Superstar's theatrical coup was to position Judas as the tragic hero of the Gospels, humanizing history's most inhuman figure. He's the surrogate for a secular liberal audience: a disbeliever in miracles, a passionate advocate for the poor, and sympathetic, too—a pitiable pawn. Serendipitously, two shows about Christ opened in New York in 1971, and serendipitously they're both back on Broadway right now. (Superstar began as a concept album, released in 1969.) Godspell strips Christ's (hippiest) teachings of most of their narrative context; it's "more about the message than the man, proselytizing a liberal theology about charity, forgiveness, and love," I wrote in November. Superstar strips away the myth from the man, transforming the Passion into Shakespearean tragedy, with Judas at its core—not a victim of fate, like so many of the Bard's protagonists, but of God himself. His is the greater suffering here: Jesus may be killed, but his reward is heaven and glorification; Judas is sent to hell and damned for all of history, just for doing what somebody had to do—indeed, what the show argues God made him do. "You have murdered me," he tells God before he hangs himself, disappearing on a side ladder before a pair of feet pop out from the rafters, thirty silver pieces raining onto the stage.
Robert Brill's set is a lot of rear scaffolding, like Rent, or an arena rock show. Superstar's hard rocking score—"if you plan on eating a hard candy or a soothing lozenge," a voice announced pre-show, "you may do it whenever you like. The score will drown you out"—never stops; this is a true rock opera, with backup dancers and no spoken dialogue. (The music's by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the lyrics, Tim Rice.) The show isn't just a dramatically deeper retelling of Christ's last days, but also an exploration of fame, of messiahood as a kind of rock stardom. There's the whole superstar aspect to Superstar, its positing of Jesus as the first celebrity, one turned against and torn down by a schadenfreude-crazed public. His death is treated as a timeless tale of the hoi polloi turning against their idols—in this case, their gods. Literally.
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