Friday, January 28, 2011

Jesus Christ Superstar - Part 2 (The Plot, Part 1)

Before I discuss the actual show, I should probably summarise the plot. Too many times one sees arguments, debates or theories made when it is clear that the participants do not agree on what they are arguing about or the reader is unaware of this matter. Without this knowledge it is wholly unwise to enter into a debate or expound a theory though of course it is valid to disagree about the basis of any knowledge presented.

So, Jesus Christ Superstar has a number of characters. The principal protagonist is Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of our Lord. The principal antagonist, of course, is Jesus Himself. Then there are the other apostles, the priests, the Roman guard, Pontius Pilate and a support crew who variously play the poor, those who are sick and the crowds. In Jesus Christ Superstar, Mary Magdalene is given what I would term a major-minor role. Given that this is meant to be a plot summary as opposed to an analysis I will not discuss this role yet.

In the beginning are words but these words are the words of Judas. He is complaining to Jesus that they are “getting much too loud” and that Jesus’ followers are “blind” because they have too much “heaven on their mind”. It is a succinct and powerful way to paint a picture of what has happened without actually having to show it being played out. Jesus uses no words to respond although it is clear by His facial expressions and the interaction with Judas that He’s fed up with hearing it.

The next scene has the apostles asking “What’s the buzz?” The words and questioning are rhythmic but it is clear that they are sung with a contemporary (for the 1960s) tone. There are no “thees” and no “thous”. They do not elevate Jesus to a divine being unless the plot requires it. In between Jesus berating the disciples for worrying too much about the future and being too ready for fighting, he says they should go back to fishing. It is here we meet Mary Magdalene.

Mary begins to minister to Jesus in an almost sensual, provocative way. Remembering that her actual profession is a prostitute, Judas wonders why Jesus lets her do this. Judas is worried that this will attract attention from the authorities and claims he is not bothered by her profession. He claims that “she doesn’t fit in well with what you [Jesus] teach and say.” This prompts Jesus’ first outburst. He shouts at Judas and asks him “[w]ho are you to criticise her?” He then goads the others to “throw stones” but only if their “slate is clean”. He states they are all ‘shallow, thick and slow’ and that they do not care if He comes or goes. All but Judas contradicts this last accusation but Jesus emphasis that not one of them do.

I must say I love the next scene and song. Mary, who alone understands what Jesus needs, is trying to calm Him down. Realising that He is all too human she ministers cooling water and ointment to Him reassuring Him that “everything’s alright” and the “world can turn without [him] tonight.” Judas, though, says that using the ointment to soothe Jesus is wasteful and “should have been saved for the poor.” Turning to Jesus, Judas claims that the poor, the starving and hungry need this money more than Jesus needs the anointment. Jesus responds that there will “always be poor, pathetically struggling” and they should take stock of the good things they have. He then boldly states that they will be “so so sorry when [he’s] gone.” Mary takes the oil back from Judas who looks suitably annoyed and continues to minister to Jesus who finally falls back to sleep.

In the temple Caiaphas has called a meeting of the council. As High Priest he is concerned that this Jesus will overturn the established order and cannot understand how Jesus is so popular despite the lack of riots, mobbing or slogans. He senses prophetically that their position will be eliminated “because of one man.” The other priests cannot figure out what to do since Jesus was “bigger than John when John did his Baptism thing.” Caiaphas - who says the other priests are fools - says that “like John before him, this Jesus must die.” Perhaps because of Caiaphas’ high position they wholeheartedly agree with him and each other.

In the next scene there is a huge crowd but they are singing a celebration. Jesus has arrived at Jerusalem and in childlike joy they are greeting Jesus with a stylised version of “Hosanna”. Caiaphas, on the other hand, is not too impressed. He tries to silence the crowd but Jesus retorts that even if the crowd fell silent “the rocks and stones themselves would start to sing.”

Meanwhile, the crowd’s song has turned from childlike joy to a call for Jesus to fight for them. The musical moves into a new number where Simon Zealotes is encouraging Jesus to start a more military-like campaign. He claims there must be more than fifty thousand and that they are as strong as the Roman occupiers of the land. The crowds are joyfully singing their love for Jesus and claim they believe in Him and God. They clearly believe that Jesus can save them even by a touch or a kiss.

Jesus is having none of this call to arms and turns to the crowds and tells them all they do not understand what power or glory is. He implies that he knows Jerusalem is doomed and that the only way to overcome death is to actually die.

Pontius Pilate has had a dream. He has dreamed he has met a Galilean who was a very strange man who refused to answer his questions even though Pontius was the Emperor’s own representative on earth. He foresees “thousands of millions” calling for this man’s execution and foresees that they will name and blame him.

The next day Jesus is at the Temple, the place where God Himself might come down in a cloud to address His chosen people. Yet, Jesus encounters merchants selling all types of goods including wine, birds and even selling bets on cock fights. He sees money lenders peddling their services and then He becomes angry and throws all these people out singing “[m]y house should be a house of prayer but you have made it a den of thieves!”

After this, flocks of poor people, sick people, lame people and the downtrodden are tracking down Jesus to be healed. They clearly believe a touch or kiss from Jesus could mend all their ailments. However, Jesus, being crowded and pushed by these downtrodden people yells at them, “Heal yourselves!”

To be continued...

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