There are two things people know about me, even if they don’t know me very well. One, I love Jesus, and two, I love musicals. If you put those two things together you will usually make something I supremely enjoy. And while Jesus Christ Superstar is by no means perfect, theologically speaking, it is one of my favorite Jesus-themed musicals. However, I have sadly never seen the show live (other than high school versions), and many of the other movie versions of Jesus Christ Superstar were sadly lacking. Each version had certain strengths but each also failed at what I thought was the musical’s biggest strength: putting Christ in a modern setting. However, the 2012 Live Arena Tour of Jesus Christ Superstar does set the story in the modern day, and furthermore, does a great job at portraying Jesus as a social justice activist.
The 1973 version had a bunch of hippies drive out to the desert to reenact Christ’s story, which… why? I really think this would have been a lot better if they had just retold the story of Jesus, but set it during the seventies. But no, we got hippies in the desert acting out the story as if performing a play. And things got really uncomfortable when it seemed like they had actually killed Jesus. Since the show is staged as if a bunch of random people go out to perform the story of Christ, it came off particularly weird at the end when all the actors leave on the bus but the actor playing Jesus remains on the cross. In the context of the movie it looks like these people actually crucified the person playing Jesus and left him there, which is both creepy and weird. Then there was the 2000 Jesus Christ Superstar, which was all over the place, time period-wise. Jesus still looked like a seventies hippie, the apostles looked like they walked straight out of the eighties, Mary Magdalene dressed like Mimi from RENT, and the Pharisees and Roman soldiers looked like something out of a futuristic dystopia. It was a mess. Anything else good about that version was lost due to the extremely confusing mix of aesthetics.
You might think this is a silly thing to linger on, especially from a theological perspective. Why would showing Jesus in a modern day perspective be so important? Shouldn’t I be more concerned with how the musical portrays Jesus and the Biblical narrative of Christ? Well, yeah, and I am concerned about that, but Jesus Christ Superstar—just by virtue of how the music and lyrics are written—is in the unique position to show Christ in the modern day. And for a believer like me, that is extremely important. One of the main things I do at my job is try to help people understand how Christ’s radical message of love is still relevant today. For me and many others, Christ wasn’t just a nice guy, but a reformer with a radical message. People today try to claim that Christ’s message supports their beliefs, but more often than not, our pop culture, and even many practicing Christians, ignore Christ’s message of social justice. This 2012 Live Arena Tour of Jesus Christ Superstar does not ignore Christ’s social justice message. Rather, it sets Christ in a modern-day setting and shows him combating the powers that be of the time.
The musical begins pretty classically as it usually does with Judas singing “Heaven on Their Minds”, expressing his concerns about Jesus and his movement. We see the apostles and Jesus all dressed like modern day hipsters, punks, and transients. As the musical progresses, we begin to see more modernizations: little touches that just add to the overall feel of the show. A large TV screen in the background shows footage of the Apostles texting and tweeting about how they are headed to Jerusalem. Headlines from newspapers and media coverage of Christ entering Jerusalem and challenging the Pharisees are also broadcasted. We see the Apostles and other followers of Jesus spraypainting Jesus’s message on walls, only later to have those same messages vandalized when Jesus is arrested and his popularity drops. Herod, instead of being portrayed as the usual bored debauched layabout, is recast as the host of a popular TV show, where he asks people to text in votes on whether Jesus is the Lord or a fraud. It is all pretty similar to what we would expect to see if Jesus were preaching his message today, but we also see many modern examples of protests and activism.
We see the people actively protesting against the colonizing forces of Rome, carrying signs that say things like “Rome Lies” and “People Over Profit”, which very clearly calls to mind many of the Occupy Wall Street protests that were happening a few years ago. We also see the violent side of protesting in the musical. Eventually riot police are called out to deal with Jesus and the crowd of protesters. Things begin to turn violent and are even escalated by people like Simon the Zealot, who wants to start a violent revolution. Watching this play out on stage was something I absolutely adored! To see Christ actively protesting against corrupt and unjust authority figures—and to see him deal with modern-day issues—is something I long to see more of in our pop culture. Jesus was a social justice warrior, and that is played out pretty clearly in this version of the musical.
However, while I would still label this version of the musical at least the best version on film, there are still problems with the social justice messages portrayed within. For one, it is still a very “white progressives’ social justice” message. There are no people of color in the main cast and the people of color who are present are all minor background ensemble. In this way the 1973 version still wins by having a Black Judas. Heck, even the 2000 version cast Peter as a Black man (though Peter’s role is so minor in all versions of the musical that I hardly feel like it should count). I long for a Black Jesus, or Jesus as any person of color. It’s time, people! I am very sick of seeing white Jesus dominate every form of major Jesus media. On top of this, both Mary Magdalene and Judas are white and have dreadlocks. It really distracted me throughout the whole performance. Only these two characters have dreadlocks and I kept pondering why they decided that cultural appropriation was necessary for these two characters. It was both a strange costuming choice and pretty problematic.
Then there was the Temple scene. This scene is probably my favorite in the other versions of the show because you get to see all kinds of corruption and evil and then have Christ come in and flip tables, knock shit over, and scream at people. It tends to be a pretty fantastic and powerful scene. Sadly, that didn’t happen in this musical. Usually, during the song “The Temple”, we see Jesus enter the Temple in Jerusalem only to see it turned into a place of consumerism and greed, where people worship money instead of God. So Jesus acts like a badass and kicks everyone the hell out. In this version there is no indication that they are even in a religious space. The Temple is instead portrayed as a nightclub where there are half naked stage dancers, people groping each other on the dance floor, and people using and selling drugs. Jesus enters the temple and the only table he got to flip was the DJ’s before he just starts screaming at people to leave. The scene really lost a lot of its punch because of this. This scene is supposed to convey consumerism and greed, as it does in the biblical source material, along with religious corruption since this is going on in the Temple. But in this version when Jesus starts singing “a Temple should be a house of prayer” you’re just confused, because aren’t they in a nightclub?
The scene also emphasized Jesus challenging sexual sins—these seemed to consist of consenting adults dancing together and maybe objectification of the stage dancers, which just doesn’t make sense with the original context of the song. Other versions have Jesus literally finding women in cages to presumably be sold into slavery. Furthermore, because this scene was always supposed to be about greed and religious corruption, not sex, when sex is added into the mix it’s also about the buying and selling of sex. There was also a brief moment that seemed transphobic to me—it looked like a man in drag was dressed like the devil and entered the nightclub, which again seemed utterly unnecessary and really opposed to Christ’s message of love and tolerance. As far as this scene goes, I would still recommend the 1973 version.
There are some other issues I could point out, but those have more to do with the overall writing of the show and not this particular performance, so that is a post for another time. Overall, I still say this modernized version of Jesus Christ Superstar is the best to date. It really captures the social justice aspects of Christ’s teachings, while also showing how those social justice teachings are still relevant today. And that’s a pretty amazing achievement in my book. The musical does miss the mark on representation and really misses the point when it comes to some of the scenes, but it’s still enjoyable and manages to get its message across. It’s definitely a Jesus musical that is worth checking out.