I just watched Jesus Christ Superstar Live for the second time and I have to say, for me, the buzz is good! I loved this production and I was so glad that I actually got to watch it live! I missed the last few live musicals but I was back home for Easter which meant I had cable and was able to watch this one!
I’ll admit, Jesus Christ Superstar has never really been my favourite musical. I saw the movie from 1973 years ago and I just didn’t really take to it then. There were a few songs from the musical that I liked and would listen to, but as a whole it was never one I knew by heart (I think that is going to be changing soon though). I’ve been getting more into it recently (starting before the live production aired). Not long ago I watched the 2000 movie (Tony Vincent was part of the reason I wanted to watch this particular version) and I was reminded of more of the songs and that I do quite like the score. I’ve also been reading Andrew Lloyd Webber’s memoir, Unmasked, and reading what he has to say about the creation of Jesus Christ Superstar is so interesting (I’m just at the chapter about the show going to Broadway).
Another confession, it was only in the last couple of weeks that I actually got excited about Jesus Christ Superstar Live. It definitely helped when I realized how many amazing Broadway actors were going to be in it! In my opinion, casting done right for these live musicals means casting Broadway actors and thankfully they did with this show! It also helped my excitement when I figured out that I would actually be somewhere with cable when it aired and would be able to watch it live.
I’m going to say this now, I think this was the best of the live TV musicals so far. All of the elements came together so well to make it an excellent production. The cast was amazing (and huge) and the set was really cool (and also huge), along with the rest of the design.
Let’s start by talking about that cast. John Legend was probably the one I was least sure about. I know he’s a great singer but we haven’t seen him in anything like this, and Jesus is quite a demanding role. Overall I thought he did a good job. I really liked Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene and thought her voice really suited Mary’s songs. I loved the Act 2 song she sang with Jason Tam, who was great as Peter. Norm Lewis, as Caiaphas, has such a beautiful voice and amazing range- those low notes! Even the casting of Alice Cooper as King Herod worked well for this production. It’s definitely a role that works for celebrity casting. (It did kind of bug me that took the “lead” bow with John, Brandon and Sara though, since he only sings the one song, but I get it- the power of celebrity.) The real standout for me was Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas. He was absolutely amazing. I’m so glad it was a Broadway vet playing Judas, as it is also a demanding role, and Judas sings some of my favourite songs in the show, and Brandon nailed it! This was one of those casting choices that definitely helped to increase my excitement for the production ahead of time.
It was also exciting for me realizing how many people in the cast I’ve actually seen perform live including Norm Lewis (Phantom of the Opera and Once On This Island), Jason Tam (If/Then), Billy Lewis Jr. (Bat Out of Hell) who was in the ensemble, and Brandon Niederauer (School of Rock) who was the kid playing guitar.
The ensemble deserves some recognition too as every person brought so much amazing talent to the production, and even though we only got to hear one or two solo lines from most of them, they were all amazing! Used well I think large ensembles can be really cool, with their physical presence and their voices filling the space. And this is one of those productions in which it worked extremely well! I think the staging of this production was very well done and having such a large cast for it worked in its favour. The overall production value of it is really what made it the best of the live TV musicals. I loved the set and the overall design. I was impressed by just how big the set really was. It seemed big enough and then there were a couple of times where it extended beyond what you thought was there. The end scene with the cross was a particularly beautiful and effective moment. I liked how the orchestra/band was such a big part of it too.
The addition of the live audience worked well for this production and added an interesting dynamic. It definitely had a positive impact on the energy of the performance. There were a couple of times, especially near the beginning where the sound of the audience almost overpowered the sound of the performance, but really, that happens sometimes when you go to see a live show and that’st part of the experience of seeing a live show, it’s just a little different and takes some getting used to when you’re sitting at home watching it on your TV and are not a part of that audience. (Can you imagine actually being a part of that live audience?!) Let’s see if the next musicals moving forward will follow suit! (I know Grease Live also had a live audience but it did seem different this time around, maybe because it was one set stage for this production.)
I loved the added bits during the commercial breaks when it would show the goings-on backstage and seeing pictures of the crew online changing sets and cleaning up the glitter. It also got me thinking, it must be hard doing these productions and having to stop for commercials, especially with a sung through show like Jesus Christ Superstar, as I imagine it would throw off the flow of performing the piece as opposed to just playing it straight through as would usually be done. But I also thought, with a show as vocally demanding as this, maybe it’s nice for them to actually get those water breaks. Not being a performer myself, I can’t really speak to that too much but I imagine it might things a little more difficult in their own way. It certainly didn’t seem to hinder any of the performances though!
I think this production showed what is possible with these live musicals and set the bar pretty high for any future productions, if they do continue to make them, which I sincerely hope they do, especially if they’re at this level, or better yet, if they keep making them better and better. And it shows how well it works with theatre people in the lead roles (Brandon Victor Dixon) as well as in the ensemble. I’m interested to see where they go from here and I’m excited for more repeat viewings of Jesus Christ Superstar!