We’re raising the ante in this month’s installment of What’s THAT Supposed to Mean? — this month’s singer is a fictional version of an important historical/theological figure, Judas. 

Erm … no … that’s Judas Priest. And Jack Feerick already did that sight gag on a thoughtful piece on Judas here at Popdose, where we’ve apparently covered everything already. Anyway, we’re talking the original Judas. 

Not quite … well … OK, let’s go with that. That’s Carl Anderson, who played the role of Judas in the original Jesus Christ Superstar film and continued to play the role on various tours, the last with Skid Row’s Sebastian Bach as Jesus, until his too-soon passing in 2004. (Bach wrote a moving tribute.) Technically, he wasn’t the original singer in the Judas role — Superstar was first released as a concept album featuring Deep Purple’s Ian Gillan as Jesus and Murray Head (yes, One Night in Bangkok Murray Head) as Judas.

It’s not exactly original to point out that Superstar is a much deeper exploration of Judas than it is of Jesus. One quibble I’ve often had with Superstar, even in the mind-blowing live production NBC aired Easter Sunday, is that we get little sense of why people are following Jesus in the first place. The theological question does come up in Judas’ second show-stopping number of the show, the title-ish track Superstar. That song is oddly timed if you’re trying to posit the show as a whole as a refutation of Christ’s divinity or of anything supernatural. We just saw Judas hang himself. Then he’s back, apparently as a ghost and apparently with some knowledge of the next couple thousand years, asking the not-yet-dead-much-less-resurrected Jesus about Buddha and Muhammad and inquiring why Jesus came to Earth in a land with no mass communication. The chorus asks, “Do you think you’re what they say you are?” Jesus, as he is through so much of Act 2, is silent.

Jesus is frankly kind of cranky in Act 1. The NBC staging does a better job than most in demonstrating his charisma, with John Legend exuding cool while his followers jump around as if possessed by the Holy Spirit. We only get insight into his motivation in Act 2’s Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say).

Gethsemane goes about as far as it can to bring to life a tricky theological question. Jesus is both the Son of God incarnate and yet a human being wrestling with his fate. Theologians have spent millennia puzzling over “My God, my God, why hast though forsaken me?” Gethsemane takes the question to the next level, asking for proof that his death will indeed be the fulfillment of prophecy and not in vain. The answer is anything but clear. (Granted, I was never convinced in Plato’s Crito that Socrates made any kind of coherent point in favor of refusing the offer to escape. I preferred the Real Genius take on that scenario.)

(Want to compare singers on Gethsemane? Here’s Ian Gillan from the cast album I grew up with, Ted Neeley in the original film, Steve Balsamo from the late-90s East End revival I saw, and John Legend from the NBC live show. There’s also a clip of many singers attempting the legendary high G on “WHYYYYYYYYY should I die?” I’m going to offer the contrarian opinion that Legend was terrific in the role even if he had to go falsetto on that part — please don’t cast Superstar based solely on who can hit that thing.)

THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING JUDAS

Is Judas necessary? It’s an interesting theological question. Renegade Episcopalian bishop John Shelby Spong argues that he was literally created as a means of shifting blame from Pontius Pilate (who, in Superstar, is quite reluctant to deal with Jesus). Other theologians argue that Judas had to betray Jesus in order to fulfill the prophecy, and that’s more or less the theme in Superstar. I see the argument, but really? The Romans were one of the most efficient occupying powers in recorded history, but they couldn’t figure out which guy was leading these mobs of people without a guy walking up and kissing him?

Didn’t Judas tell us there was no mass communication? We’re a few centuries ahead of anyone having the capability to rouse the rabble with videos recorded at undetermined locations. Jesus had no impact unless he appeared in the flesh in public, and surely the Romans had enough spies to go running to the local centurion to start the flogging.

But in the musical, Judas is an essential voice of caution and even conservatism. It’s such a defining role that someone has made a YouTube comparison of various Judases through the years (unfortunately, it stops syncing up after about three minutes, but you’ll hear Murray Head — and if you stick it out, you’ll hear it sung in another language). That compilation doesn’t including Living Colour’s Corey Glover, but a poorly recorded clip gives some idea of his take on the classic in 2007.

And thankfully, Andrew Lloyd Webber is up to the challenge here. Compare Superstar with the contemporaneous Godspell. I was in a production of the latter at one point, taking over as guitarist/bandleader just a couple of weeks before we performed outdoors in Duke Gardens, and I was grateful that the music was relatively simple. I even filled in with a couple of chords when the keyboard failed for the playful All for the Best. (And, unfortunately, I made too much use of the whammy bar to simulate a glissando, and my guitar was horribly out of tune for the pretty arpeggios of the next tune, All Good Gifts. I’m told Christian Laettner was in attendance that day, so I can only imagine he’s still snarking on the out-of-tune Gardens guitarist.)

Two more quick asides on Godspell before we move on:

  1. In recordings I’ve heard of All Good Gifts, the guitarist suddenly stops the pretty arpeggios and just strums the mildly tricky Gm/D chord. Seriously, check it out at 0:11 here. I just played arpeggios throughout. And I was never that good, so it can’t be that freaking hard.
  2. A Toronto production in 1972 must have had the best casting director in history. The future stars included Gilda Radner, Martin Short, Dave Thomas, Eugene Levy, Andrea Martin, Victor Garber and musical director Paul Shaffer.

Back to Superstar — this is some sophisticated, intense stuff. Heaven on Their Minds is in D minor (yes, Nigel, the saddest of all keys) and opens with that unforgettable chromatic guitar riff (D, D octave, Eb, C, D). Judas enters calmly, drifting into G major but returning to that D minor with the Eb, all while multiple guitarists create a swirl of chaos.

Then it’s time to shine. Up into the upper register with “JEEEEE-SUUUSSSSSSS!” and a menacing D, Em (yes, with the guitar still hitting that ever-more-dissonant Eb), F, G crescendo.

I’m not here to compare Carl Anderson with Brandon Victor Dixon, the Hamilton star who rocked the Judas role on NBC. To those of us who haven’t invested the months of waiting and/or the thousands of dollars necessary to understand why people swoon over Hamilton (it’s really starting to get elitist, and I’m not impressed with My Shot), Dixon was the unknown in this cast alongside Legend, the wonderful Sara Bareilles and, of course, Alice Freaking Cooper. I’m also not going to compare Cooper’s brilliant showbiz-legend casting as Herod with, say, Rik Mayall’s insightful and delightful sneering take on the same character.

Anderson was The Man. Dixon is … also The Man. He’s perfect for this production. Let’s take a look not only at this song but the overture that precedes it — once you get past the crowd screaming a bit too much (ironically, pretty much one of the lines of the song), the staging is breathtaking.

The string players strutting out as if to say you’re about to see one of the most bad-ass TV broadcasts ever, the Olympic torch-style cauldron lighting, the dude who looks like The Edge on guitar next to the guy spray-painting “Jesus” — if you don’t have chills by the time John Legend walks on stage, music and theater might not be your thing.

Then here comes Dixon …

What I like about this staging is that Dixon’s Judas is in the mob but not quite of it. His resigned “OK” while others are dancing with and into him is brilliant, and he wisely doesn’t snarl out “Your followers are BLIND!” with quite as much venom as Anderson does in the film. Legend’s Jesus occasionally pauses his compassionate gestures with the crowd to look over at Judas with a puzzled expression, not quite getting Judas’ concern about this frenzied group of followers. And to me, that drives home a central theme of this song and the work as a whole, and it just happens to be a timely theme.

MOB RULES

No, we can’t quite say the mob in Superstar is an allegory for Trumpist populism. For one thing, Judas correctly warns Jesus: They think they’ve found the new Messiah / and they’ll hurt you when they find they’re wrong. Today’s mobs stick with their Messiahs until the bitter end. Just look at the “prosperity Gospel” evangelicals who wanted Bill Clinton run out of the country on a rail for denying his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky but have no trouble whatsoever with Trump. Bobby Knight will always have followers who insisted he was right to throw chairs and grab students. I cover women’s soccer — the enablers in that community wield frightening power. Conor McGregor didn’t hurt his fan base when he led a bunch of Irish hooligans to throw a UFC card into chaos.

But Judas is seeing the dangers of the mob. Once its power is unleashed, it’s difficult to harness. So when Judas sings (brilliantly emphasized in both Anderson’s and Dixon’s renditions), “You’ve begun to matter more than the things you say,” do you think …

A. Bernie Sanders watching his voters scream about the DNC rather than social injustice?

B. Ronald Reagan remembered solely for being anti-Democrat, not a pragmatic politician with compassion on immigration and guns?

C. Sean Hannity’s blatant hypocrisy?

D. Oprah Winfrey driving book sales and often propping up medical quacks?

E. All of the above?

(Isn’t it a wonderful coincidence that Corey Glover sang Cult of Personality many years before he took on the role of Judas?)

After Judas’ warning, Jesus does begin to see the issues. His followers are all getting it wrong. They want a revolution he never promised. There’s corruption and a series of impossible demands in the temple.

And there is, of course, tremendous peril in leading a revolution. Back to our song at hand — Judas reminds Jesus that he and his people are living in an occupied state. The disciple-turned-betrayer is “frightened by the crowd / for we are getting much too loud,” warns that “we must keep in our place,” and pleads that he only wants Jesus and his followers to survive the coming storm. (See a prior WTSTM? on XTC’s Ballad of Peter Pumpkinhead for a meditation on good leaders’ assassinations, though in XTC’s tune, the message outlives the messenger, unlike the Bernie 2016 campaign.)

Then don’t forget the danger of being misinterpreted: But every word you say today / gets twisted round some other way. We’re in Life of Brian territory here. “Yes, we are all individuals,” indeed. Let’s all take off one sandal and hop around.

So Jesus Christ Superstar is on many levels a powerful meditation on the dangers of rebellion. Whether you’re promising peace, love, salvation or manufacturing jobs, there will always be opportunists who will latch onto your campaign and hijack your voice into a different direction. Then there will be those in the status quo who will discredit you or even crucify you.

What’s lacking to me in Superstar is any indication that it’s all worth it. But that’s OK. No one work of art can present a complete picture. We can take a vague notion of compassion and build upon it.

This is a work of art we’re still talking about, several weeks after NBC’s inspired staging of it and a few decades after its premiere. Having a couple of hours’ worth of great guitar work and singing showcases certainly helps, but this song in particular has such staying power because of the questions it raises.

And maybe one day, we’ll have enough answers that we can stop asking our leaders, divine or otherwise, to die for our sins.