Jesus Christ Superstar on stage and in film

Screen shot from the 1973 film
Screen shot from the 1973 film

An early birthday treat last week, went to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar in Cardiff. Preparatory work involved watching the original 1973 film, and listening to the album from the film (not the original 1970 release). Loudly. Fantastic music writing, odd time signatures, full rock soundscape, and emotive story-telling. Overwhelmingly poignant reading of Judas’ position, reminding me of U2’s lyrics in ‘Until the End of the World’ (1991, Achtung Baby):

In my dream I was drowning my sorrows
But my sorrows, they learned to swim
Surrounding me, going down on me
Spilling over the brim
Waves of regret and waves of joy
I reached out for the one I tried to destroy
You, you said you’d wait
‘Til the end of the world

But one of the most interesting things for me was the layering of photographic material in both productions. The film still above is like a premonition of the famous film still of a lone protestor stalling the advance of government tanks in Tiananmen Square (1989, Jeff Widener). The crucifixion scene in the film incorporates a montage of zooming shots of paintings (probably photographic reproductions) of Jesus on the cross, from Grunewald to Van Dyke. The stage show is backgrounded with a screen playing a mixture of twitter feeds, newspaper reportage and manipulated photographic scene-setting. It’s all hyper-referential – in the latter case, to footage of the riots and Occupy protests in recent news, as well as a Guantanamo-like crucifixion setting.

It seems a bit overblown for the stage show – reviewers haven’t been that positive, and it’s perhaps true to say that the ‘special effects’ try to be a compensation for the big venues and the small acting. Big names, it turns out, don’t necessarily bring big nuance to performance, especially when accompanied by close-up simultaneous filming of facial expressions. The film, on the other hand, has a superb cast, where the marrying of conscious ’70s situation with a landscape of 1st-century sheep-herding, is produced like a passion play. There’s an embodiment within the imagery – like living inside the story, rather than putting it on.

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