Jesus Christ Superstar, for those of you unfamiliar with this musical, was written by Broadway legends Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. It debuted in 1971. A film adaptation by Norman Jewison was made in 1973. Both were and continue to be highly successful productions, and both received mixed reviews.
To break it down, many religious groups initially felt (and from what I gather still feel) that it was a poor portrayal of Jesus Christ - particularly the aspect of his sexualization. But, there were other valid points to their argument as well, such as some of the liberties taken to move the story along. There have been various accusations that certain characters were said to have done things or said things that do not align with what was written in the scripture. While I do not know the Bible by heart, and can neither confirm, nor deny these criticisms, I wouldn't find it overly surprising to find this to be true (a point which I will address in a minute). Some felt Judas was too likeable, emotional or sympathetic, while the omission of the resurrection was thought to be sacrilegious and disrespectful. Other criticisms just felt it to be all around inappropriate - script, music, and all! It's even been banned in some parts of the world!
Now, to present the opposing case, both Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber have stated that there was no offence intended. The focus of the musical is basically how Judas sees Jesus' rise in, dare I say, popularity, and the events leading up to his death and Jesus' crucifixion. Rice also argues that they intended to showcase Jesus as a man, rather than a god-like figure, which is pretty much how Judas views Jesus (at least in the film, and from my own interpretation of this part of the Bible - which again, I'm no expert on!). Both men are members of the Church of England, but neither seem to appear overly committed to their beliefs (at least publicly), and both have produced various religious-themed works outside of the one at hand.
So, here's what I'm concluding...
I see both sides. Based on other works by these two, I don't feel that Jesus Christ Superstar was born out of ill-intent. It's an interpretation of a significant part of the Bible and the story of Jesus. I think that no matter what the depiction, selecting biblical, or perhaps religious in general, topics will always open themselves up for controversy, regardless of intent. Look at Passion of the Christ, for example (which also happens to be another of my favourites and is basically Jesus Christ Superstar, less the music and far more dark). Yes, there were other issues with that film as far as the director's beliefs and actions are concerned, but if you take that film for what it is, it is actually a really interesting portrayal of the same story. But please understand, one's religion is a very personal choice - one that is usually not decided upon on a whim. I'm not trying to undermine that. I'm merely trying to sort out whether or not this one representation of Jesus Christ is offensive.
As I mentioned before, some of the greatest critiques of the musical were related to the ways in which the storyline strayed from what the scripture states. I think there are a few liberties within the script itself, but they are perhaps the result of trying to fit a massive story into a short period of time, rather than attempting to deviate from what the scripture states. For me, as a non-believer, but with an interest to learn about various religions, it was an easily digestible way to understand the story. I have seen the the musical production a number of times, and am always amazed by the range of audience members. I've sat next to little old ladies (who were appalled by my lack of knowledge of what was going on), small children, and everyone in-between**. So, it truly is difficult to conclude whether this is a positive or negative account of Jesus.
Yet to further my argument that it isn't necessarily inappropriate, I feel it's also a reflection of how many religious organizations celebrate the life of Jesus and their belief in God. I'm not saying that all Christians jump up and down, dance, and/or belt out hymns, but I have witnessed many instances where this was the case. My time in Ghana for one, placed me in what I felt to be quite exuberant celebrations of their faith, sometimes to the point of being uncomfortable (throwback to the gyrating and pelvic thrusts I encountered that one time...). However, this was not exclusive to my experiences with church services in Ghana, nor is it fully representative of ALL of my church-going experiences in that country. Sure, I've seen boisterous services even in Canada. Not in Europe though... everything here seems to be pretty low-key, and conservative. My point being, that although some may have found the dancing and music of this production to be inappropriate, it may only be because of their own interpretation of how to properly show appreciation for their beliefs - their god.
The second part of my friend's questioning of the film was with the word "superstar" in relation to the description of Jesus. For me, Jesus as a "superstar" is more so the emphasis of how his followers held such adoration for him (not unlike the celebrity culture we see today...well...a toned down version, I suppose), while Judas saw him as no more than a fellow human. Based on how he is described, even today, he is somewhat of a superstar - whether that's the right word or not. But really, Jesus in all of his visual interpretations and descriptions, is easily one of the most recognizable figures in human history. And like I said above, any time a religious figure is questioned, portrayed, or represented, it is almost always guaranteed to be the subject of criticism and controversy.
Therefore, I am concluding that Jesus Christ Superstar is a very liberal interpretation of the weeks leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus. It wasn't created to offend. It wasn't created as a means to degrade the religion or its believers. It's a form of art. So, while some may find this to be extremely controversial, others see it as a celebration of their God - their faith. There's lots more I could probably say, particularly about the deviation from the scripture and the omission of the the resurrection, but, even that is a topic of much debate. While some don't feel that it is part of the film, others, including myself, feel it has actually been included... it just really depends on how you see it.
So, now that I've exhausted myself trying to answer this question, I'd like to wish my friends, family and readers where ever you are in the world a Happy Easter! I'll leave you with two clips from the film***. The first of which is one of my favourite songs from the musical, sung by Carl Anderson (*swoon*) as Judas (my dream role, for the record!!). The second is a tad bit more controversial, but I'm posting it for my pal 'B-dubs' who shares a mutual love of this film. I know she really likes the ending part where Ted Neeley (who plays Jesus) really gives it! Please note, I have no copyright ownership to either of these clips.
-the Orange Canadian
*It's really hard to concentrate on writing essays about climate change and urban poverty when you have the sweet, sweet jams of Ted Neeley and Carl Anderson flowing through your head!
**Now, I don't know that I'd recommend allowing a child to see it, but to each their own!
***It was truly difficult to decide which ones to include! Check out the film or soundtrack to hear more!