Reading a list of musicals currently showing on Broadway is like reading a list of old friends. From revivals of popular shows from the past, like Anything Goes, to musicals based on iconic films, such as Ghost: The Musical, there aren’t many new ideas out there on the Great White Way. In fact, the trend seems to be away from shows that challenge us and toward those that provide comfort and familiarity.
The return to Broadway of two Christian-themed musicals is no exception. A revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar opens this month after a very successful run at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival last summer. It joins the 40th-anniversary revival of Godspell, which has been playing since October. When they first debuted in the early 1970s, both musicals challenged the way audiences saw the Christ story. Both sparked debate and even anger. But since their release, both seem to have lost their edge, turning into the kind of shows you could take your grandmother to see at a Sunday matinee.
Jesus Christ Superstar was first released as a conceptual rock opera album in 1970. It was groundbreaking in its depiction of Jesus not as a deity but just as a man. The album, and the staged musical that followed, told the story of Jesus up to the crucifixion, omitting the resurrection. Instead, the show focused on how the lives of regular human beings were changed in their time spent with Jesus. Superstar was a product of the time in which it was created, spawned in a culture that was questioning everything, including the very nature of God.
The current revival, which appeared in Stratford, Ont., last June, was hailed for its fine performances and excellent direction. The problem is that questioning the existence of God is no longer radical. Director Des McAnuff made a good effort to freshen up the production through set design and innovative use of technology, such as the electronic clock that counts down to Passover. Most drastically, McAnuff introduced a love triangle between Jesus, Mary Magdalene and the sexually ambiguous Judas. But having Jesus in a love triangle will never be as shocking as the original production, which introduced the idea of a sexual, loving relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. This again emphasized the humanity of Jesus over his godliness — in the show, he is a man capable of loving a woman, and wanting a woman. And Mary’s ballad, I Don’t Know How to Love Him, in which she compares Jesus to the (many) other men she has loved, was scandalous in its own way — Jesus isn’t supposed to be the object of lust! No production, however good, will ever be able to top the shock of that first revelation.
You might say that Superstar was to Godspell what LSD was to another popular drug of the 1970s, marijuana — angry and confused versus relaxed, mellow and a little goofy. Godspell was written by John-Michael Tebelak, a church-loving man who wanted to make the story of Jesus a joyful thing and to turn its central character into a lovable, happy clown. While the original production hinted at the possibility of resurrection, it failed to confirm it outright. Godspell was never as radical as Superstar, but it was still part of a very new trend of the rock musical and of presenting religious ideas in a new way. It represented a new wave of music, born in the era of sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll. The play’s current revival is a straight one, with simple sets and energetic performers, just as in the original production. But people’s reactions to the show have changed. Songs from Godspell are now sung in church. Again, what was once subversive has now been subverted. The show has been brought back into the religious fold, and its messages have become part of the background noise. We can hum the tune of All for the Best, but do we really think about its message of hope and redemption?
As a culture, we have arrived at a junction where it is no longer provocative to question or deny God’s existence — after all, Time magazine’s famous “Is God Dead?” cover came out back in 1966. Suggesting that Jesus might have had a sex life has lost its power to shock. Instead, the focus of art’s critique has shifted from the Supreme Being to religious institutions themselves, and satire is the preferred mode. The Book of Mormon, for example, the Tony award winner for best new musical of 2011, was created by the makers of South Park, a television show known for holding nothing sacred. The musical examines right-wing religious thinking and then makes it the butt of a joke.
By comparison, Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell have become nothing more than good stories. Which makes sense, because the Bible is full of good stories. For centuries, the Bible was the most reliable cultural reference a storyteller could make — the one book a writer could guarantee that most people had read. But in order to get real value from these musicals, we need more than just a good tale. Theatre should make us think, challenge us to look at our religion in a new way — we should struggle with more than trying to get Pontius Pilate’s catchy number out of our heads.