NBC's Jesus Christ Superstar feels contemporary

By CLAIRE BEAVER | April 5, 2018

B3_Jesus Christ Superstar

COURTESY OF SACHYN MITAL/CC BY-SA 3.0

John Legend starred as Jesus in NBC's "Jesus Christ Superstar Live." 

I’m a sucker for musicals and anything involving Sara Bareilles, so naturally I tuned in to Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert on NBC, which aired on Easter Sunday at 8 p.m.

Jesus Christ Superstar was next in a long line of live, televised musicals put on by NBC, the first being The Sound of Music Live starring Carrie Underwood as Maria.

Yet this time around something was different, and it was not just because they chose to show a religious musical on a religious holiday, knowing it was inherently bound to succeed with regards to ratings.

The 1970 rock musical certainly caused a stir in its time, taking the story of the last days of Jesus Christ and adding electric guitars and a soulful score by none other than the musical theater legend Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice. 

It is told mostly from the point of view of Judas, the apostle of Christ who eventually betrays him. The story, originally protested by audiences, translated well to live television with Webber and Rice on as producers. 

NBC stuck pretty well to the original staging, of course adding some modern updates. 

The costumes were a marvel all their own. They somehow managed to combine the old with the new, aesthetics that felt ultra-modern yet also fit with the setting of ancient Jerusalem. 

Jesus, played by R&B/pop singer John Legend, was dressed in white, with a low hanging T-shirt, skinny jeans and a fashionable scarf. Judas was dressed in nearly the same outfit but in black and red. Classic foil.

One of the final songs of the musical, “Superstar,” performed by Judas (played perfectly by Brandon Victor Dixon) sees the cast dressed in metallic garb, sparkling as they watch Jesus ascend into the sky on the cross.

Having a live audience helped add to the sense of contained chaos of this fast-paced musical. It was filmed in Brooklyn at the Marcy Armory, appearing more like a concert than a staged musical, which carried the story and added to the sense of Jesus being put on a pedestal by his followers.

John Legend was ethereal as the titular character, his crooning, old-soul voice working perfectly with the score. I was very pleasantly surprised by him. 

He showed off his vocal range and talent while simultaneously shocking us with the fact that he can actually act, even if playing Jesus really only required him to look worried for most of the show. 

Dixon was a perfect foil to Jesus as Judas, his voice proving to be just as if not more soulful than Legend’s. His falsetto certainly surpassed Legend’s, but John Legend is, well, John Legend, so the audience could let that slide. 

Of course, Dixon’s time on Broadway in the smash hit Hamilton as Aaron Burr certainly helped. It was clear that he had more experience performing live. 

He is the true main character, as we see the story unfold from his perspective rather than Jesus’s. Dixon easily propelled the show forward with his heart-wrenching and soulful performance.

Sara Bareilles was the perfect mix of the two performers previously mentioned. She is both a celebrity pop star and seasoned Broadway actress, having performed as the lead character Jenna in Waitress (a musical that she wrote the score for) for two runs. 

Bareilles played Mary Magdalene with a palpable sense of love for Jesus, emphasizing her character’s humanity. “Everything’s Alright” is one of the catchiest songs in the score, and I could listen to her sing it for hours.

Alice Cooper played King Herod with a fantastic jazzy number, “King Herod’s Song.” Surrounded by women and commanding the audience, Cooper seemed right at home. 

That being said, it was Cooper’s second time playing Herod, as he recorded the character in 1996 for the London cast recording. He gave one of the most fun performances of the show, and the crowd absolutely loved him.

The story of Jesus is one that is almost mythologized. We hear it so often, whether within a religious context or not, that it can lose some of its meaning. The humanizing nature of these performances, especially those given by Bareilles and Dixon, grounded the narrative and made it more, well, relatable.

You can watch Jesus Christ Superstar Live again, or for the first time, on Hulu or NBC.com. Religious or not, the show is packed with talent and moving performances, and it is certainly worth the watch.

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