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Hi. My name's Phil and I love musicals.
There, I said it.
My dad is a music teacher, organist, musical comedy society musical director and loves staging shows. At school I'd always be subjected to whatever show he was arranging, and this is where my love of musicals stems from. However, it's more mainstream shows such as Cats and Les Mis and Starlight Express, and Jesus Christ Superstar has always taken a sort of back seat. I've vaguely been aware of some of the music, particularly since seeing Steve Balsamo's rendition of Gethsemane on a late 1990s Royal Variety Performance and having a musicals compilation CD with an earlier version of I Don't Know How To Love Him.
I tried to watch a video - not the 1973 Ted Neeley (what a voice) version but a more up to date one - about 12 years ago and just couldn't get into it; so when I saw this stage filmed version with Tim Minchin, Ben Forster, Mel C and Chris Moyles in it, the cast drew my interest more than the rock opera itself.
Jesus Christ Superstar is a rock opera, written by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. As opposed to We Will Rock You and Rock of Ages, which each create a story around the music of Queen and 80s rock classics respectively, JCS is an original rock opera, with the tale and music written for each other. It is based (somewhat loosely) on the Gospels leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus, focusing mainly on the relationship between Jesus and Judas, his supposed best friend. We're introduced to Minchin as Judas first of all, his high Australian twangy tenor, long ginger hair and heavy eye makeup his trademark and also a fitting match for a rock version of Judas. The music is good, definitely rocky, as he opens with Heaven on their Minds, although after the company's ensuing What's That Buzz, I found that there is a lot of storytelling and spoken singing and it punctuates the music to the point where it all blends into one.
My frustration with the rock opera certainly seems to be more to do with the writing and not the performing. It's perfectly okay to like part of a performance, play, musical, film or album, and I think I'm more destined to this sort of category. There's no denying the clever storytelling, as Judas and Mary Magdalene (Mel C) clash horribly as he tries to persuade Jesus that associating himself with someone of her ill repute is bad news for him; and Jesus and Mary's tussle with their evident love for each other. There a spark of the illicit romance that you'd see in Phantom of the Opera here as well, and the telling of the story tries to pull at the heartstrings. Without previously recognisable music though, there's a danger that the music and heavier rock instrumentals distract from the lyrics and the tale is somewhat lost.
For me, this is notable for a few stand out moments. Minchin has his moments, and Mel C's rendition of Everything's Alright alongside Ben Forster's Jesus is beautifully done. The main part for me though is the central focal point of the show, and that is Jesus' conversation with God in the Garden of Gethsemane, where he realises he has done everything he can and gets angry with God. The song is contemplative, and perhaps most notable for the solo element to it, how Jesus' realisation that he cannot defy God's will. Forster acts this magnificently, and the song never fails to send tingles down my spine. Balsamo's version will always stay strongly in mind as it is the first I heard; Neeley's is the most famous; but Forster belts out the high notes with impressive power and throws so much emotion into the song that the standing ovation after the final drawn out note is clearly deserved. It's worth watching just for this.
At the end of the performance, as Minchin and Forster quite rightly share the final bow, Webber comes out onto stage and thanks a few people, as has become customary with many of his filmed performances which are then released on DVD. You never forget that the performance is on stage, as there are ample panning shots of the arena and plenty of audience noise as well. Laughter and applause are frequently heard, none moreso than when popular public figure and ex Radio 1 DJ Chris Moyles appears briefly as Herod.
In terms of extras, you'll get some interesting behind the scenes stuff if you're interested in that sort of thing. I'd say it's useful for anyone interested in the design or production element of something as big as this; you certainly get a feel for how much work has to be put into a show of this magnitude. Mark Fisher's set design and the essential pinpoint timing before, during and after the performance are highlighted, as is the work of Patrick Woodruffe and the lighting crew. One of the things I think it's important to see if just how much goes into a live production like this; how everything is reliant on things running as smooth as clockwork. It's not just the actors who have to remember their lines and lyrics and not put a note wrong; it's also those behind the scenes who have to press the right buttons and move the right dials, etc, that makes this run smoothly. There are no extra takes live on stage.
All in all, the £5 or so this will cost you from amazon is worth it for a number of reasons. The tale is good, although the aggression and weight of some of the music can deafen the story at times. There are clear highlights, and some interesting extras content. Not my favourite musical, but it certainly has its spine tingling moments. Recommended.