CD Review: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR LIVE IN CONCERT (Original Television Soundtrack)

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by Tony Frankel on April 30, 2018



Not nearly as powerful and raw as it could have been, NBC’s live telecast “event” of Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar – more music video than Broadway-style production – nonetheless has some admirable qualities — with one glaring pitfall. Astoundingly tight music direction by Nigel Wright – along with a beautifully produced blend of vocals with an immense orchestra and chorus — means that — while this isn’t the second coming it promised to be — it’s still worth a listen.

Now available digitally and on a 2-disc CD from Sony Masterworks Broadway, this Superstar joins the ranks of 80+ recordings from over a dozen countries, not one of which in totality tops the original 1970 Concept Album. Some of the most highly regarded recordings were made in a studio, including the 1996 London revival starring Steve Balsamo as Jesus, a production of which was not recorded until 2000 with Alice Cooper added as King Herod, a ruler of Galilee; so for those of you who think casting Cooper in this 2018 version was a coup, it’s already been done.

And that’s one of the issues here: casting. Cooper’s one tune – “King Herod’s Song,” a bouncy vaudeville insulting the powers of Christ – is fine coming from a guy whose trademark rasp sounds as good at 70 as it did decades ago, but it’s nothing exceptional. And Broadway vets Norm Lewis (Porgy and Bess) — slimy as Caiaphas, the High Priest of Israel — and Ben Daniels (Les Liaisons Dangereuses) — indistinct as Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judea — are clearly great actors, but both have difficulty with their low notes.

Since pop/soul/R&B artist superstar John Legend and his managers Mike Jackson and Ty Stiklorius are co-executive producers on this venture, it’s not surprising that someone who lacks that rock tenor quality took on the title role. Sounding thin in his upper register, Legend’s expressiveness and unique vocal timbre is better suited for pop. He makes a noble attempt at emotion in “Trial Before Pilate” – and even gives us some rock star top notes in “The Temple” – but he is miscast. Yes, Legend may be a very good singer, yet you should check out Steve Balsamo’s version of “Gethsemane” to get a glimpse of Jesus’s torment.

Never intended to be an accurate portrait of Christ’s passion, the story is Mr. Rice’s idea of what Judas’s thoughts and motivations may have been, not a Biblical portrayal at all. And in this cast, Brandon Victor Dixon plays the betrayer with a perfect blend of Broadway chops and show biz savvy. Dixon (The Color Purple, Motown, Shuffle Along, and — replacing Leslie Odom Jr. as Aaron Burr – a year in Hamilton) is particularly dramatic in “Damned for All Time” (when accepting his cash for ratting on Jesus to Caiaphas) and in “Judas’s Death” when his guilt and grief ultimately consume his life (with the help of a noose). And then he comes back from the dead with enough super-rockin’ dynamism and delight (and some seriously tight back-up Soul Girls) to make you immediately go back and listen to the title track again.

Sara Bareilles was already making a name for herself as a singer/songwriter before she created and starred in the Broadway hit Waitress, but her performance of Mary Magdalene should skyrocket her to the firmament. The original, Yvonne Elliman, may always be the definitive Mary for some, but with her plaintive, seductive, unadorned soulfulness in both “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and “Everything’s Alright,” Bareilles is a worthy heir to the role.

Unlike other recent live television musical events Hairspray, The Wiz, The Sound of Music and Peter Pan, Superstar moves away from the traditional studio-rehearsed staging, and presents this like an actual rock concert before a throng of hyped viewers watching the production in Brooklyn’s gigantic Marcy Avenue Armory. This may have suited the creators’ desire — which is to pulse the house with a locomotive energy one would find at a stadium spectacle while delivering the Broadway goods – but there’s a glitch that reduces the impact of the music: audience clamor.

Whereas a live audience can capture and intensify the recording of a live performance (Judy at Carnegie Hall, anyone?), the wild whooping that accompanies a long-held top note – or wherever music ends – serves to interrupt the flow of the score, which breaks its spell. (But this is an era in which most audiences now applaud in between movements of a symphony or string quartet, so its par for the course.) Interestingly enough, when the crowd wildly whistles and wails as Jesus sings “See how I die,” it does inadvertently (or maybe intentionally) make a statement about Christ’s followers not really listening to his message. All of this may have worked watching it live or at home, but it’s an impediment to the recording.

photos courtesy of NBC

Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert
Original Soundtrack of the NBC Television Event
Sony Masterworks Broadway
Disc One: 12 tracks | 45:16
Disc Two: 15 tracks | 50:34
CD released on April 27, 2018
available at Amazon and Sony

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