When I saw Hamilton on Broadway a couple of years ago, I was accompanied by my niece. By then I knew the entire score almost by heart, but my niece had never listened to it and was experiencing it from an entirely fresh perspective. One of her first comments afterwards was, “Wow, it’s called Hamilton, but Aaron Burr got all the best songs.”
It does seem that sometimes the villains—or at least, antagonists—in musicals get the best songs.
Such is the case with Judas Iscariot in Jesus Christ Superstar. Not only does he get some of the best songs, he sings the title song that brings the house down every time.
My history with both the show and movie of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera (which began as a concept album not unlike The Who’s Tommy) is kind of funny. Jesus Christ Superstar was the first Broadway show I ever attended. From the first appearance of Judas singing “Heaven on Their Minds” on that stage, the music has continually wowed me every time I hear it.
Soon after I saw the show, our temple was having a raffle drive. They got all the kids in Sunday and Hebrew school to sell raffle tickets. If you sold a whole book of tickets, they would get you any vinyl LP you wanted.
Yep. I did it. I asked for Jesus Christ Superstar. In fact, one of my favorite childhood memories is walking into the temple vestibule and seeing a table set up with all the records won by raffle-sellers. Big as life, there was my Jesus Christ Superstar album.
The first time I saw the movie is also a funny story. During summer I attended the YWHA day camp. They took us on an overnight to Boston and promised we would attend a performance of the Boston Pops. For some reason that fell through, and they took a bunch of Jewish campers to see—you guessed it—the movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar.
The reason I thought of mentioning Hamilton in a review of Jesus Christ Superstar is because as pop culture touchstones, they have some similarities. Jesus Christ Superstar used a genre of music that some felt was inappropriate to its subject. Like Hamilton, it had diverse casting. Over time, these issues have become less and less controversial, to the point where churches present performances of the show.
I’ll be honest at the outset and say that the movie is far from my favorite version of the material. I get that director Norman Jewison was probably excited about shooting the film in Israel and wanted to get in a lot of the landscape. But it’s just—weird—to see people plonked on top of a mountain screaming songs down to oblivious people on the desert floor. Also not a huge fan of the Twyla Tharp choreography, which always impressed me as more akin to people having fits than dancing. As a nod to the time it was made in, everyone looks like a hippie, and there are army tanks, probably as a commentary to the Vietnam War era.
However, the music—and the actors, including Carl Anderson, who portrays Judas—still carry the day. (My sister and I recently had an argument about which Judas we saw on Broadway, Ben Vereen or Carl Anderson. I’m pretty certain it was Anderson.)
It’s not only the songs, but the portrayal of Judas that makes Jesus Christ Superstar so compelling. (Jesus—portrayed in the movie by Ted Neely—gets only two significant songs). The story covers the final seven days of Christ’s life. Judas lays out his fears for not only Jesus, but for their movement and people as a whole, in “Heaven on Their Minds.” He is afraid that Jesus has fallen in love with his own fame, and that it will be their downfall.
But I think there’s more complexity to it. He also seems to be jealous of the attention Jesus gives to Mary Magdalene (Yvonne Elliman) and the other apostles. He sings with nostalgia of how it was in the beginning, when there was no talk of being the son of God. He warns that one wrong move and their oppressors (the Romans) will use it to destroy them all.
It may be that Judas has a point. Jesus does seem to revel in the adoration of his followers. In the recent television version of the show, starring John Legend as Jesus, he goes into the live audience to touch and shake hands, which makes them go crazy, a beautiful use of Legend’s fame dovetailing into an important character moment.
Yet when Jesus is urged to use his fame to whip up his followers into a revolutionary force against the Romans by another one of his apostles, Simon, he firmly says no.
Judas and Simon (who during this most recent viewing I dubbed the “Centrist” and “Radical” apostles) only see Jesus as a charismatic leader, as entirely human. They are oblivious to the parts they are playing in a much wider and deeper story.
Judas within the story of Jesus Christ Superstar is a remarkable villain because he genuinely believes he is working for a greater good, even though he loves his friend. This makes it easy for the powers that be to manipulate him into betraying him. Caiaphas (Bob Bingham) and the other high priests also fear that Jesus’ popularity will lead to an uprising or the people declaring him king, bringing the wrath of Rome down on their heads.
The material has been criticized for focusing more on the political rather than spiritual aspects (for one thing, why is Judas so convinced Jesus is just a man when he must have witnessed the miracles he performed) but as a story of a friendship gone wrong when one misunderstands the other’s actions, it works magnificently.
On top of that, the music is just amazing, even close to 50 years later.