Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Gospel According to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice


Jewish date:  25 Tammuz 5770 (Parashath Maṭṭoth-Mas‘e).

Today’s holidays:  The Three Weeks (Judaism), Wednesday of the Fourteenth Week of Ordinary Time (Roman Catholicism), X-Day (traditional) (Church of the SubGenius).

Jesus Christ Superstar (Special Edition)Topic 1:  Continuing our way through my pile of Gospel-based films, the musical Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) by Andrew Lloyd Webber and company.  There is also a 2000 version of the same musical, but the differences I am aware of between the two are that the 2000 version has better vocalists, better costumes, is done on sets, and has no framing device.  The 1973 version was performed in ruins in Israel, with the framing device of having actors arrive by bus and starting to unload, morphing abruptly into the musical itself, followed by an abrupt morph back to the actors climbing back on the bus after the Crucifixion.  The framing device makes for more plausible leeway in obvious inaccuracies in the production (such as everything happening in ruins and costumes that could not have possibly existed in the Second Temple Period), but does not negate problems in the writing itself.  Jesus Christ Superstar is a musical somewhat confused in what it is supposed to be.  On the bright side, it seriously tries to get into the psychology of Judas Iscariot and figure out why he betrayed Jesus; 30 silver coins is, after all, a rather banal reason.  Jesus, in this musical, has gone from someone merely popular to thinking he really is the Messiah.  This has Judas very worried, since he is afraid that this will anger the Romans and prompt a slaughter.  This worry reaches a turning point when he sees Roman tanks(!), at which point he panics and betrays Jesus to the Priests and Pharisees, insisting that he does not want to do this but has no choice.  Afterwards he not only regrets his decision and throws away the money, but claims he has been manipulated by Jesus.  Caiaphas and Annas (of the Priests) also fear that Jesus may spark violence from the Romans, but here is where a previous complaint of mine of anti-Semitism in Gospel-based films kicks in.  Herod Antipas could not care less whether Jesus lives or dies, and Pontius Pilate sees no reason at all to kill Jesus.  But the Priests and Pharisees push for Pilate to execute Jesus, and the Jewish crowd, which previously fawned over Jesus, for no apparent reason demands his crucifixion.  Even though Pilate, the official representative of Rome, is satisfied that Jesus is harmless, the Priests, Pharisees, and Jewish crowd still demand Jesus’s execution.  This is nothing less than a thoughtless reiteration of the anti-Semitism of the Gospels and the charge of deicide, despite the pathetic claims of Tim Rice.  This might be OK if all you care about is faithfulness to the Gospel, but it does absolutely nothing to explain what happened and leaves a yawning plot-hole unfilled.

Other things just plain wrong with this musical:
  • Anachronisms in the writing:  The Apostles ask about “New Jerusalem”.  The crowd sings, “J.C., J.C., won’t you die for me?”, even though in the Gospels Jesus’s death is a surprise to everyone but Jesus.  Pontius Pilate has a premonitory dream rather than his wife.  Jesus’s followers sing about how they always wanted to be Apostles and write the Gospels.
  • Other blatant inaccuracies:  Webber and Rice think the Temple is being used as some sort of a immoral bazaar, when Jesus is actually depicted in the Gospels as going berserk and attacking people providing sacrifices—something more consistent with the Gospels’ constant attacks against all the major Jewish groups and institutions at the time.  Herod is misidentified as a Jew.  Herod claims Jesus claimed to be God.
  • Judas’s posthumous(!) musical number while Jesus is on the Cross.  If nothing else breaks suspension of disbelief, this does.  The problem is not that Jesus cannot have a vision of the dead Judas on the Cross.  The problem is that the vision contradicts its own context.  To quote the lyrics:

    Every time I look at you I don’t understand
    Why you let the things you did get so out of your hand
    You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned
    Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land?
    If you’d come today you would have reached a whole nation

    Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication
    Don't you get me wrong—I only wanna know

    Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ
    Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
    Jesus Christ Superstar
    Do you think you’re what they say you are?

    Tell me what you think about your friends at the top
    Who'd you think besides yourself's the pick of the crop
    Buddha was he where it’s all? Is he where you are?

    Could Mahomet move a mountain or was that just PR?
    Did you mean to die like that? Was that a mistake or
    Did you know your messy death would be a record-breaker?
    Don't you get me wrong—I only wanna know

    Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ
    Who are you? What have you sacrificed?
    Jesus Christ Superstar
    Do you think you’re what they say you are?
Given the serious faults, I think the proper rating for this one is a solid “r̼̊”.

Next up:  Jesus (1979).

Topic 2:  For today’s religious humor: “iz dis heaven?”:
Yeah, some people really do seem to have views of Heaven this shallow.


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