Even before John Legend sang a single note in Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert on Easter Sunday, the audience sitting eagerly in front of the stage had begun cheering. From the backup dancers, who inspired some of the viewers sitting in the bleachers to perform their own jazz hands, to Alice Cooper, cheers and applause made it clear that Jesus Christ Superstar Live was, well, heavenly.
Despite networks’ recent excitement for them, live musicals are hard enough to do well without the added complication of filming them in a way that makes them feel even half as electric as they might if you were sitting feet away from the stage rather than on your own couch. Some tries have worked wonders (props to The Wiz), others have fallen apart (poor Peter Pan), and between its subject matter and an all-star cast that included John Legend and Alice Cooper, Jesus Christ Superstar was unlikely to fall anywhere in between those two poles.
To its credit, NBC’s production threw itself completely into the challenge of making Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s musical the most spectacular it could be, between its stars, a live audience screaming at every turn, and a giant warehouse set crawling with ripped chorus members in disintegrating tank tops. Directed with swooping ease by David Leveaux and Alex Rudzinski, this version of Jesus Christ Superstar was a pulsing adrenaline rush that felt like a fizzed-up energy drink to the face.
Jesus Christ Superstar isn’t one of the musicals I grew up obsessed with, so I’ll readily admit that half its shouted songs made zero sense to me. (If I didn’t grow up going to Sunday school, I might’ve thought it was about a charismatic cult leader whose boyfriend and girlfriend fight over him until he’s finally arrested — which, okay, isn’t too far off the truth, but you get my point.)
But it could still be fun as hell to watch, particularly when Legend as Jesus Christ, Brandon Victor Dixon’s Judas, or the vulpine Pharisee duo of Jin Ha and Norm Lewis prowled the stage. As King Herod, Cooper acquitted himself perfectly fine in his one jazzy solo, and as the pining Mary Magdalene, Sara Bareilles did as much as she could to spruce up a thin role with her gorgeous, plaintive interpretation.
By the time Legend got his marquee solo as a frightened and angry Jesus stares down his fate with “Gethsemane (I Only Wanted to Say),” the stage practically sizzled from the pleading fire in his voice.
But if there’s one moment that will — or at least should — define this production, it’s the very last one.
The end of Jesus Christ Superstar (spoiler alert?) shows the horror of the crucifixion, with Jesus betrayed and martyred on the cross. Everything has been leading up to this moment, and as everyone grapples with their part in it, Roman soldiers strap Jesus to a cross in the background. Finally, after Judas is done dancing out his gnarled feelings, Jesus ascends into the air, hangs there for a few pointed, awful moments, and disappears into the fog behind him.
But that simplistic description drastically undersells what Leveaux, Rudzinski, and the production and lighting designers accomplished with this live production. Not only did the cross look as though it were levitating in the sky, but as the entire wall opened up behind Legend to reveal another enormous cross shape, the framing provided a terrible reminder of the moment’s magnitude.
It’s not exactly subtle, but neither is Jesus Christ Superstar. So it makes a perfect fit for what became a truly astonishing moment — one that’s truly unlike any other live TV has attempted before. For all the NBC production’s screaming grandiosity, this version of Jesus Christ Superstar was worth staging for this breathtaking moment alone.