Considering that I’ve already written reviews on the 25th anniversary concert performances of The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, it was only a matter of time before I got around to penning some thoughts on the Blu-ray of the recent arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar that marked the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice musical’s 40th birthday.
It’s nice to finally have a visual recording of an actual performance of the show. The existing video releases have been of the 1973 Norman Jewison-directed motion picture (much criticised at the time but which has since become something of classic and the benchmark for how the show first appeared, thanks not least to it being the only video of the show available for 25 years) and a curious 2000 video release which is neither fish nor fowl, being the stage cast of the late-90s Broadway revival but filmed on a closed soundstage miming to pre-recorded singing; that means it features arguably the best vocal and acting performances, but also has an uneasy, mannered and somewhat airless artificial feel. Things are not helped by the music being turned down too low on the soundtrack and a Judas painted as an irretrievably black-hearted villain from the start.
By contrast, this latest DVD/Blu-ray release is firmly of a live recording: not of a theatre production but rather of the arena rock show that toured huge venues in 2012 after casting its title character via an ITV reality show. Both these aspects will have prejudiced many people against it, and it’s certainly true that filming a live performance in front of tens of thousands of people is bound to result in some compromises. The biggest problem this production faces is the stunt casting, since trying to sell out a massive event means that all the four major roles need to be played by big names with crowd-pulling appeal; apparently there’s a lot of ‘auto-tuning’ been done to bring some of the vocal performances up to scratch, but we’ll leave that aside and just treat the end result as-is.
The biggest of the stars is Tim Minchin as Judas, and as you’d expect from an established singer and stage performer he’s really rather excellent, bringing with him the tortured uncertainty – the simultaneous flux of love, faith, doubt and hatred he has for Jesus – that the role really needs to work. More surprising is former Spice Girl Melanie Chisholm as Mary; while it’s true that the role normally goes to performers with a purer, more angelic tone, Mel C’s somewhat earthy performance is actually really rather effective and still entirely appropriate given the nature of her character, as she goes first and foremost for the drama and emotion of the moment rather than the isolated clarity of the notes.
The one-scene cameo of Herod is another part by which all productions of Jesus Christ Superstar are invariably judged, and which invariably suffers most from stunt casting. Here it’s the now-svelte former BBC Radio 1 breakfast DJ Chris Moyles, and he’s … Fine. I know he’s been heavily criticised but I thought he pulled it off acceptably, not least thanks to a production that plays to his strengths as a performer (Herod’s presented as a vain, gaudy talk/game show host playing to the cameras.) I’ve seen considerably worse: check out the aforementioned 2000 release for Rik Mayall’s attempt at the role, which is painfully dreadful on every level.
And then there’s Jesus himself, the role won by newcomer Ben Forster in the reality show that served as the main PR effort for the arena tour. One of the dirty little secrets about Jesus Christ Superstar is that the titular role isn’t actually the starring one: although rarely off stage, Jesus doesn’t actually get to do very much for two thirds of the show and is left reacting to others such as Judas, Mary and Pilate having their bravura turns in the spotlight. This can make the actor playing the part look rather weak and passive – Ted Neeley was much criticised for it in the 1973 film and even Glenn Carter didn’t escape criticism for the 2000 version. Alas, I think it’s fair to say that ‘reactive acting’ on stage is not Forster’s strong point and unfortunately he does look rather wooden for large stretches of the running time; but once his moment kicks in (which is pretty much from “The Last Supper” onwards) then his performance goes up several notches. In particular I’d say that he hits it out of the park on both vocal and dramatic levels with “Gethsemane.”
Overall, then, the ‘stunt casting’ works much better than I’d expected/feared coming in. And actually, so too does the reinvention of the show as an arena rock concert. For sure it will aggravate those who like the subtleties of a proper stage musical – especially fans of the 90s revival, which was done in a very low-key, realistic manner – but it’s arguably closer in style to the original intent of the 1970s production which was big and loud and brash and raucous, initially staged on what was a huge disco floor underlit with bright flashing primary colours. In many ways the arena tour allows the show to once again become what it always intended to be – a big, loud 70s rock show rather than a mannered, artistic theatrical performance competing with the likes of The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables.
But it won’t be to everyone’s taste by any means, and I can understand that. It’s been updated for today using some obvious and frankly rather trite gimmicks such as setting it against the backdrop of the recent Occupy anti-capitalism street protests, with the Jewish high priests recast as bankers in sharp suits, Pilate as a High Court judge and the Roman soldiers now dressed as riot police. It’s not really any different from the sort of reimagining that is routinely carried out on classic traditional operas, but the problem with trying to be so very ‘in the moment’ is that by the time you’re done you already look just a little bit dated.
Still, it produces some nice moments: the video wall backdrop is used to carry TV news bulletins, newspaper headlines, SMS texts, social media messages and CCTV surveillance footage, the latter used most memorably as it captures a furtive Judas on his way to a meeting with Caiaphas that had previously been deftly signalled by the surreptitious use of mobile phones. A modern-day invasive press is used to fire questions at a handcuffed Jesus as he’s perp-walked away by the police, live footage from their cameras being relayed to the video wall at the back to give both a sense of authentic reportage and also an in-your-face intimacy usually lacking from shows in such overpoweringly vast auditoria.
Surprisingly given the mainstream family appeal you’d expect the production to be going for, the show doesn’t shirk from the nastier, gorier parts of the original staging or flinch from a single one of the 39 lashes or from a tortured and bloody climax. Overall the staging is confined to one basic set, a huge flight of stairs with just a few retractable sections, but that’s a result of this being an actual show on the road with an overriding need to be able to strike the set at the end of its stay and get to the next mega-venue in time to be up again for the next performance.
Are there things that could be done better? Yes, without a doubt. But overall it’s pretty sound throughout, and it’s certainly earned its place without embarrassment among the other versions available of the show. The Blu-ray recording is fine without being particularly eye-catching: there’s none of the gorgeous costumes and set design that we got in the 25th anniversary stagings of The Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables to make the high definition really pop, but there’s no faults with either the sound or the vision that I noticed, either. If you want that in ‘stars out of five’ then I’ll give it a robust three, and a recommendation that you give it a try (with expectations set to ‘medium’). However much you might like to listen to and savour the peerless original cast recordings, it’s important to also see the show every now and then in order to reunite the music with the dramatic performances and be reminded of the true content of the show.
This 2012 release’s biggest strength is that the live arena performance recaptures some of the big, high-energy, brash live swagger of the original show that was lost in the high-quality but down-beat realism of the late 90s revival that unwisely sought to capture the show in reverential aspic and which made the 2000 recording such an impressive yet oddly joyless experience. The 1973 film probably remains the best – or at least most widely-accepted – screen version to date, but it always did feel a little odd and awkward even before the 70s vibe to it became increasingly distracting.
This arena production won’t have anything like the longevity of that film and already feels a touch dated, but it’ll do for a enjoyable short while at the very least.