Jesus Christ Superstar: Consistency v. Interpretation

Recently I got the song “There’s No Cure like Travel” from Anything Goes stuck in my head. Maybe it was because I’d talked to someone about how I’d forgotten all my French but still understood the french in that song (admittedly they are preceded by their direct translations): “By the seashore, you mean sur le plage…” After a few days of restlessly singing the song on my walk home, unable to get it out of my head, I went to YouTube and listened to it and to a few of the other highlights of the show. Then, motivated by similar memory and the quest for other good music, I turned to Jesus Christ Superstar only to find my taste had radically changed. Not that I don’t still love Jesus Christ Superstar (I do). Only now my preference in Youtube videos was the reverse of what they’d been only a few years prior.

I was first introduced to Jesus Christ Superstar when a summer theater program I was a part of during High School announced it as it’s show (the same program had the previous year put Anything Goes). People were pretty psyched, but I didn’t know the show so it meant nothing to me. As a general rule on the first day of rehearsals our director would list out all the famous versions of whichever musical we did and then ask us not to watch them so we weren’t tempted to steal from the acting choices of previous iterations. Even so, elements of previous productions bled in. One simple, easy example comes from a line in the 1973 version of “This Jesus Must Die” our director cited. “One thing I’ll say for him, Jesus is cool,” growls one of the priests. “I hate that line,” muttered our director before changing it out for the line used in the 2000 version (“Infantile sermons, the multitudes drool”).

Needless to say I absolutely loved the show. It was the first musical we ever did that was truly radically different. Don’t get me wrong, I listened to a cast recording of My Fair Lady every night while I was going to bed for about four years, but I had never known musicals could be “rock operas”. Besides, it was an awesome retelling of a story I knew super well, which humanized and rationalized a lot of characters (Judas, the Priests, Pilate) without ever stripping away the message of what Jesus did. It had a song called “This Jesus Must Die” in it! That’s awesome. And, needless to say, I pretty quickly broke my promise to not watch the movies. I’d often go home after rehearsal and pull up “This Jesus Must Die” on Youtube. There are two versions on Youtube, easy to find: the 1973 and the 2000 version. I watched the 2000 version. Nice. Dug it. Good, sang gorgeously, pretty cool set, pretty similar to our staged version in all honesty. Then I watched the 1973 version and was like: what the hell is this?

Not only did it not look anything like our stage version, it didn’t sound anything like it either. The actors consistently sang with their own interpretation of the tempo and melody. The Annas didn’t sing nearly as high as I’d been led to believe he should (must!). It had the hated “This Jesus is cool” line. All and all, it felt wrong to me, because it wasn’t the version I knew, the version I assumed was the right version. Watching other individual snippets of the 1973 made me feel similarly – the actors were all making bold choices, but they weren’t bold choices I recognized or liked. Commentators on Youtube were equally polarized: many claimed the fans of the 1973 had simply been raised on it, so were blind to the charm of the 2000 version, and the fans of the 1973 version simply dismissed the 2000 version as a whole. A few comments suggested it was a matter of personal taste and were decried by both camps.

But as I said at the beginning of this article, I ended up swapping my tastes. Rewatching clips, I found the 2000 version… bizarre, in nearly every way. It looked a lot like a stage version and absolutely nothing like a movie. The performances also looked pulled directly from the stage. The 1973 version, conversely, felt more radical and in line with what movies can do. The actors make some out there decisions. The sets, costumes, and anachronisms are outlandish and thrilling. But the 1973 version has a lot of issues too. It’s swinging for the fences in a way I now appreciate more, but if I knew less about movies or was more slavishly devoted to the stage I might have problems with it, I imagine. Hell, I still have some problems with it.

Jesus Christ Superstar is an particularly good prism through which to investigate the ideas of “fidelity” and “interpretation”. It was originally conceived and produced as a concept album before moving to the stage before moving to film. On a personal level, I have never consumed it in the way it was meant to be consumed. I was in it, but have never seen a production. I have watched Youtube clips, but that wasn’t the way either movie version was originally intended to be viewed. I’ve listened to clips of the original 1970 record, but never listened to that all the way through either, and preferred for a short stint in college a 2012 Brazil production’s recording instead.

Beyond that, musicals and movies are created with different levels of finality. Movies are one and done, whereas musicals are meant to be produced again and again in different iterations. As I said the last time we discussed adaptation it’s difficult to change things enough to warrant an adaptation while keeping things similar enough that people recognize the source material. It’s even more difficult when there isn’t any one strict “source material”. In movies remakes are often scorned, especially if they adhere too closely or differentiate too radically from the original. A shot-for-shot remake of Psycho? No thank you. Musicals, on the otherhand, are a mere template expected to be reproduced over and over again, essentially “shot for shot” but with different visions, different interpretations of the same material over and over again. The two Jesus Christ Superstars are staged and acted absurdly differently, and while I now prefer the one that looks and feels like a daring movie as opposed to the one that looks like they only had the money for one set, I still appreciate parts of the 2000 version.

In the same conversation in which I was discussing my lost French ability I also discussed the Grammy’s, and how intrigued I am by the breakdown of best song as opposed to best album, joking about how we could hold the Oscar’s in a similar way: best scene from a western, best american accent from a British actor, etc. (those are both terrible examples, I admit). But maybe it’s not a joke. Maybe it’s okay to view movies both holistically and to break them down into itty bitty pieces and to assess them both ways, and to enjoy both equally weird versions of Herod’s Song that have been committed to film.

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