Jesus Christ Superstar Live

Started by KathyB, Apr 02, 2018, 08:26 am

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Apr 02, 2018, 08:26 am Last Edit: Apr 02, 2018, 09:20 am by KathyB
Or "live in most time zones except this one." Did anybody besides me watch it? Were you expecting a train wreck?

My impressions :

-I'm not sure what the director (either the stage director or the TV director) was trying to say, mostly because I had a hard time determining the space of the stage and its relationship to the audience. I had the impression that most of the camera work was done off to stage left.

- The commercials were distracting.

-Norm Lewis was fabulous.

- What was going on with all the weird interesting hairstyles?

- I thought John Legend was pretty good as Jesus.

- I was expecting that firepit to be extinguished like the Olympic flame.

- In my opinion, it was not a train wreck, despite the camera work trying to turn it into one.

Chris L

Apr 03, 2018, 10:14 am #1 Last Edit: Apr 03, 2018, 03:51 pm by Chris L
I've watched pieces of it on Hulu and elsewhere. (The whole thing's available on NBC's website and Roku app as well as Hulu, where it seems to have appeared since yesterday.) It looks closer to what I envision when I listen to the concept album than any other version I've seen (except a small production a friend of mine did in college, but that's another story). Legend seems like the weakest link. I thought the New York Times reviewer (who raved over the production) pegged it when he said that Legend mostly goes around with an expression on his face best described as "John Legend is worried."

Then again, Jesus isn't intended to be the most interesting character in JCSS. That would be Judas, though I'd place Pilate as a close runner-up. So maybe it's appropriate that Legend walks around in an unexpressive daze.
But us, old friend,
What's to discuss, old friend?

Chris L

Not sure what it is you don't like about the cinematography, Kathy. From what I've seen so far it adds considerably to the experience. It's always best to see things in person, of course, but if I can't be there I want a camera that puts me in the middle of the choreography and they seem to be doing a great job of that.
But us, old friend,
What's to discuss, old friend?


Quote from: Chris L on Apr 04, 2018, 01:40 pmNot sure what it is you don't like about the cinematography, Kathy. From what I've seen so far it adds considerably to the experience. It's always best to see things in person, of course, but if I can't be there I want a camera that puts me in the middle of the choreography and they seem to be doing a great job of that.
What I didn't like was not being able to figure out the stage in relation to the audience (if I'm watching a theatrical production, I like to have some idea of how the stage is situated). I kept feeling that all the action was happening to the left of where the camera was showing. Not sure what it was about the camera work that gave me that impression. 
Maybe I was just getting irritated with the commercials and looking for something to complain about.


Apr 07, 2018, 12:48 pm #4 Last Edit: Apr 21, 2019, 01:05 am by scenicdesign71
For what it's worth, @KathyB, it actually took me almost the entire telecast to really comprehend the L-shaped audience configuration, which seemed odd but didn't overshadow my enjoyment of the show.  Overall, I think the (successful) intent was somewhere in-between a standard theatrical taping (e.g. Live from Lincoln Center or NT Live) and a studio-shot but fully-designed "live" TV movie (e.g. The Sound of Music Live and its successors).  And in principle, I think that choice was a smart one, since I've always thought of JCS as an odd sort of hybrid, worthy of staging and seeing -- as opposed to just listening to the concept album -- but not quite a "real" musical, in the sense that its characters and situations never quite snap into three dimensions, and aren't necessarily meant to.

Just this kind of "concert (or oratorio, for extra fancy-soundingness) staging" has actually always seemed to me the only really viable way to make any sense of this show.  Indeed, in the two small productions of it that I've been involved with, I remained unconvinced by their respective directors' insistence (one more than the other) on relatively straight "period" setting and costumes, as though we were actually telling a coherent, linear, realistic-ish story set among the ancient Hebrews and Romans in 1st-century Jerusalem; as a storytelling mode, both apparently thought Webber's wailing guitars and Rice's twee Carnaby St. vernacular unremarkable in such a context (!), requiring no echo or acknowledgement in staging or design (with the glaring exception of the silver-sequined, go-go-booted title number).  I gave them what they wanted, but could never work up any real enthusiasm for the approach.  I still maintain that JCS's interest and appeal lie at least as much -- and arguably a lot more -- in its form as in its content; that, as a description of that form, the phrase "Biblical musical" misses the mark entirely (suggesting what, a swords-and-sandals cheese-fest with an R&H score?); and that inserting the word "rock" into that phrase -- "Biblical rock musical," or "Biblical rock opera", if you like -- helps only to the extent that it twists both of the other terms far beyond their usually-accepted connotations.  To my mind, "staged rock concert/oratorio" comes a whole lot closer to the point, whereas conventional book-musical staging and design only end up making the material look like a painfully awkward and misguided attempt to be something it's not (i.e., The Greatest Story Ever Told! -- The Musical, more or less).

So I would agree with Chris that NBC's version is "closer to what I envision when I listen to the concept album than any other version I've seen," and that the cinematography -- including its somewhat disorienting use (I assume deliberately so) of the huge Marcy Armory space -- adds a lot to the experience.  Ditto the directors' shrewd use and framing of the live audience: at certain crucial times they're made to recede, but at many others they're as much the focus as what's happening onstage -- and as the NYT astutely observed, even if we lose some lyrics as a result, that may actually serve to illustrate the show's primary point more forcefully and incisively than any staged choral "mob" ever could -- even one as adrenalized and hyperkinetic as the onstage ensemble on Sunday night.  (Besides, to my mind, rendering Tim Rice's lyrics inaudible does them the highest possible favor).

I agree with the general consensus that Legend's Jesus was just adequate, and that that's fine, perhaps even desirable, given how the libretto is constructed (to wit: notwithstanding the show's title, the role's vocal pyrotechnics, or the longstanding tradition of casting a "name" star as Jesus, it's still not his show, folks, any more than Amadeus is Mozart's).  Brandon Victor Dixon's Judas at first seemed likewise on the bland side, which did worry me a bit -- his "Heaven On Their Minds" initially struck me as decidedly too low-key -- but over the course of the evening his performance grew into something quite powerful indeed.  More than anyone else, Sara Bareilles seemed to effortlessly flesh out an underwritten role (for me, her single unforced tear at the end nearly upstaged the entire scenic apparatus of "John 19:41", about which more below); her smart, soulful, and sensitively-calibrated work here made me wish I'd seen her in Waitress as well.

I thought Jason Ardizzone-West's production design and Paul Tazewell's costumes were gorgeous.  (I remain somewhat ambivalent about the common adoption, among modern-dress JCS-es, of a look I'll just call "club-kid chic," but Tazewell's work here stands head-and-shoulders above any previous iteration of this idea that I've seen).  It makes me laugh to see the gargantuan set described as "minimalist" in a number of the reviews -- presumably because it didn't move much, do many tricks, or concern itself with establishing multiple realistic locations in narrative sequence.  None of which has anything at all to do with minimalism, in any meaningful sense of the word, but never mind: throw up a shit-ton of scaffolding, have your actors build a table out of some sawhorses and plywood, and apparently a lot of people will be blinded to the full-scale Sistine Fucking Chapel you've erected around it.

About that scenic coup at the end... as I told Lance afterward, when he texted me to enthuse about the final image: usually, productions of JCS that envision Jesus literally floating away to heaven tend to make me throw up in my mouth a little; it's the very nadir of religious kitsch, for which my tolerance is almost nil (hence some of my ambivalence about the show in the first place).  But Ardizzone-West and his collaborators made a lot of smart choices here, not least being the way they used the space and the camera to build a spellbindingly theatrical effect (its success rests partly on our awareness of it as a rather stupendous piece of live stagecraft, un-goosed by optical or CGI enhancement) which nonetheless relied entirely on the camera's tightly-controlled POV (in any actual, normal theatrical setting, sightlines and space constraints would render the whole idea unworkable).  The scale of the effect alone nearly confounds our sense of spatial reality, with Legend on his cross ascending three stories off the deck before receding through a cruciform, irising aperture, god-only-knows-how-far off into some blindingly distant hinterland at the Armory's outer perimeter.  And while this jettisoned-thru-the-airlock effect might seem to brush dangerously close to camp absurdity, the moment is somehow just abstract enough, just ambitious enough -- and, in so many words, just fucking-breathtaking enough -- to pull it off.  The result is uncannily elegant and a little eerie and kind of demented -- and, against all odds, it works gorgeously.

All those commercials, though... dear god, how annoying.  Among other achievements, it's amazing that the broadcast was even watchable amid all that interruption; that it somehow actually thrived in spite of it was some kind of Easter miracle.

Chris L

Apr 07, 2018, 01:18 pm #5 Last Edit: Apr 07, 2018, 02:56 pm by Chris L
We finally got around to watching the entire production a few nights ago on Hulu. I loved the way they used the negative space in the wall to form a cross at the end, with Christ floating through it into a white light, something that could only have worked from a very narrow range of sight lines. (And my own tolerance for religious kitsch is also nil.) I liked the New York Times description of the set and costuming in general as resembling the Thunderdome sequence in Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, which was far more post-apocalyptic than minimalist.

And it was still pretty much what I envision when I hear the concept album, about halfway between a rock concert and a staged musical.
But us, old friend,
What's to discuss, old friend?


I must be the only person who was not impressed with this production.  I do not expect a first century realistic costume and set but I expect some cohesiveness to these elements.  The individual performances of Judas, Pilate and Caiaphas were good.  The dancing was not and the hippy-dippy crowd did not fit with the weird costumes of the Sanhedrin. They don't have to wear black to show that they are the villains.  Their lyrics do that for them. Pilate is a Roman Noble Governor.  He was richly dressed.  Herod looked like he came from South Philly.
The first time I saw JCSS was in 1971 at a small dinner theater in Virginia with a youthful cast he did it simply and straight.  It was wonderful.  JCSS is my wife's Easter tradition.

Chris L

Hey, as a loyal child of the 60s, I resent that comment about the "hippy-dippy crowd"!  :D

I imagine JCSS would work quite well in a dinner theater, though. I've made references before to the production that a friend of mine did in college, in the spring of 1971, not long after the concept album was released. It was done on a stage probably smaller than some dinner theater venues and worked beautifully, so the show is adaptable. I had no problem with the more spectacular approach of the NBC version, though, and thought it worked beautifully. It's a musical that lends itself to multiple interpretations.
But us, old friend,
What's to discuss, old friend?