18 March, 2011

Jesus Christ Superstar is a Rock Opera NOT a Musical [some post show musings]

john nineteen, forty one

It was during one of our late night rehearsals while attempting to fix the blocking for John Nineteen: Forty One [the finale for Jesus Christ Superstar] when I had an epiphany of sorts: that I had waited fifteen years to the day to finally get the chance to perform Jesus Christ Superstar. As Martin Esteva, our Lighting Designer, illuminated the crucifix [the engineering of which took three days to solve] in the chiaroscuro as that of a classical painting, Deana Aquino, the choreographer, was blocking to include the Pieta or the Angustia as the final tableau that closes the show. Our director, Michael Williams saw it fit to end with a traditional image, so to speak. I felt it was his way of setting a counterpoint to a rock opera that was outside the usual christian mold of what is perhaps the greatest story ever told.

As I was watching this tableau take final form, I began to count the women/female actors that were part of the scene: we had four. One was assigned to be Mary the Mother of Jesus [never really a character written in the show ], then there was Mary Magdalene [the only female part as far as Llloyd Webber and Rice were concerned], and two more. And then I went, “Oh My God, Tita Deana! This is so correct. There's Mary the Mother of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, Mary Salome his aunt, and Mary the Wife of Cleophas!” [ yeah, I know...that's a whole lot of Marys...trust me, that's where most of the biblical scholars, iconographers, and martyrologists get confused]

To which Tita Deana responds with, “Oo naman, Niki.” and a look on her face that assured us that this was the ending we were going for. Of course, that final image has been represented in western and Christian Art for the past two millennia and have been immortalized by Michaelangelo's marble masterpiece “The Pieta” and the many Hispanic variations of the "Angustia" that are taken out in procession for Holy Week in the archipelago.

Even the progression of the image of Jesus Christ from an 'everyman' in a white shirt and beige slacks, to the iconic image of him in the long white tunic, until the draped loincloth upon his death was intentional. Michael saw it fit, that as Jesus comes closer to his death the more will he look like the Jesus seen in western art. He and only he will regress from the modern into the first century.

Going back to the final tableau, who won't be able to identify with a mother cradling the body of his dead son? Because that's where it ends for Jesus Christ Superstar, brutally at his death on the cross. No resurrection, no stone rolling away, no blinding light, no angel and some neatly folded linen at the corner of a sarcophagus... just a dead man in his mother's arms. Perhaps Michael had to allow this final image as a counterpoint to the treatment of the material of this rock opera to infer what two thousand years of Christianity has done with the Jesus story.

When Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice first toyed with the idea of Jesus Christ Superstar, they went against tradition by telling the greatest story ever told from the point of view of Judas Iscariot. The whole thing started out just as double disc album recorded on a 45rpm disc [yes kids, this was way before CD players and i-pods and download-able music ] but the record sales were phenomenal and the album topped the LP charts, specifically in the United States that soon enough, it led to a few concert versions and later a full theatrical staging in New York's Mark Hellinger Theater in October 1971 and in London's West End at the Palace Theater in August 1972. And up until today, JSC holds its own as one of the first longest running shows on the West End boasting 3,358 performances. Crossing into another aspect of popular media, Superstar assumed it's most popular version, a film in 1976 directed by Norman Jewison -infinitely better than the 1999-2000 version which felt so contrived with a Jesus that looked like the love child of Michael Bolton and the vocalist for Simply Red.

Jesus Christ Superstar, from my deduction is a product of the post-modernist world, of a thriving secularist milieu in the wake of two world wars, the wild-child awakening fostered by the 1960s, and the disillusioned zeitgeist glossed over by the glitz of the 1970s when the stage versions reached the boards. There was even a comment that the first staging felt like it was “part Hair- part Godspell – part kitchen sink.” In simpler terms, throwing everything in to the already epic musical score that told the story.

Earlier in the rehearsal process, Michael Williams had envisioned JCS outside the mold of the Christian Psyche. Something that a Jesuit educated scholar and advocate of the Christian Religious Arts such as I, find very difficult. There are some things engrained in my system too deep, give or take my displeasure at certain practices advocated by established religion. I remember a conversation with Michael and Chino Veguillas [the assistant director] regarding the controversial deconstruction of Jesus Christ in the rock opera. To which Michael reverts to the core aspect of the modern theater: to rock the establishment [get it?] and to rattle the status quo. Something that Jesus Christ himself, during his time did, which echoes to this day. Michael would then insist that whatever happened to Christianity after the time of Jesus, it was still about one man, the man who went through all of that two thousand years ago; and that human dimension of Jesus Christ is the first thing we can all relate to.

Even if JCS was banned in some countries like South Africa, Lloyd Weber and Rice's Jesus never speaks far outside the mold of the Biblical Jesus. In fact, Rice's lyrics use mostly Biblical content in his lyrics. When Jesus sings “If your slate is clean, then you can throw stones” [Strange Thing Mystifying] is a mere lyrical equivalent to “Let he among you who has not sinned cast the first stone.” [John 8:8] and his response to Caiaphas in Hosanna that goes “If every tongue were still the noise would still continue, the rocks and stones themselves would start to sing!” is in reference to Luke 19:40 “I tell you, if they keep silent, the very stones will cry out!”

Yet Lloyd Weber and Rice gave us a Jesus within the confines of a human body, a man subject to human emotions, of grave doubt, and the obvious physical suffering he is to endure while he sings his entire agony in Gethsemane. Add to that, the key players in the Jesus story are given new dimension as they are not portrayed as singular track characters immediately good or evil, but rather characters faced with dilemmas close to our own. At the very heart of JCS' storytelling is Judas' consistent fear of things getting out of hand as he sings the opening number “Heaven on Their Minds”, Mary Magdalene's struggle with the love she bears -a love she is not familiar with in the moving “I Don't Know How to Love Him”, even the Basso-profundo musings of the Priests reflect the shaken established order in “This Jesus Must Die”, and Pilate -who in infamy made Jesus Christ suffer as is uttered in the Nicean Creed is perturbed by balancing duty and human mercy in both “Pilate's Dream” and the debate between him and Jesus Christ in “Trial Before Pilate”

Having mentioned Mary Magdalene, if one studies her character as written in JCS, she is but a remnant of the confusion between three women in the Bible. Particularly: Mary of Magdala -who Jesus Christ healed of the seven demons that afflicted her, The Unnamed Sinner in the gospel according to Luke, and Mary of Bethany -sister to Martha and Lazarus, another one who anointed Jesus Christ with the precious ointment and used her hair to wipe his feet. This confusion stems from a theological deduction made by Pope Gregory VI during a sermon a few centuries ago . Trust me, it's been tough to explain that to a few old dogs now that I take out a processional image of Saint Mary of Bethany for Holy Week for a few years now. The title “penitent” has been removed from Mary Magdalene way back in the 1960s yet this particular interpretation of her still exists and made it to JCS. But the very hinge that adds to JCS' reputation for being controversial is the song “I Don't Know How to Love Him”. Suggestive as it is moving, it follows something that I follow when creating characters.

In Play Development Class, my Professor once reminded me of something that Goethe said, “There is no art in turning a goddess into a witch, a virgin into a whore; but the opposite operation, to give dignity to what has been scorned, to make the degraded desirable, that calls either for art or for character.” Some people say Mary Magdalene's cultus was so powerful in the early days of mainstream Christianity, that she was painted as a woman of ill repute by way of the synoptics to reinforce the dominance of male figureheads in the leadership of the early Christian church. Okay, I'm rambling on again... forgive me.

All these characters you seem to sympathize with, most especially Judas. I guess as Filipinos, we are used to the stereotype of Judas with a face that resembles character actor and true-life pain in the butt Rez Cortez [dipping his nose into Philippine politics where he has no business to begin with], bearded and sinister. In fact, in my ancestral province, we burn a 13 foot effigy of Judas Iscariot on the night of Black Saturday. Poor man, it's not enough that we forever remember him as the ultimate traitor, and literature has him seated by the side of Satan in the 7th circle of Hell as described in Dante Alighieri's Inferno, we still mock him by burning him every year. Then again as the cliché goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions; and JCS explores Judas' intentions with the degree of love and loyalty an apostle would. His intentions, noble as they seem, never did merge with the Messiah's resolve to do his father's will. Thus they take two roads, one by the noose, another by his cross.

Yet, the creators of this rock opera were not without their sense of humor. King Herod's song was not only a reflection of the musical range displayed by Lloyd Weber by his use of a Charleston beat, it was a creatively comical foil to the other antagonists and their musical leitmotif. In the serious tone of the Last Supper, the lyrics “Then when we retire we can write the gospel so they'll still talk about us when we die.” the Apostles not only reveal their shallow expectations and understanding of Christ's situation, but Tim Rice seemed intent on foreshadowing the absence of the majority of them in the last hours of Jesus' life. Well, so much for their retirement. If one followed the story of the Apostles, almost all of them were martyred. Some had their heads cut off, some were sawed in half, some were skinned alive, and some were also crucified.

The theme Superstar, the most recognizable of all the leitmotifs in this rock opera, is as moving to me today as it was when I first heard it as a child blasting off my late father's hi-fi. Yet the lyrics that Judas sings when it turns into the final paean, utters not only praise but also asks very important questions:

“Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ!
Who are you, what have you sacrificed?
Jesus Christ Superstar
Do you think you're what they say you are?”

Timely questions... At this day and age when Palestine is still divided as it was in Jesus' time, when the Holy Land he left behind is always at the brink of turmoil -if not already in it, when many holy wars have been and still are fought, when many have died because “God/Allah wills it” crusade after crusade, after such a thing as the Holy Inquisition, Schisms, Reformation and Counter-Reformation, World Wars, Antisemitism, Genocide, Secularism, Communism, Apartheid, Disenfranchisement, and even just plain jadedness. Is Jesus still a timely or significant figure in a world that seems to have no more time and place for him? Why come at a time such as then with so limited exposure for him? Was it worth it, to be beaten, scourged, and crucified? What will he say should he find himself among us today?

There's nothing irreligious about what the JCS' Judas was asking. I think the real Judas Iscariot would like the chance to ask him those questions. If not for anything else, and with no intention to be preachy about it, Superstar -in essence- captures the encompassing doubt and/or questioning that leads to some degree of enlightenment about the Jesus Christ one knows or is familiar with.

Now, before this turns into one of my over-analyzed postings, time to shift...

They say in the practice of the theater, everything is “build and destroy”. After the curtain falls dark on the last show and the sets are torn down, all you have is that one brief shining moment that you look back to when you have triumphed on the boards. But there are shows that stay with you, and earn a special place in your heart; where in memory it stays golden.

Our student cast was amazing. In this production, there was a boy, no more than 17, that seemed to me the most unlikely Christ figure that proved me wrong. There was a Judas that looked like a cliched Jewish accountant whom I enjoyed having intellectual discussions with, another Judas I had the sick pleasure of pushing around all in the spirit of fun, three Mary Magdalenes that grew into their own, a Caiaphas with hip-hop hand movements, a consistent Annas, an admirable Pilate, one hardworking boy that earned the monicker Pepiter, a Herod that does splits and steals the show, a tireless and often overwhelmingly stressful chorus [yes, you know who you are], and the band to which no words apply but applause.

So, who was it that said we could not pull it off?


thus spake the Barefoot Baklesa

1 comment:

Brian Maestro said...

Beautifully written. And we were just talking about this last night.

I wish I had seen it.