Nothing could convince me that any show that has sold two and one-half million copies of its album before the opening night is anything like all bad. But I must also confess to experiencing some disappointment when Jesus Christ Superstar opened at the Mark Hellenger last night.
It all rather resembled one's first sight of the Empire State Building. Not at all uninteresting, but somewhat unsurprising and of minimal artistic value.
Not for the first time has Jesus Christ has been made big business. This musical - already very successful on record - tells the story of the Passion of Christ in contemporary terms and accompanied by pop music, ranging from rock-salt to icing-sugar. The story will doubtless be familiar to most. The lyrics are by Tim Rice and the music by Andrew Lloyd Webber. They are young Englishmen of obvious talent, and it is apparent that this midcult version of the Passion story is seriously and sincerely intended.
Mr.. Rice's intention was clearly to place Christ's betrayal and death into a vernacular more immediate perhaps to our times. His record sales would presumably indicate his success in this aim, but he does not have a very happy ear for the English language. There is a certain air of dogged doggerel about his phrases that too often sounds as limp as a deflated priest.
It is surely unfortunate, even bathetic, to have Christ at his moment of death remark solemnly "God, forgive them! They don't know what they are doing!" The sentiments are unassailable, but the language is unforgivably pedestrian. Again - in another lyric - we have Christ complaining bitterly:
"My time is about through
Little left to do
After all I've tried for three years
Seems like 30...seems like 30"
Well, of course it sounds better set to music, but not, I feel, better enough.
The music itself is extraordinarily eclectic. It runs so many gamuts it almost becomes a musical cartel. Mr. Lloyd Webber is an accomplished musician - he is one of those rare birds, a Broadway composer who produces his own orchestrations - and he has emerged with some engaging numbers.
The title song "Superstar" has a bounce and exaltation to it, an almost revivalist fervor that deserves its popularity. I also much admire the other hit of the show, "I Don't Know How To Love Him". This also shows Mr. Rice at his best as a lyricist, although it is perhaps surprising to find this torch ballad sung by Mary Magdalene to Jesus Christ - even a Jesus Christ Superstar. There is a certain vulgarity here typical of an age that takes a peculiar delight in painting mustaches on the Mona Lisa and demonstrating that every great man was a regular guy at heart.
Most of the music is pleasant, if unmemorable. It has a pleasing texture, although the orchestral finale, which sounds something like a church-organ voluntary inspired by Vaughan Williams and Massenet may be a little hard to take for musical ears. The pastiches of the Beatles are far more acceptable, but this is not an important rock score in the manner of "Tommy" by The Who. It is, unhappily, neither innovative nor original.
The music does have the bustling merit of vitality, which is what has made its records sell, and what Tom O'Horgan has seized upon in his monumentally ingenious staging. Ever since his beginning at La Mama, Mr. O'Horgan has tried to startle us with small things, now he startles us with big things. This time, the things got too big.
There were too many purely decorative effects, artistic excrescences dreamed up by the director and his designers, Robin Wagner and Randy Barcelo, that seemed intended to make us gasp and our blood run cold. The stage is full of platforms, carriages descend from the heavens, and even the stars over Gethsemene are captured in a blur plastic box. The total effect is brilliant but cheap - like the Christmas decorations of a chic Fifth Avenue store.
It is unfortunate that the sound equipment - which sounded rather blurred, incidentally - involved the use of hand mikes, which, while dressed us as pieces of rope, and occasionally handed around from actor to actor like holy chalices, remained unmistakable mikes - not least when Jesus jumps up dramatically to seize one, in the approved TV spectacular manner.
for me, the real disappointment came not in the music - which is better than run-of-the-mill Broadway and the best score for an English musical in years - but in the conception. There is a coyness in its contemporaneity, a sneaky pleasure in the boldness of its anachronisms, a special, undefined air of smugness in its daring. Christ is updated, but hardly, I felt, renewed.
The performances played second fiddle to the memories of the record album and the virtuosity of mr. O'Horgan's own performance. Christ was made into a shrill-voiced, neurotic, who looked like all the right pictures. He was played with some dignity by Jeff Fenholt. But it was not a rewarding view of Christ, although one with the limp-wristed, rosily maquillaged Herod, the obviously conniving Ciaphas, or the spitefully Roman Pilate. This last was a good performance by Barry Dennen, and I admired the tortured Judas of ben Vereen, and the well-sung Mary Magdalene of Yvonne Elliman - one of the few survivors from the album.
For all this, Superstar seemed to me less than super -
but the novelty of its aspirations should win it many adherents.
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