A touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar recently hit town. Despite its longevity, this early Seventies hit for the duo of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice still stirs controversy. One inevitable criticism of this particular tour stemmed from Ted Neeley’s seemingly endless reprise of his role as Jesus. Neeley, who starred in the 1973 film of the rock opera, is now 67 and arguably far too old to play a 33-year-old Christ. But the main criticism is one of even longer standing, namely, that Jesus belongs in church, not on stage.
There are two problems with this argument. The first is that, as it usually is made by conservative Christians, it tends to be cover for their real criticism, which is that the Webber-Rice Jesus is “just a man,” something that Mary Magdalene emphasizes in the Act I song, “I Just Don’t Know How to Love Him.” Tim Rice has been quoted as saying, “It happens that we don’t see Christ as God but simply the right man at the right time at the right place.” The Christian Right condemns this view, which also is emphasized by the omission of the resurrection from the story on stage.
Expanding this argument to a more general one of “leave Jesus in church where he belongs” is simply spurious. Jesus has long been on stage in ways wholly approved by conservative Christians. Consider, for example, the mystery plays of medieval England, biblical cycles performed by roving bands of amateur actors during the Middle Ages and later, and passion plays. The most famous example of the last is the epic that has been performed in Oberammergau, Germany, once a decade since 1634. Add to these live events the myriad of films featuring Christ and the list of “approved” theatrical appearances by Jesus is endless. Perhaps the film most passionately embraced by the Religious Right in recent years is Mel Gibson’s 2004 sadomasochistic “The Passion of the Christ,” which is a veritable blood bath.
A second difficulty I have with the argument that Jesus doesn’t belong on stage stems from the theatrical element inherent in the religious practices of most churches. Looked at in stage terms, preachers perform much as actors do, robing (getting into costume), climbing into the pulpit (going on stage), and holding forth (performing). The most adept and elaborate of these church-theaters tend to be those occupied by the same conservative critics decrying stage Christs. Consider the megachurches, the traveling theater of tent revivals, and the elaborate staging that backs the most strident of the rightwing televangelists. Talk about theater!
Few topics — including the Bible and Jesus — are off limits as theatrical fodder, which is as it should be — and as it should pertain to all art forms. The arts are the expressions of culture. All viewpoints deserve expression, and that inevitably leads to controversy. Controvery ought not lead to suppression, however.
(The photo shows Jesus and John from a 1900 production of the Oberammergau Passion Play.)