Reviews: 'Jesus Christ Superstar' sets new standard for televised musicals

john-legend-jesus-christ-superstar Photo by Virginia Sherwood/NBC
John Legend’s standing as a pop-culture superstar added credibility to his titular performance in NBC’s rock-concert reimagining of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ which presents Jesus in a similar celebrity light. Photo by Virginia Sherwood/NBC.

‘What could have felt like a dated rock opera was more like an uproarious arena concert filled with screaming fans’

By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist

The reviews are in on NBC’s live broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar last night, with many critics saying the high-energy staging sets a new standard for live theatrical broadcasts. Noel Murray of The New York Times called the effort “genuinely thrilling — both a conceptual and artistic triumph.”

Directors David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski presented the musical in the atmosphere of a rock concert, which appropriately underscored creators Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s original vision of Jesus as, yes, a pop-culture superstar. And the directors put a genuine pop-culture superstar in the role — Oscar, Grammy and Tony Award-winning John Legend.

Murray said Legend delivered where it counted — “putting his rich, soulful voice to work in seamless performances of his well-loved songs” — but that Legend was less impressive as an actor. He also said the crowd’s passionate whooping highlighted one of the musical’s central themes: “the dangers of uncritical celebrity worship.”

Most of the critics were generous in their praise, saving the greatest accolades for Broadway veteran Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas Iscariot. “Given what Jesus Christ Superstar ultimately says about idols and the people in their shadow, it is appropriate that this production was dominated by a Broadway veteran best known for replacing Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr in the Tony-winning smash Hamilton,” Murray wrote. “This show has always been less about the titular ‘superstar’ than about the people surrounding him.”

Download and listen to the Superstar soundtrack

Here’s a roundup of what some of the other critics said. Add your thoughts as a comment at the bottom of this story:

Lorraine Ali, Los Angeles Times: The show was a collision of religion and theater and pop culture that could have been one holy mess. But by the grace of God, or maybe a great cast and lots and lots of expert staging, a great musical became a great TV production.

sara-bareilles-jesus-christ-superstar-liveMatt Zoller Seitz, CultureVulture:
NBC’s live production of Jesus Christ Superstar was pitched to audiences as a live concert, which led some to expect a straightforward performance of the songs. It turned out to be an inventively staged production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock-and-roll gospel, so passionately imagined that it set a new standard for this type of event.

Dino-Ray Ramos, Deadline: When it comes to NBC live musical events, Jesus Christ Superstar ranks at the top. What could have felt like a dated rock opera was more like an uproarious arena concert filled with screaming fans, frenetic lights, blaring speakers, pyrotechnics and a group of musicians and performers fueled with the spirit of a chaotic electric guitar wildly flailing about — just how Jesus would have wanted it.

David Rooney, Hollywood Reporter: “Hats off to the producers for making astute choices in the breakdown of seasoned pop performers and stage actors with the dramatic chops to back up their vocal talents. While John Legend’s gentle charisma and honeyed pipes made him an affecting Jesus, and Sara Bareilles’ soulful way with a song proved a superb fit for Mary (pictured above and right), enlisting Brandon Victor Dixon — last seen on Broadway as Aaron Burr in Hamilton — was the crucial piece of casting. But here’s the thing: This was a phenomenally balanced production of Jesus Christ Superstar, in which star power was equaled by depth of feeling and characterization in all the principals. And the immediacy of television, with close-ups capable of bringing us in tight on the performers’ faces, gave Jesus and Mary Magdalene a complexity that often is missing from conventional productions.

More Colorado theatre coverage on the DCPA NewsCenter

Verne Gay, Newsday: Jesus Christ Superstar is one of those musicals that demands to be re-interpreted. It’s not about the Bible. It’s about the box office. We live in the age of “Hamilton,” and whatever “Hamilton” magic “JCS” director David Leveaux could mine he did: Mostly that sense that history isn’t “history,” or the “past” isn’t the past, but right here, right now, right in front of our nose, or TV screen. JCS began with someone tagging a wall with “Jesus” — a dated gesture, yes, but you get the idea. This is Brooklyn, or a gentrified Williamsburg, and the revolutionary spirit of Jesus is right here, right now.

Linda Holmes, NPR: Musical theater at this level is hard to share with a lot of people in live settings, for economic reasons and lots of other reasons, too. Putting productions on TV doesn’t precisely scratch the same itch, but the more of these they do, the more they’ll learn. There’s already a shift toward theater talent and theater styling. Who knew the best way to put on a show was to just put on a show?

The ratings race:
Overnight ratings indicate NBC’s live broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar drew 9.4 million overall viewers, winning the ratings race for the night but landing in the middle of the pack compared to previous live theatrical broadcasts. 
According to NBC, the broadcast lifted the network to its most-watched Easter Sunday in 12 years. This was NBC’s first musical broadcast on a Sunday evening — the previous four aired on weeknights.

The best ratings for a televised musical were NBC’s The Sound of Music Live in December 2013. Here’s how some of the shows have compared:

  • The Sound of Music, NBC, 2013, 18.6 million viewers
  • Grease, Fox, 2016, 12.2 million viewers
  • The Wiz, NBC, 2015, 11.5 million viewers
  • Jesus Christ Superstar, NBC, 2018, 9.4 million viewers
  • Peter Pan, NBC, 2014, 9.2 million viewers
  • Hairspray, NBC, 8.9 million viewers
  • The Passion, Fox, 2016, 6.6 million viewers
  • A Christmas Story, Fox, 2017, 4.5 million viewers

NBC is still planning to air an oft-delayed live broadcast of Bye Bye Birdie, produced by and starring Jennifer Lopez, in 2019. Fox is planning a 20th-anniversary broadcast of Rent.

The cast:

Jesus Christ Superstar
starred Grammy and Tony-Award winner John Legend as Jesus Christ, two-time Tony nominee Brandon Victor Dixon (Hamilton) as Judas, Grammy nominee Sara Bareilles (writer of Waitress) as Mary Magdalene rock star Alice Cooper as the flamboyant King Herod. The cast also featured Norm Lewis as Caiaphas (King Triton in original Denver cast of The Little Mermaid), Jin Ha (M. Butterfly) as Annas, Tony nominee Ben Daniels (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) as Pontius Pilate, Jason Tam (If/Then) as Peter, and Swedish rock star Erik Gronwall as Simon Zealotes.

The ensemble included Christina Sajous and Heath Saunders, who both appeared in the DCPA Theatre Company’s The 12 back in 2015; and Billy Lewis Jr., who was the Arvada Center’s very own Jesus in its Jesus Christ Superstar just last year. The costumer was multiple Tony-winning Paul Tazewell, who costumed the DCPA Theatre Company’s The Unsinkable Molly Brown in 2015. Oh, and Hamilton.

The rest of the ensemble included Melody Betts, Felicia Boswell, Abby Corrigan, Micaela Diamond, Rory Donovan, Christine Dwyer, Mike Evariste, F. Michael Haynie, Charissa Hogeland, Bre Jackson, Mykal Kilgore, Joel Perez, Justin Gregory Lopez, Angel Lozada, Vince Oddo, Kyle Taylor Parker, Jonah Platt, Conor Ryan, Justin Matthew Sargent, Joey Taranto, Syndee Winters, and Lauren Zakrin, with dancers Chloe Davis, Timothy Edwards, Shelby Finnie, Bahiyah Hibah, Juel D. Lane, Terk Lewis, Mayte Natalio, Sarah Parker, Tre Smith, and Maleek Washington.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *