Last week, I wrote about my love/obsession with the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar (JCS), and this week is about my adventures skulking about the Boston area in search of productions. It’s performs infrequently—my fellow obsessed JCS fan Lora and I have only seen four productions in the past 15 years. There was a big tease last year when John Lydon (of Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd fame) announced he was going to play Herod. That was as close to feeling religiously saved as I’ve ever come—my favorite punk singer in my favorite rock opera. But then he got sick and had to cancel, and it seems the whole project went circling down the drain. So while I continue to stalk Lydon on Twitter, pepper him with JCS related tweets, and hope for the best, the only other thing I can do is relive the memories of the previous productions to sustain me. Which is truly unfortunate.
The JCS journey starts with that black vinyl record of the original Broadway cast perfection: double album, paper sleeves with the lyrics printed on them, housed in a slim, but sturdy brown cardboard casing that back in the day made it stand out in the record cabinet among its slimmer brethren. Lora and I have since replaced it with the CD version. No matter what the source, that sweet singing perfection is the same, and I’m starting to think that may be our downfall. Humans have been able to sing these parts before, why can’t they again? But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Being a JCS groupie requires patience and stamina, and Lora and I have honed both. We have to scan all the theatre outlets regularly for JCS productions—they can show up anywhere, from community theater to Broadway. The net must be cast wide. Once JCS is detected, we contact each other immediately to clear calendars and get tickets. Our excitement builds as we anticipate the production and do a full listen of the CD, and quoting lines to each other begins in earnest.
Our first production was probably about 15 years ago at the Turtle Lane Playhouse in Newton. Having only the music in our heads to compare to, we were full of bright hope and anticipation. While we are devoted, we don’t expect perfection, and when Judas appeared in a leather jacket, we were cool with that. In fact it seemed rather promising. JCS is written to make sense in any time, so that was OK.
And then Judas began to sing.
A big Broadway-wannabe sound that strained the acoustics of the small community theater. Lora and I shot each other look, slightly panicked. We each took a deep breath, it was going to be OK. His voice was good after all, so that was something, and he was alone on stage, so maybe he was just starting out with too much nervous energy and he’d settle down. Maybe the leather coat was egging on the Elvis in him. We pushed back our seats a bit and sang along in our heads. And waited. The next scene involves most of the cast—the disciples, Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Judas—and the voices were pretty decent standard community theater—Jesus was a little low on superstar wattage, but maybe he’d get better.
And then Judas sang.
A big Broadway-wannabe sound that blew all the other people off the stage. You could almost see them holding up their arms against him as if they were fending off a gale force wind. Lora and I looked at each other, now with a kind of despair settling in. And so it went. A not-so-superstar Jesus limping through his songs, Judas showboating all the other actors off the stage. I’m not kidding, in one scene he pranced across the stage and nearly knocked some the cast out of his way, like a demented version of Chorus Line.
And so began our tradition of going out after a production to deconstruct, console ourselves, and recover from a JCS production.
We had to wait a number of long years for our next opportunity, and the time did facilitate the healing process. We were so excited when JCS popped again as a professional production at the Wang Theatre in Boston. Yes! This would be the one to bring alive our beloved music. We listened to the CD, quoted lines, and let the anticipation build. And we think it was actually pretty good. Why aren’t we quite sure, you may ask? Well, in addition to being seated in the nosebleed section of the Wang, we were also seated near a disheveled woman with a large bag of loud snacks. There weren’t that many other people around us, so there wasn’t much a buffer. In between digging into her bag constantly and pulling out snack bags and crinkling them open, she sang all the songs even more loudly and obnoxiously than Lora and I do. We honestly didn’t know that was possible. After the intermission, we moved down a few rows to try to salvage the second half, which has our favorite Jesus/Pilate interchange about the Truth. But it was no use. Like the guilt Judas couldn’t shed, the Loud Singing Crinkly Bag Snacker dogged us the entire time, moving around to sit behind us, then on the side, over here, over there. Before we knew it the terrible sound of nailing Jesus to the cross was emanating from the stage. It was done and into her hands we commended our attention. At least she, also a clearly devoted fan, had a good time.
A few years later JCS came to Broadway. We were tempted, and maybe it was a mistake to miss it, but we were too afraid to spend all that money to see a professional version of the bigger-than-life Judas and smaller-than-life Jesus. Plus we’d be too far away from the comforts of home and family if it turned bad. Seeing JCS takes planning and foresight. And if they messed up the Pilate and Jesus scene, we might jump up to show them how it should be done, and getting arrested in NYC is something I try to avoid. So we passed on that one.
Another long drought led us to a production a few years ago at the Umbrella Community Arts Center in Concord. The long time between productions helps hope spring anew that this time will be different.
Alas, it was not to be.
Being more hardened now to the realities of how difficult a musical this is to pull off, we managed to get through the first half without too many panicked glances. True there was some subtle elbow jabbing at the now familiar overacting Judas and the Jesus who was more milquetoast that messiah. But if the Pilate and Jesus scenes were even half good, we’d be willing to forgive a stage full of sins. But the second half brought more misery, including a gratuitously violent scene where Judas committed suicide by putting a gun to his head. Right onstage and we saw him collapse. We’d hardly recovered from that poor direction choice when we were assaulted with something even more ghastly—post gunshot, Judas came out to sing the finale in shorts. Gold lamé to be exact. And his prancing about in said shorts put the Turtle Lane Playhouse Judas to shame. Believe me, you can’t unsee that. I can’t even go into the additional excessive violence that went into scene where they nail Jesus to the cross. The only thing missing was squirting us with fake blood when the nail bit into his hand. That was a tough production to recover from. The beginning of healing took the whole ride back from Concord to Boston, many drinks at the bar, and a number of follow up support sessions.
So that brings us to a few weeks ago. Lora’s girlfriend Crista saw there was a production for JCS at the Strand Theatre in Dorchester and alerted us. She had also seen the Concord production on a different night, but she was smart enough to have left at the intermission. She’s more of a community theatre advocate than a strict JCS fan, so she obviously has more sense than we do. She was game to go again, and we were recovered enough, so we got tickets. Surely it couldn’t get any worse than gunshots and gold lamé? Right?….RIGHT?
Oh, dear Jesus Christ Superstar, so wrong, wrong, wrong. Older, wiser, but still ever hopeful, we went through our routine. I downloaded the album on my iPhone and listened to it on the way to work. Lora listened to her CD while cleaning her house. We three went to dinner before the show and talked about some nuances I’d discovered on this most recent rash of listening. And we were careful with our wishes. We get that it’s a difficult performance. We get Judas is always going the be over the top. Could we maybe just get a charismatic Jesus this time?
We weren’t careful enough.
We sat down and saw the scenery of the bombed out buildings of 9/11 and exchanged a full-on, three-way panicked look. It was going to be a long night. We haven’t yet quite recovered from this production, and poor Crista took the brunt, not having been exposed to a director’s questionable choices as long as we have. But suffice to say, that Jesus was more charismatic, and Judas melted into the background. Mary Magdalen was a played by a man, and like the 9/11 background, it wasn’t well incorporated, so it just felt exploitative and sensational. The one good thing was that we only had to suffer for an hour and a half. The actors flew through the songs and skipped the intermission. They didn’t come out for a curtain call–not even one. We were in by 8 pm and out at 9:30. Flat. I doubt they were trying to minimize the terrible creative choices, so the only other logical explanation is that they needed to catch a bus. The number 16 bus runs once an hour at that time of night and was due near the theatre at 9:40. I think they made it.
We weren’t so lucky. We stumbled into a bar shortly after, glassy eyed and forlorn. Crista was having trouble speaking, and Lora and I couldn’t stop enumerating all the tragic wrongs. It almost made us wish for lamé shorts. Almost. We’re still recovering.
But as I was looking at the JCS website for this blog, I saw that there is a tour going on in the UK this summer and fall. The original recording was mostly Brits. Maybe they could do it right again. What could possibly go wrong? How could it get any worse? It’s in Cornwall in October. The UK is so lovely in the fall…http://www.jesuschristsuperstar.com/uktour/