Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus: Jesus in Musicals

The story of Jesus has been called “The greatest story ever told” and he has had a larger impact on the course of Western history than almost any other historical figure, so it’s no surprise that his story has been the subject of musicalization multiple times. The Passion narrative (Jesus’ suffering and death) and the events leading up to it tell a tale of love, personal growth, betrayal, and political unrest to name just a few. These themes lend themselves readily to musical narrative and can be emphasized or downplayed, depending on the creative team’s personal views on what’s important in the story and/or what’s important to the culture in which the piece is created. The three musicals I’m going to look at today are Jesus Christ SuperstarGodspell, and !Hero. Since this is an “Oh, My Pop Culture Jesus” post and not a “Theatre Thursday” I will be discussing their religious themes rather than critiquing the shows themselves as is my usual game.

One of the first stage musicals I ever saw as a kid was a high school production of Jesus Christ Superstar and I loved it so much. I mean, I loved Jesus and though I hadn’t consciously defined myself as a musical fan yet, I always loved musicals so the combination of the two was magic for me. Even though many of the show’s themes went over my head, two ideas from my two favorite songs (at the time) stuck with me long after the show ended: “Let the world turn without you tonight” from Mary Magdalene’s “Everything’s Alright” and “Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ, who are you? What have you sacrificed?” from the show’s title number. Both lines are directed to Jesus and both indicate this show’s overall portrayal of him: a good man, but a man only.

According to Christian tradition, Jesus is more than a man; he is the Son of God and to varying degrees from religion to religion his divinity is emphasized. In Jesus Christ Superstar, however, his humanity is emphasized to the point of ignoring his divinity. One of the things composer Andrew Lloyd Webber has said of his creation is that he was interested in the idea of Jesus as a “superstar”; what was it like for him to be the equivalent of what we would now call a media sensation? This was his driving force for creating the musical, taking a new approach to a very well-known tale. He was not trying to make a religious education piece and so the specific matters of faith, such as Jesus’ divinity, are left out of the piece and it’s up to the audience to fill in the gaps with his or her own beliefs. I appreciate the humanization of Christ; that’s the main reason those two lines I mentioned earlier stuck with me for so long. It’s easy to imagine Jesus as a character in a story, so it’s important to remember that he was also a living, breathing person with thoughts and emotions just like anyone else.

Godspell, a musical by Stephen Schwartz, carries the description “A musical adaptation of the Gospel according to St. Matthew” which, if I am remembering correctly, is the gospel which was meant to reach out to Gentiles and spread the word of Jesus beyond Jewish communities. Like Jesus Christ SuperstarGodspell takes a very new and potentially challenging view on Jesus and his story. In this musical, Jesus is represented as a theatrical clown which, according to the show’s souvenir program, is meant to make him more likable, approachable. As a clown, Jesus is friendly, fun, and someone we want to follow. (I personally disagree and find clowns repugnant, but that’s neither here nor there, I suppose.) This Jesus is friendlier than the one in Jesus Christ Superstar, but there is a similar emphasis on his humanity eclipsing his divinity.

In Godspell Jesus is compared to philosophers more so than religious figures and he and his friends mostly hang around philosophizing and sharing stories. Eventually, the Passion narrative emerges and is handled quite nicely, but it isn’t the focus of the story. This musical shows Jesus as someone we should remember for his ideas and not his death which has its merits. Yes, Jesus’ sacrifice is central to Christians, but it’s important to remember that there is more to his story than just his suffering and death.

The third and final musical I’m going to talk about is quite different than the previous two. Not only was it produced considerably later (2003, according to the CD I have, while the above musicals came out in the early 70’s) but its intended audience is quite different. While Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell were written for general audiences as part of commercial musical theatre, !Hero, near as I can tell, was written for Christians by Christians which comes with its own problems.

!Hero is set in modern times, but in a world where Jesus was never born, meaning that Christianity doesn’t exist and the world is still waiting for the Messiah. In comes Jesus, known to most as simply “Hero”, to work his miracles, teach his lessons, and eventually die for the salvation of his followers. There are some similarities to Jesus Christ Superstar in the way Jesus is shown to be a media sensation, but what this show does that neither of the previous two did is emphasize Jesus’ divinity. We see this Jesus perform miracles and teach his followers not just to be nice to people, but to pray and follow the Word of God. This musical also includes the exchange between Jesus and the disciples of “Who do the people say I am? Who do you say I am?” to which Petrov (Peter) responds “I think you’re the Son of God”. Like the others though, this show still does try to make Jesus human and relatable as well, although perhaps not as likable as Godspell does. Hero, for example, seems to be very dismissive of Jude (Judas) in most of their interactions which seems to be an attempt to vilify Judas, whereas Godspell and especially Jesus Christ Superstar try to humanize him as well.

What really sets this story apart from the other musical adaptations of Jesus’ life is that it’s really about Jesus, front and center, all the way through. Jesus Christ Superstar is almost more about Judas, who is as important if not more so than Jesus in the show’s narrative; Godspell is kind of like “Jesus ‘n’ Pals”; but !Hero, as you can probably guess from the title, is all about Jesus, and unlike the other two, it includes his resurrection after his death. This is also a weakness of the show, however.

Because it seems to have been written with Christians in mind, Jesus is much less real than in Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar and his importance to society is perhaps over-emphasized. The world in which Hero is born is broken; there is no religion in existence save for a single synagogue in New York City, and an ominous group known as I.C.O.N. rules the world. While I do believe Jesus’ existence and teachings have shaped much of the world, I don’t believe that his removal from history would cause the downfall of religion as this show would have us believe.

From the perspective of a person of faith, !Hero tells the most complete story of Christ, though, and gives the most credence to its source. I really don’t think that a story of Jesus ought to end with the crucifixion as Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell do, because Jesus’ story didn’t end there. Whether you believe in the Resurrection or not, Jesus’ impact lasted far beyond his crucifixion and I feel that Jesus Christ Superstar tends to leave the implication that Jesus’ teachings died with him. Godspell does a little more for his legacy as the final number proclaims “Long live God/Prepare ye the way of the Lord” indicating that the message goes on. If you’re looking for a full representation of Jesus as fully divine and fully man, however, you’re going to want to check out !Hero.

I think that all three of these musicals offer food for thought and have worthwhile depictions of Jesus. There’s something to be learned from each of them and I enjoy them all. If you know of any other musicalizations of Jesus’s story, please let me know in the comments! I know there are some lesser known shows that I’ve seen locally but these are the only three I know of which have been widely produced.

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