Tag Archives: Jesus Christ Superstar

Happy Dead Jesus, or Easter for Catholics

I might finally be turning the corner on my dread of Easter. 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, and there are many reasons why, but the big one was Easter. Or should I say, the three bloody, gory days leading up to Easter. Despite my potty mouth and my penchant for channeling my gin-soaked, cigarette smoking alter ego Blanche, I’m a sensitive person. Well, at least in a squeamish sort of way. They call it the “Passion of Christ,” but I like to think of passion as either doing something you absolute love that feeds your mind, body, and soul, or, alternately, going at it with someone hot and sexy who thinks you’re hot and sexy. Call me crazy, but I’ve never associated passion with getting the snot beaten out of you and getting nailed to wood.

But growing up that’s what Easter was for me EVERY SINGLE YEAR. Rehashing the gory details of a man’s crucifixion for three days straight — a guy who by most accounts was just trying to be a decent person. Then, on Easter Sunday, the fact that Jesus is risen and the appearance of chocolate bunnies and jelly beans are supposed to erase all that. But it never did for me because my Catholic guilt had been honed to perfection. It was made perfectly 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 you can perhaps forgive me if I wasn’t quite getting the joy of Jesus going to heaven thing.

Intellectually, I get that for some people Easter Sunday is just that. I only kind of understand it from years of asking enthusiastic Catholics what they get out of their religion because I was 1) stumped and 2) genuinely curious. The most common answer is they like the ritual, pomp, and pageantry. I thought that’s what the British monarchy is for, but apparently that’s just me.

The only thing that saved me from the Easter horror was the rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar. Yes, I get that Andrew Lloyd Weber ain’t no Stephen Sondheim, but I didn’t need Broadway perfection, just a transmutation. The music made me finally realize 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 Broadway bad-ass.

But I think I might finally be getting past all this — you all may only have to endure another year or two of an “Easter is gory” blog. Did I mention I tend to have a hard time letting things go?

I offered to bring dessert to my sister’s house for Easter — my sister’s extensive wine collection helps me keep everything in perspective and keeps my gory observations to myself. On Saturday I went to the Italian bakery in my neighborhood, and it was a beehive of people buying cakes, pastries, and cookies decorated with bunnies and chocolate eggs. There were eight people behind the counter, and the door to the back room swung open to reveal an additional small army of bakers and decorators. People were smiling. People were happy. One older couple laughed about spending $90 on pastries. We both knew they’d be bringing it to some big family gathering and enjoying each other’s company. I wished them a happy Easter as I lugged my own 7-pound box of fruit tarts and chocolate cake heaven back to my car. I wasn’t thinking about dead Jesus, I was thinking about blazing guitar riffs, heavenly bakery goodies, the cold spring day filled with the promise of warmth, and being with people you love. Happy Easter.

Photo credit: Heavy.com 20 creepiest Easter bunnies

Jesus Christ, Superstar? Part 2

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/

 

Jesus Christ! Oh, Superstar! Part 1

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/