Very few shows feel so consistently relevant at almost fifty as Jesus Christ Superstar: written in 1970, it always seems to be addressing whoever is watching, it always seems to be engaging with something happening right now, always seems to reflect our state of mind. This is because it is not just a parasitical re-telling of the gospels with a rock score, but a play of ideas that addresses issues such as media celebrity, politics, revolution or ideals.
There was an early film version in 1973, directed by Norman Jewison who was fresh out of a big hit in another musical, Fiddler on the Roof. The film opened with some abandoned ruins in the Palestine desert and a bunch of hippies getting off a bus. Somehow they gather together simple props and start enacting the play: it was very much in the spirit of agit prop, a meditation on a subject rather than just performing the story. The beginning is as brechtian as film mosicals had dared to be at the time. The tension between the present and the past is constant throughout the movie. The costumes hint at 33 A.D., but they also display the colors, textures and flow of the late 1960s. A robe is, after all, a robe, but it means different things. These people are still flower power folk, and naive apostles. The same tension spanning twenty centuries is felt in the lyrics: they mix direct quotes from the gospel with hippy or media slang. And clearly Judas is addressing us when he mentions a mission, revolution, liberation. This version is very much about white philosophizing vs black doing, which must have felt urgent when the Black Panthers were constantly on the press and colonialism was a hot debate. Every sentence about occupation, power, and race rings true in the film.
For Laurence Connor, who directed a touring production in 2011 available on DVD, the tension at the core of Rice and Webber’s masterpiece was between neocapitalism and left wing populism, and the Occupy Wall Street context felt so appropriate that the play seemed to have been written with this in mind. It is a fierce, busy staging that a lot of people did not like. But it keeps a strong focus on the play and the occupy setting works well at emphasizing some of its meanings. Suited plutocrats are obsessed about disruptive youths led by a group with the twitter name #The 12. As its centerpiece, the show used a staircase that reminded audiences of Wall Street and featured violent clashes between the youths and helmeted police squads with transparent shields. Although the media was always central to the play, here it’s presence is overwhelming, in continuous projections on huge screens. If the ending of the Jewison film suggested Vegas, here is it more like a live reality show. It was very successful at proposing a different meaning for the original and convincing us that whatever the priests wanted in the original context to the play, is not too different to what neoliberal elites want today: it is basically about control, about profit.
Timothy Sheader’s production at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in 2016 won the Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival and returns to the same venue in Summer 2017. Again, Sheader has sought inspiration in the present, and it is uncanny how well the production adapts to the setting and the circumstances. Jesus’ followers here are an untidy, breakdancing, hooded bunch of teenagers, gathering toghether in an abandoned structure. Tyrone Huntley’s Judas is quieter, less earnest than either the film’s Carl Anderson or Connor’s Tim Minchin. The props and gestures befit millennial angst: Jesus Christ is a guitar-playing hipster, musing about the small things, and Judas hangs himself with the microphone cable he has been using to convey his anger. This Judas is a fanatic, but it is the kind of fanaticism twitter users approve of. The final moments push the original into new territory, making us feel betrayal for the figure of Jesus who dared to disappoint his followers. Politics are underplayed here, as they would be in the minds of millennials, but issues of loyalty, media and peer pressure are emphasized. Once again, this Judas is us.