25 May

I just watched Jesus Christ: Superstar, which is very good. Last week I watched Cats, which isn’t. 

I like musicals. Of the modern ones I like Les Miserables best. Of the old ones I like Guys and Dolls. If you want to be nasty about an opera (e.g Carmen) you say that it is really just a musical; if you want to be nice about a musical (e.g West Side Story) you say that it is very nearly an opera, which is a bit like calling newspapers you don't like comics and comics you do like novels. 

Jesus Christ: Superstar was billed originally as a rock opera. Shostakovitch reportedly admired it. It is definitely constructed like an opera, through composed, with a symphonic use of musical motifs. (The melody of Pilate’s Dream is alluded to during the trial scene.) The arrangements are clearly under the influence of 1970s pop music; but the melodies are in the tradition of musical theater. I Don’t Know How To Love Him is much more like Luck Be a Lady than Stairway to Heaven. 

Andrew Lloyd Weber is a byword for the bland and the commercial; but he can write tunes. Would it be unfair to wonder if he provides the form and his collaborators provide the content? Superstar works because Tim Rice has something to say. Cats has dance routines and leg-warmers, three or four stonking tunes, and a production which was revolutionary in its day and still impresses now. (I watched the YouTube video of the original production: the recent CGI still has to be faced.) But it isn’t about anything: it’s just a cabaret. Endless reprises of Memory doesn’t amount to theatrical construction: it’s just a song. We are supposed to care about Tibbles the Sad Cat on the basis of this song alone: it doesn't reveal a character because her only character is that she sings this song. I Don’t Know How to Love Him (and the big sparkly one in the South American musical) come at the end of the first act; when characters have been established and you have a reason to pay attention. There is no point in a soliloquy without a play to go with it. (Although that has been how most people have historically experienced Shakespeare, come to think of it.) There is a particular kind of pleading, melodramatic recitative which occurs in all Weber’s musicals: it works when the character is meant to be Mary Magdalene; less well when it is Fluffles the Smelly Cat. 

I thought the 2000 movie was superior to the 1972 version; possibly because it was more overtly theatrical. It is much easier to swallow Judas Iscariot with a lollypop mic and a backing group when the setting is a stage set as opposed to the actual Holy Land. I could have done without the lapdancers in the Jewish Temple, and thought parts of the second act went too far with the camp element. Rik Mayall is obviously great as Herod, and I enjoyed Judas literally dancing on the cross during the final number. Fred Johnason’s nazi Pilate is so over the top he ruins every scene he appears in.

Was it just me; or is the last image of heavenly light shining into Mary Magdalene’s face? The old movie had a shepherd walk in front of the empty cross. Producers are sensitive to the complaint that this is the story of Jesus with no resurrection, even though that is the entire point of the piece. I once saw an amateur production which ended with a reprise of Hosana and Jesus and Judas mutually forgiving each other. 

Alan Parker treated Evita as a realistic historical movie which happened to have songs in it, and that worked quite well. Tom Hooper tried something similar with Les Miserables, and that didn’t. Maybe a naturalistic Jesus Christ Superstar would be worth attempting some day?


In Jesus Christ Superstar, “the crowd” have turned Jesus into the son of God by distorting his actual words. His disciples originally thought he was simply human; and he had a political or moral message which was doing some good. That is what Judas thinks, anyway, and if Judas is lying or unreliable then the whole story loses its psychological impetus. 

No-one believes that “the crowd" mythologized Jesus into the son of God during his own lifetime; but many people believe that this is what the Church cumulatively did to his memory in the centuries after his death. Jesus in the musical is much concerned about his legacy. The 1972 movie interpolates a montage of crucifixion paintings into the Gethsamene sequence; the 2000 movie shows Judas waving a Bible under his nose. But want he wants to know is whether his words will be remembered after he dies; if his death will make people pay more attention to the things he has said. This is basically the mirror image of Judas's complaint, that Jesus himself now matters more than his teachings. We can see the parallels with celebrity culture: The Beatles became so famous and adored that Beatle music became overlooked. Some commentators say that we can see the process at work in the text of the four Gospels. The proclaimer became the proclaimed. 

Jesus Christ Superstar, then, is not an attempt to imagine what “the Jesus of history” might really have been like. The musical is a dramatic representation of what the Church has — on this model — done to Jesus’s memory, transposed into a retelling of his life. The lepers demanding healing; the fifty thousand screaming “love”; and the thousands of millions in Pilate’s dream; are all forcing “Jesus” into a role which has nothing to do with him. It’s the church — history — us who are crucifying the idea of Jesus. This is why the musical can’t show any kind of resurrection: by dying in apparent defeat Jesus has reasserted his own human identity. 

There is a "real" Jesus who stands behind the Jesus of the crowds and the church; a Jesus who we can't ever see; and a Jesus who was important because of what he taught. Tim Rice's libretto takes this for granted.  

Tim Rice very pointedly chaired the famous car-crash debate between John Cleese / Michael Palin and Malcolm Muggeridge / Rev Mervyn Stockwood in the wake of Monty Python's Life of Brian. The film came out only nine years after Jesus Christ Superstar. The entire joke behind the Python film is that Jesus’s teaching is misinterpreted in the very moment of him speaking it; and that “the crowd” (again) can turn any unpromising figure into the son of God. Even “I am not the Son of God” can be taken has proof that he is. Every word he says gets twisted round some other way. 

The Pythons have always said that they are rather in favour of Jesus, but not in favour of the quarrels and persecutions which the church has perpetrated around his memory. This is essentially the same message as Jesus Christ Superstar. The people who mishear “peace maker” as “cheese maker” and who reverently ask “How should we fuck off, oh lord” don’t represent first century Jews (despite their amusing noses). They represent all subsequent Christians and the Church in general. The comedic crucifixion in Life of Brian and the melodramatic one in Superstar both represent the same idea. Brian’s friends collude in his death so he can be their image of him. Are you what they say you are?

"Jesus isn't particularly funny", said Eric Idle. "What he is saying isn't mockable. It's very decent stuff."

"What is absurd is not the teachings of the founders of religion" said John Cleese.  "It’s what followers of religion subsequently make of it."

This is why the discourse about the movie's “blasphemy” was so confused. What Cleese should have said to the Bishop was “We are not taking the piss out of Jesus: we are taking the piss out of you.” The Jesus who John Cleese is not insulting is not the Jesus on whose behalf Malcom Muggeridge is offended. 

By the way: has any one ever explained how the crowd can misunderstand “how blest are those of gentle spirit” as “blessed is the Greek?”

There is a widely disseminated oral tradition (*) that Andrew Lloyd Weber wanted to stage Jesus Christ Superstar in Chichester Cathedral, and offered the roles of Jesus and Mary Magdalene to John Lennon and Yoko Ono, who inexplicably declined. I don’t know who was going to play Judas: Paul McCartney, possibly. The obvious candidate, Brian Epstein, was unavailable. I'd certainly have paid money to hear Yoko screeching her way through Everything's All Right. 

Lennon had drawn a very direct connection between being famous and being crucified in the Ballad of John and Yoko. In the mid-sixties a work of pseudo-scholarship called The Passover Plot had revealed that Jesus was really a failed revolutionary. (In 1970 it turned out that he was actually a mushroom.) It was even turned into a movie, after Jesus Christ Superstar but before Life of Brian. John Lennon had been reading the book at the time he gave his most famous interview; an interview which became bigger than any of his songs. He was pretty much stating the prevailing orthodoxy of the time; and it is that orthodoxy which Life of Brian and Jesus Christ Superstar cleverly dramatise.

“We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first – rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.”

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