A Fan’s Guide

‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ Gets Timely Makeover for 2012

Tracy Quan offers a fan’s guide to a new film version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ that opens this week.

Tristram Kenton

Jesus Christ Superstar, the 1970 rock opera by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, recently got a much-needed makeover. This extravagant U.K. production features former Spice Girl Melanie Chisholm (known to her fans as Mel C) in cornrow braids and a leather jacket playing Mary Magdalene—while a reality-show contestant, Ben Forster, portrays Jesus.

Of course, the central character in Rice and Webber’s shrewd retelling of the Gospel has never been the Messiah. It’s been his right-hand man, Judas Iscariot, now played by Tim Minchin, a multitalented comedian and songwriter known for edgy humor like “The YouTube Lament” (and for the songs in the award-winning West End musical Matilda.)

Filmed by Universal Pictures three weeks ago, during a 10-city arena tour of the U.K. and Ireland, Jesus Christ Superstar will be broadcast Monday night in U.S. cinemas nationwide. (For information about theaters and tickets, check here.)

There will be one more U.S. screening on Thursday, followed by a limited Australian release in November.

Fans who wallow in the purity of the original concept album will have to get over it and investigate the filmed arena show. This creative new production, directed by Laurence Connor, is as timely in 2012 as the album was in 1970. If you know all the words to Jesus Christ Superstar, YOU’RE GOING! And even if you don’t, here’s why Jesus Christ Superstar matters, even to nonbelievers.

Growing Up With a Superstar

If you've been listening to the album since you were little, your favorite songs have changed over time. As a child, I was especially taken with “The Temple,” a seductive hullabaloo about turning the house of God into an obnoxious bustling shopping mall. I also loved Mary Magdalene’s confident, soothing tone in “Everything’s Alright.”

As I evolved into a social activist, I came to appreciate other tunes, like “Heaven On Their Minds” in which Judas tries to get the Messiah to think in a focused, strategic manner about what they’re up against—the what being a madly efficient occupying power, the Roman Empire. OK, so Tim Minchin’s not a crooner, but it’s important for this to be delivered by a Judas who understands—as Minchin does—the frustrations of being a campaign manager. It’s a pivotal song in which every word counts. Is it my favorite version of “Heaven”? Perhaps not, but Minchin’s Judas grabs me in all the right places.

Jesus Christ Superstar’s brilliance lies in the fact that listeners who don’t believe in the divinity of Christ care about what happens. If you hear these songs before age 7, chances are, you’ll be a fan for life.

What We Learn About Modern Politics From Jesus

In the new production, England’s 2011 riots are evoked by ominous-looking cops (Roman soldiers during the Biblical era), while the followers of Jesus are members of the Occupy movement. Apostolic tweets are writ large on the arena screen. King Herod (depicted by real-world DJ Chris Moyle) is a flashy TV host exhorting a manageable mob to judge the Son of God by texting their verdict: “Lord or Fraud.”

For those who can bear to remember that Barack Obama was being compared to Jesus four years ago, this show is doubly relevant. It’s the perfect movie to see when you have dark thoughts about people who get their kicks watching others go to jail, while making jokes about sadism in our prison system. But it’s not ONLY about crucifixion and torture. Have you ever found yourself trying to understand how a political star—John Edwards, for example—can lose the ability to behave strategically? Profane as he might look to some people, it’s very possible that Edwards—like the Christ in Superstar—was hobbled by a martyr complex. No, make that a martyr fetish.

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The News Today, Oh Boy

Jesus Christ Superstar is very much in step with the current news cycle. Three days before this new production opened in London, a Harvard church historian’s controversial theory about the Gospel of Jesus’s wife began to dominate the news, putting Mary Magdalene under a global spotlight. The timing could not have been more perfect, given Mel C’s very hands-on relationship with Forster’s Jesus.

A week later Russia Today reported reported that a local performance of Superstar in the south Russian city Rostov-on-Don had been canceled due to a proposed law calling for “up to three years’ imprisonment for disrespecting religious sensibilities.” This new bill is seen as a response to Pussy Riot’s punk prayer performance in Moscow’s central cathedral.

Members of the band, sentenced to two years in prison camps described as “the harshest,” are—not unlike Jesus—up against the Pharisees, power-hungry priests who collude with a central authority. Pharisees of every faith exist wherever religion has a foothold, and Judas, in his efforts to warn Jesus about them—“Please remember that I want us to live”—is sympathetic and sensible. Basically, he is telling Jesus: “Don’t be that band.”

Render Unto YouTube

In 1970 it seemed both new and natural to examine the psychology of Jesus. Pop psychology was on the rise, and the idea of Christ having an inner life, just like any other flawed political star, worked like a charm. The show now has its own cult following, a secular quasi-Christian sect.

To understand the followers of Jesus Christ Superstar, you must visit the universalist church of YouTube. All are welcome. It’s possible that Jesus himself would bless the proliferation of these dubious videos. The quality’s uneven, but the lush throbbing noise created by the Temple merchants (“Roll on up for the price is down/Come on in for the best in town”) appeals to the worshipers in the cheap seats. These “folk videos,” as I call them, are very similar to folk songs; contagious and primitive. They’re easy to download, as many Superstar fanatics have discovered, and while they’ll never compete with this week’s commercial release, there’s something devotional about downloading another fan’s experience. Early Christians who spoke about the miracle of the loaves and fishes—thousands fed by five pieces of bread and two fish—probably did not realize they were referencing YouTube. Copyright and Christ might not be the perfect fit.

Jesus Through the Decades

Jesus hasn’t always been the most likable character in the show. There are times when he annoys you, either because he looks like one of the Bee Gees (John Farnham in a 1992 Australian stage production) or mopes too much (Ted Neely in Norman Jewison’s 1973 film, which was shot in the Israeli desert). The least problematic is Ian Gillan of Deep Purple, who sang unseen on the concept album.

Before touring with Minchin and Melanie Chisholm, Forster actually took part in a controversial “Britain’s Got Jesus”–type show called, simply, Superstar. He was chosen by a public vote—which, of course, is only controversial if you think there’s something risky about being identified as Jesus by a mob.

Over the years, “Gethsemane”—a beautiful number about struggling with God’s will—has evolved into an anthemic howler, with lots of flourishes as Jesus confides in his creator (“I’ve tried for three years, seems like 30”) before agreeing to die. In 1970, Gillan’s Jesus sang a quiet version that was integrated into the story, but his successors soon began to crank it up. Gillan’s bloke-ish template has ultimately been rejected by recent interpreters of the role. The triumph of sensitive male over old-school Jesus, even in stiff-upper-lip Britain, is part of this song’s evolution. While men in general have been going through their particular changes, “Gethsemane” has become more of an emo workout for Diva Jesus types, including Forster and his competition.

A New Magdalene

No other performer has owned or defined Mary Magdalene in this show the way Yvonne Elliman did. In 1970, Elliman was an unknown Asian-American singer, not yet 20. She, more than anyone, is probably responsible for the way millions of people began to imagine Mary Magdalene: as a sweet-voiced, independent hippie with a heart of gold. Elliman created this role and held onto it while the album grew into a Broadway show and a film. Her ambivalent ballad about Jesus, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” was a hit single that put Mary Magdalene back on the pop-culture map after a long period of invisibility. (A newly commissioned classical opera, The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, opens next spring in San Francisco. It surely owes its existence to the popularity over four decades of Jesus Christ Superstar’s Magdalene.)

Although Judas constantly picks on Mary, urging Jesus to throw her under the bus, there’s nothing in the lyrics to suggest that this gentle harlot will ever repent. It was a powerful message.

Jesus, who defends her against the insults of his campaign manager, was depicted by an established male singer. Forty years later, the scenario is flipped, with Mary Magdalene portrayed by a global celebrity and Jesus by an unknown English dude. Spice Girl Melanie C was a judge in the ITV Superstar contest. In other words, this Mary Magdalene played a role in choosing her Jesus options. How times have changed. Melanie C’s Mary Magdalene gives Minchin’s Judas a knowing, flinty look when he disrespects her.

Could Mel C be the singer who redefines this role in the 21st century? I’m rooting for this film to succeed because I want to find out.