I’ve written before about my religious disposition and how that whole Catholic thing just didn’t seem to take in me or in my family. In fact, one might say I ran screaming from being Catholic, except for one thing. I love the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. Sure you could say I was only attracted to it because the Catholic Church banned it when I was first listening to it in the 70s. If fact, I’m not even sure how the record was allowed in my house or who bought it, what with my mother being a devout ex-nun and all. I think she didn’t realize it was banned until it was too late, and by that time she was just as hooked as we were on the thing. My theory is that since she spent her teen years in an all-girl Catholic boarding school in Canada, she was predisposed to reliving her adolescence during middle age. But instead of running off with a secretary in a red sports car, she started rocking out to Van Halen, J. Giles, and Jesus Christ Superstar (JCS). All the better for me.
Even after the church came around to endorsing JCS in 1999, that didn’t diminish my passion for, er, this Passion musical. I listened to that album multiple times annually for years until it was grooved in my brain as much as in the vinyl. Yes, vinyl; double album, paper sleeves with the lyrics printed on them, housed in a slim, but sturdy brown cardboard casing that made it stand out in the record cabinet among its slimmer brethren. It was the Superstar among the records. And with the Broadway cast perfection within arm’s reach who needed to see it produced? I didn’t see it performed until I was an adult—I’m not counting the movie made in the 70s. That thing is best left behind with random rituals like fish sticks on Fridays or, say, going over the gory details of a man’s crucifixion for three days straight EVERY SINGLE YEAR, just before you’re supposed to be celebrating spring and chocolate bunnies and colored eggs. I’m not much of a math person, but even I can see the three days of actual bloody gore to one day of rising up to some unconfirmed heavenly reward is not a favorable ratio.
But why JCS affects me goes deeper than that. The church I grew up in not only never put on a bad production of the Passion play, they didn’t put one on at all. I didn’t know churches even did that until I moved away. So in addition to never seeing even an amateur attempt to infuse some human emotion into the story, I got to hear, year after year, a lifeless, monotone recital of this gruesome tale. Add to that fact that we had Mass in the school gym because we’d outgrown the actual church, and you can see how I might be ripe for some JCS. I ask you, how can anyone really understand what Jesus and the clan are going through while sitting on gray metal folding chairs in an echoey concrete block gymnasium with the basketball boundary lines affixed on the shiny wooden floor? As the flat voices of the readers droned on, we didn’t even have stained glass windows depicting the crucifixion to console or inform us. I’m thinking even Jesus would have been a little pissed off. He’s been through the wringer for us, and metal chairs and a gym floor are all he has to show for it. No pomp, no circumstance, no maudlin statues. Just voices that sound like the teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
And despite the lack of passion portrayed in my church’s depiction, at the same time—and this is where that Catholic guilt has been honed to perfection—somehow it was made clear to me that I caused his death. Jesus was getting beat up for me, specifically; the text is very clear on this part. Believe me, I was always looking for some loophole to pin it on the lame people of the time. No such luck. So there I’d be on Easter Sunday, trying to enjoy my chocolate bunny, but I couldn’t because I was feeling guilty and I was unable to dislodge the images of whips, piercing thorny crown, and banged nails from my mind. Instead I had to endure the mocking of the brightly colored jelly beans nestled in green plastic grass.
Is it any wonder that JCS saved me? It finally it gave me emotions to what otherwise was a violent tale told by zombies. The music made me finally realize that this wasn’t a boring religious story, This was a universal human story. I could understand the height of Jesus’s fame and the lows of his rejection, Judas’s struggle to control everything and then betraying it all when he couldn’t, and the dilemma of Pontius Pilot getting caught in the middle. This is a rich human story set to some ass-kicking guitar riffs. I’ll never have the faith required to forget three days of pain to revel in the euphoria of the Easter morning, but I can sing, “Die if you want to, you innocent puppet!” like a boss from Broadway Roman times.
And I often did when I was in church. My siblings and I would sing the responses, the JCS music running though our heads. “We have no king but Caesar!” we’d singsong a little too intensely and startle the parishioners around us.
So, yes, I was somewhat obsessed and other than my siblings, I didn’t really know anyone else who shared this obsession. If it ever came up randomly in conversation, which trust me it nearly never does, only a handful of people would own up to having heard of it. I’d get all excited and start quoting lyrics randomly and enthusiastically, which at best got me a blank look (“Look at your blank faces, my name with mean nothing ten minutes after I’m dead!”) Or a look of complete incomprehension (“What…do…you mean by that?”). Even Broadway musical freaks were of no use because they have super high standards, and let’s just say in musical theatre circles, Andrew Lloyd Weber ain’t no Stephen Sondheim. So after a brief excitement of hearing someone actually knew of the production, I’d have to endure crushing disappointment while they told me point by point why it was inferior (“Who…is…this broken man, cluttering up my hallway?”)
But then in my late 20s, I met my friend Lora. Fairly early on in our getting to know each other, one of us said something about truth. And without skipping a beat the other one said, “And what is truth? Is Truth unchanging law?” And then we both answered together, “We both have truths, are mine the same as yours?” And we have been quoting JCS to each other ever since.
It was only a matter of time before we started seeing productions of it together. Yes, I said productions. We’re JCS whores—if a theater puts it on, we do our best to be there. It’s not quite as popular as, say, Annie, though, so we’ve only gotten to see it four times in the last ten to 15 years, but that’s a blog for another day. Next Monday to be exact, so stayed tuned for a tour of the Boston area JCS productions. Spoiler alert. It ain’t pretty.
Edit credit: Thanks to Lora for helping me sort through all the ideas in this post and for being as obsessed with JCS as I am.
Photo credit: This still from the movie should make it clear why you should never see it. http://sf.funcheap.com/singalong-jesus-christ-superstar-chunky-jesus-contest-sf/