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.