I'm not Religious, But I Do Believe in John Legend as Jesus Christ

On Easter Sunday (this past weekend), I celebrated the holiday in the most seasonally-appropriate way I have since I put the full lapse in my lapsed Catholicism. I colored eggs and watched NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, the one with John Legend in the title role. And you know what? It was fantastic.

I watched the 70s movie version years and years ago, in a dusty Catholic schoolroom. I remember enjoying it, a sort of hippie rock musical version of the passion play that we spent a lot of time studying. It humanized all the major players: Jesus seemed like a real, conflicted figure. Mary Magdalene wasn’t just a hanger-on chick, but a lady who believed in the cause. Pontius Pilate was a judge stuck in an impossible situation (I mean, still a coward, but at least… a person with motivations). And then there’s Judas. Mysterious, mercurial Judas. Judas, who betrays Jesus with a kiss after conspiring with the priests. It’s all very dramatic and frankly, kind of metal.

I’m not precisely a connoisseur of stage musicals, but this recent production felt both true to the material and exciting, complete with perfect stunt casting (with Alice Cooper as King Harod!), production design that would make 90s industrial music videos proud, and these jackets on the pharisees. The whole costume and production design departments should get Tonys, as far as I’m concerned.

John Legend was great as Jesus. The scene in the garden of Gethsemane never hit me so hard as it did here, where Jesus, alone before the night of his brutal death, begs God for something to get him through (and finally finds his resolve). Sara Bareilles was a rad, compassionate Mary Magdalene. But Brandon Victor Dixon, as Judas, stole every scene he was in, with a performance that was confident, slippery, and positively captivating. It was even a little sexy, if we’re being honest.

The result was a musical that was propulsive, energetic, and poignant. More so than I remembered the film being—though again, it’s probably been twenty years since I last saw it, and my feelings on the entire passion have changed pretty radically since then (I actually find it more interesting—and deeply sad—now).

It shocked me a little, how much I felt the weight of this production. It’s the humanizing element of Jesus Christ Superstar that makes it feel relevant and emotionally devastating. Thirteen-year-old Danielle was a cranky teen trying to figure out how much of this stuff she really believed, but now—now I see these figures as flawed, deeply human, and relatable.

What about you, dear readers? Did you catch any of the show here? Or have you ever watched something with fresh eyes like this, many years later? Sound off in the forums!

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/vbx3d8/jesus-christ-superstar-live-john-legend

I registered just to comment on this because I FELT THE SAME WAY. Thank you for summing it up so well. I also grew up religious and am not anymore, and although I have seen the musical several times (plus dozens and dozens of variations of the passion story), it’s never made me feel… sad before. It was really unexpected and a little disorienting. I guess we always skipped to the hope of the resurrection and/or guilt that it was our fault, which never left room for grief or humanity (in my personal experience).

Oh, and I was surprised to realize that it had some liberation-theology-lite elements I had never noticed - basically that Christ was killed by Empire, which the costuming and staging made really overt (Sith Lord Pharisees!!).

Anyway, thanks. I’m glad I wasn’t the only one with all the feels! (Also, JohnLegendOMG).

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I registered on these forums to talk specifically about this (though I’ve followed Waypoint for a while!) and I just thought it was a nice touch to have the preferred pronouns on the registering screen! Just wanted to throw that out there.

I love Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s in my top 2 musicals of all time. Those 2 are in flux, as I adore the musical “Assassins” with all of my heart, and yet there are moments that don’t engage me as much. Still, it’s probably my favorite. but I don’t think that there is any show other than JCS that I could put on the first track and just have to listen to the whole show. It’s spellbinding.

But more than than that, I think about Danielle’s remembrances of Catholic school. I went to Catholic school K-12. Around 7th grade I felt that I didn’t believe in God anymore, and I’ve been in that state since then. Around that time I encountered this musical, and it really helped me. It humanized Jesus, Judas, Mary, and the other major players. It helped me understand and connect with friends and family who did believe. Most of all, I think it helped me keep a connection with my father.

My father and I have almost nothing in common, save for a love of the band U2. That’s almost it. But one Christmas my parents got a ping pong table for the family, and I quickly took to loving it. My father took to it too. He was better for a while, but soon I surpassed him and won over and over for years (he’s beaten me once in 8-9 years now). But we had a deal. Whoever won the previous day got to pick the music then next day. And so when I finally won I started playing JCS, and we’d play longer. Then sometimes when he won and he’d play JCS too. And we both realized that we loved it. And our differences in looking at it gave us something to talk about. Our relationship is in a weird place right now, but if it wasn’t for JCS it would be most certainly irredeemable.

Last summer he and I got tickets to go see a touring company of JCS in St. Louis (my mother was excited because the Judas was a prominent American Idol contestant years earlier). It was wonderful. Both of us had so much fun, and when the U2 concert we had tickets to go see later in the year was cancelled, he said that he was glad that that was cancelled instead of JCS. It felt good and we loved it.

So I guess I have less to say about JCS Live than I do about JCS in general, but I just love this musical because it is both an amazing musical and something that can engage people regardless of religion or faith. It is a point of unity between disparate people.