September 19, 2018

Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert Sets New Standards for Live Theater Productions

Ryan Cox ’18

A&E Staff

Many Christians and theater-lovers alike wrapped up their Easter celebrations with NBC’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar Live, which starred John Legend as Jesus and Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene. The acclaimed musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice tells the story of Jesus Christ, beginning with the Apostles’ first following him, briefly touching upon his ministry, and concluding with the Last Supper and Crucifixion.

Jesus Christ Superstar is the latest production in a trend of live musical productions aired on the major television networks. This trend has included The Sound of Music, starring Carrie Underwood as Maria von Trapp, Grease! featuring Vanessa Hudgens, and Hairspray featuring Disney star Dove Cameron and former popstar Ariana Grande.

Star-studded casting has been a hallmark of all of these live productions as it helps to draw attention to the production and drive up viewership. However, this move has been criticized for the risk in trying to turn pop artists into Broadway-grade actors. 

This time, it seemed as though critics viewed the star-studded casting more positively. Vanity Fair wrote, “stunt casting is by now a staple of these events…Legend is a relative newcomer to the world of musical theater, but…even at rehearsal, he was already putting his stamp on Jesus’s vocals.” 

On Easter night, Legend’s performance exceeded expectations. Despite being more of a high baritone and Jesus being written for a tenor, Legend’s smooth, rich timbre fits the music surprisingly well. His acting seemed a little rocky at first, but owned the role by the crucifixion at the end, playing it poignantly and dramatically. 

Bareilles seemed made for Mary Magdalene’s role. Her solos, including “Everything’s Alright” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” sit in a perfect register for her. That, combined with the vulnerability and calmness in her voice, made her performance exceptional. Bareilles seemed natural on the stage, due to her successful run starring in Waitress: the Musical.

Rock icon Alice Cooper made an appearance at the end of the show as King Herod. Visually, Cooper was a great selection for Herod, considering the show’s goth/punk set and costume design. However, his acting felt dry and unconnected. This is perhaps rightfully so, considering the character he was playing, but it was difficult to tell if he was playing himself or playing Herod.

Despite what seems to be a hit-or-miss trend in producing these live TV musicals, they cater to a wide audience. There is a unique merit to staging these shows live so as to convey the excitement and unpredictability of a live musical. It makes Broadway theatre more easily accessible to those who cannot afford to travel to New York City or are not near a touring stop. After all, if you cannot bring people to the theater, bring theatre to the people. 

There is no confirmation yet on any upcoming projects, but if the generally positive feedback is to be a gauge for the success of this trend, these kinds of productions have a bright future ahead.

John Legend stars as Jesus Christ in the NBC production of Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert.

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