opening soon in Regent’s Park.

Photo credits Johan Persson.

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Classic cinema review: Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

In 1970 a concept album appeared containing a rock opera based on the final days of the life of Jesus Christ, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.  It was their second musical together following the production for schools of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.  Cast as Jesus was Deep Purple’s vocalist, Ian Gillan, with actor/singer Murray Head portraying Judas Iscariot.

It came to Broadway as a fully-fledged stage show in 1971, with Jeff Fenholt as Jesus and Ben Vereen as Judas, with a British production following in 1972 featuring Paul Nicholas as Jesus and Stephen Tate as Judas.  The interesting thing about the Broadway production was that the actors who eventually took the lead roles in the film version were understudies for the roles of Jesus and Judas (Ted Neeley, and Carl Anderson, who eventually took over the role of Judas when Ben Vereen fell ill).

Fast forward a year to 1973, and the film version.  The stage show had led to many protests from religious groups who felt that the treatment of Jesus as a ‘superstar’ was offensive – however, in following the story of Christ from the Bible through key scenes like the Temple, the beggars, and of course, trial and Crucifixion, the story was fairly reverent, using contemporary rock rhythms to put its message across.  It was more earthy and less of its time than Godspell, which was filmed around the same time, and which covered a wider story of Jesus choosing his disciples and eventually dying on the Cross.

The film version of Jesus Christ Superstar was directed by Norman Jewison, and retained some players from both the original concept album (Yvonne Elliman as Mary Magdelene) and Broadway (Barry Dennen as Pontius Pilate, Carl Anderson as Judas, Bob Bingham as Caiaphas).   For me, Ted Neeley is perhaps the greatest of all singers to have taken on the part – and his delicate looks and picture-perfect depiction of Jesus as seen in those Bible prints fit perfectly with the man who has ‘heaven on his mind’, according to Judas.  Anderson is also amazing in the role of Judas – and both men continued to portray the roles on stage for many years afterwards.

Filmed in Israel and other Middle Eastern locations, the film is atmospheric and offers much to believers and non-believers alike.  Perhaps it makes Judas a little too sympathetic (but it shows him as human being with a conscience, rather than a cardboard villain), and portrays Jesus as a misguided man with doubts (in his soliloquy song, Gethsemane, he asks God ‘why then am I scared to finish / what I started / what you started / I didn’t start it’), but that is all to its strength.

The music remains exceptional after all these years, although some of the period lyrics (‘what’s the buzz’, ‘cool it man’) sound rather anachronistic in the 21st century.  Elliman is touching as Mary in her big number (‘I Don’t Know How To Love Him’) and if her song with Peter (‘Could We Start Again, Please?) is a bit like a Coca-Cola advert, that is perhaps the only blip in an otherwise fine film.  Peter, by the way, is played by one Philip Toubas, who under the name of Paul Thomas followed quite a different career path as a successful porn actor and director.

Is Jesus Christ Superstar worth your time now?  Absolutely.  It opens out the stage production (which is powerful enough in its own right) and stands up as one of the last hurrahs of 1970s musical cinema.  Jewison, who had already brought Fiddler on the Roof to the screen, is a good choice for director, and the film benefits from Melvyn Bragg being involved on the screenplay, and Andre Previn on the musical scoring.

A further version was filmed for television in 2000 featuring Glenn Carter as Jesus and Jerome Pradon as Judas, which was closer to the stage production.

 

 


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