I love Jesus Christ Superstar. I own multiple recordings of the musical. I eagerly attended the most recent Broadway production in 2012 (starring the amazing Josh Young as Judas). It’s a campy piece of work, but to call the show a guilty pleasure is an oversimplification. As a piece of art it’s flawed but moving—it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber at his pop-rock best, and Tim Rice at his Tim Rice-iest, for good or for ill. It’s a fresh take on the gospels, one that makes Judas into a sympathetic character and focuses on his relationship with Jesus. That said, the show is also aggressively problematic, ignorant of history, and explicitly anti-Semitic and offensive. It’s certainly troubling enough to not put it on TV next Easter (which is also Chol HaMoed Passover), as NBC plans to do.
The rock opera has two different types of issues—its text, and its direction. This musical has been played all over the world in different languages and I understand that not all productions are guilty of the same crime. However, there are certain racist trends that permeate the musical’s history.
For example, in several productions, Jesus is white and Judas, if not a person of color (like Carl Anderson in the 1973 film), is extremely “ethnic,” like the Jewish Josh Young with his (adorable) mop of curly hair. Offensive design elements are also common, including twisted mockeries of the costumes of the Priests that emphasize their cartoon villainy and make it synonymous with their religious roles. In the film and 2012 Broadway revival alike, this includes making their ritual garments reminiscent of S&M gear. In the stage production, this even included leather would-be tzitzit, which, you know, people might associate with modern observant Jews.
But of course, all of that can be mitigated by a director who knows what’s good for him come 2018 (at least one producer, Marc Platt, is himself Jewish). But some issues are not so easily avoided. For example, there’s the fact that the show goes out of its way to redeem Pontius Pilate, who is goaded by the priests and Jewish mob into killing Jesus for them (“You Jews produce Messiahs by the sackful!” he bellows at them as the crowd chants, “Crucify him!”). There’s the fact that Jesus’s misguided apostle, Simon Zealotes, wants to use their burgeoning movement to rise up against Rome (Which is obvious bad, according to the show’s perspective. How dare they?). There have even been attempts to rewrite lyrics throughout the years in response to complaints. Example:
Original lyric: “We are occupied; have you forgotten how put down we are?/I am frightened by the crowd/For we are getting much too loud/And they’ll crush us if we go too far.”
Newer lyric: “We are occupied; have you forgotten how put down we are?/And our conquerors object to another noisy sect/And they’ll crush us if we go too far.”
This lyric change subtly and simply shifts the blame of the danger the apostles are in from pressure within their own community to outside of it. And yet, in 2012, the most recent Broadway production of Superstar went with the original lyrics. Who knows what the TV version will do.
Also, the use of “Jews” and “Israel” in the lyrics of Superstar are thrown around in the completely incorrect context. For example, more than once the Judeans are referred to as a “race.” And one amazing line goes: “Is that it for the Jewish dream?”
…What the hell is the “Jewish dream?” Is it some vague half-reference to desire for autonomy? The show is just full of these delicious little offensive moments, particularly whenever the priests show up as a sort of evil barbershop quintet. They’re joined by the Pharisees, because of course their rival group of the era that struggled with them to hold religious power is going to come together for a powwow if it means killing someone else who has a following. Luckily, the Essenes don’t crawl out of their caves to show up too, but maybe it was just too hard for Rice to make the reference scan lyrically.
That gang even briefly insinuates they arranged to have John the Baptist killed. Are Webber and Rice not satisfied with the glut of anti-Semitic source material so much so that they have to go and invent entirely new conspiracy theories? But essentially, Jesus is murdered by the hypocritical and weak-minded Jewish people led by their priests, and are then as a group linked to modern Jewry with a completely muddled view of the history of the Middle East… Yikes.
Do I think audience members of Superstar will be inspired to go out and start a pogrom? Of course not. But the show still plays out like an old passion play and perpetuates religious scapegoating of the Jewish people as a whole. We have enough going on right now. Save Jesus Christ Superstar for the vinyl albums. It’s a period piece, not TV fun for the whole family.