If you visit Concord Theatricals’ page for JCS and click “Cast List” or ALW Show Licensing’s parallel page and click “Cast/Vocal Requirements,” you’ll see a list of characters from the show, both the usual suspects and folks you’ve never heard of.
Some are self-explanatory – for example, “Merchants,” “Temple Ladies,” “Lepers,” and “Cured Lepers” are all part of the temple scene (while those last may not always be distinctly characterized in a director’s particular vision, their presence makes sense on paper), “Reporters” usually hound Jesus with questions after his arrest, “Soldiers” can pop up pretty much wherever appropriate, and the “Soul Girls” back Judas up in “Superstar.” Generally, the only ensemble or supporting roles consistently credited in almost every production are the Apostles, Priests I-III, and the Soul Girls.
As such, I think I can start on a general note and then move toward a specific one.
As in many musicals, the crowd – ‘the friendly villagers” – is a character in and of itself. In almost all musicals (e.g., Brigadoon, The Music Man, Carousel, Sweeney Todd, The Rocky Horror Show, Bat Boy, Hair), the protagonist must either learn to assimilate himself into the crowd/townspeople or be removed from the community. Jesus can’t join the mainstream in JCS, so he must be eliminated – by capital punishment. Judas must be done away with as well.
But this story has two sets of “friendly villagers”– the apostles and the broad public. And the larger group of “friendly villagers,” the mob, becomes one of the antagonists, actively demanding Jesus’ death.
The crowd begins the show as Jesus’ followers (singing “Hosanna”), a group whose loyalty the priests don’t want to lose. They are in the middle of a tug-of-war between the priests and Jesus. They ask Jesus to be healed, cured, and fed, yet once the priests have condemned him as a blasphemer, the crowd turns on Jesus and demands Pilate crucify him. As it still does today, public opinion can swing quickly and unexpectedly from one extreme to the other. The loyalties of the masses can change with the wind; this phenomenon was just as dangerous and unpredictable then as it is now. The change of the crowd’s position is seen through a series of songs: “Hosanna” and “Simon Zealotes” (all devout followers), “The Temple” (the moneylenders opposing him and the sick asking for healing), “The Arrest” (the people turning fickle, taunting him), “Pilate and Christ” (turning against him), and finally “Trial by Pilate” (demanding his death).
Hidden among the familiar characters in the cast are “Judas’(s) Tormentors.” And you might well ask, who are they?
As one might imagine, early JCS productions struggled with the balance between humanizing Judas and avoiding pissing off the staunchly Christian part of their audience. As minister Dennis Miller of Calvary Baptist Church said at the time, representing the fundamentalist viewpoint, “The play represents a confused and commercial portrait of Christ – a Christ that does not rise from the dead. Of course, the Christ the authors present would not have risen from the dead. They are not men of faith, and their statements only serve to undermine the scriptures.” (Of course, he followed that up by saying, “I have not seen the show, and my objections are based on what friends who have seen it tell me,” so take that opinion with a grain of salt.)
A balancing act is an apt metaphor. If the lyrics to the songs themselves aren’t enough to make somewhat plain the inner machinations of the betrayer’s mind, what will suffice to demonstrate that he is not corrupt, that – be he innocent or paranoid – Judas is as much a pawn of fate as everyone else in the story?
For the original Broadway production, director Tom O’Horgan addressed this by literally personifying his motivation; he conceived of “Tormentors” who represented Judas’ conscience. In Rock Opera, an exhaustive account of the show’s early history, Ellis Nassour writes that “they hounded him rather like furies,” often “carried him about the playing area,” drove him to betray Jesus, and formed the noose for his untimely end. They looked… interesting… as costume designer Randy Barceló’s sketch below demonstrates.
A more specific account of their actions can be found in the early script I linked in “Reading,” which notably gives Judas’ Tormentors a sizable role.
They enter with Judas, to whom the apostles are drawn momentarily, during the overture (specifically when the thirty-nine lashes theme kicks in, which will prove to be foreshadowing), and “make a circle of arms imprisoning Judas” when Jesus enters.
They then proceed to shadow him during “Heaven on Their Minds.”
The Tormentors next appear during the intro to “Simon Zealotes,” where they force Judas to look up at Caiaphas, apparently planting the specific notion of betrayal in his head for the first time, and then drag him off.
There’s some interpretive dance involved in the intro to “Damned for All Time,” which suggests if you interpret their actions metaphorically and not as the work of corporal beings, that Judas was already suicidal, a factor which might inform his actions – towards both Jesus and himself – considerably. If not quite so literal, it’s safe to assume they represent his being cornered by destiny, as Judas’ next bit of choreography has him “leap about like a fish caught on a hook.”
They next appear menacing Judas in his death scene and administering the thirty-nine lashes to Jesus, the latter suggesting that they aren’t strictly limited to influencing Judas.
In retrospect, their function seems clear; they appear to symbolize the inescapable forces of fate. (If all this sounds like “The Bullet” personifying destiny in Hamilton, you’re not wrong. The Tormentors have played a slightly more passive role, depending on the production, but it’s similar. Despite how many people have knocked Tom O’Horgan’s work over the years, a lot of what we see on Broadway today, especially in musicals like Rent, Spring Awakening, and arguably Hamilton, wouldn’t have been possible without O’Horgan “walking so they could run” on shows like Hair and JCS. I see moments and thoughts ripped straight from his playbook all the time, even though history has more or less written him off as a one-trick pony. If he was, what a trick he wrought!)
Other productions followed suit in personifying Judas’ conscience, especially the Ted Neeley/Carl Anderson Nineties reunion tour, which was more explicit about their role and whose team they were on. In that production, the characters – at times implied to be voices in Judas’ head – were credited as “Temptresses” and took the form of three female non-singing dancers clad in red who seemingly cast a spell on Judas during the overture. Aside from directly evil identification, they otherwise served a similar function to the traditional Tormentors; these were distinguished from the Soul Girls, separate figures who banished them from the stage upon Judas’ return during “Superstar.”
Boston Rock Opera, whose initial productions of JCS weren’t quite fully realized theatrical stagings, took a turn toward the intellectual with their 1996 and 2000 renditions and did something similar but with a less biased push, casting their non-singing dancers as the Three Fates (Lachesis, Clotho, and Atropos) from Greek mythology; they appeared throughout the piece, handing Judas the noose and Pilate the bowl in which he washed his hands, among other things.
Of late, with the success of such films as Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ rearing its head, the Tormentors’ hounding of Judas leading up to the betrayal and his suicide has once again begun being sprinkled liberally throughout many regional productions. Some go a step further and, like the previously noted reunion tour, use “Superstar” to affirm that he wasn’t damned at all since, as a pawn in the grand scheme, he never had much of a choice in his actions, going so far as to have him return to the stage in a white tuxedo rather than his old garment, with a choir of angels in gospel robes behind him. Some criticize such a choice as “a tad on the nose” and complain that it massages the show into little more than a slight twist on the original story, at best, rather than being iconoclastic.
Even more recent productions like the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre staging, which has since toured the U.S. and will soon (at the time of writing) travel the U.K., nod, intentionally or not, in the direction of these characters with the addition of a figure called the “Mob Leader” – or, more recently, “Riot Leader” – who is asked in casting calls to, “in the style of a Greek chorus leader, deliver complete control of the company while performing.” Actress and dancer Sarah Parker, who played the role on tour, is more specific as to function:
“The Mob Leader is kind of this abstract character who is like the physical narrator of the story. I’m the physical embodiment of this story. […] My role specifically [is] to drive the narrative of the story forward. My job is to shepherd the mob and the characters from the light to the dark and to keep pushing them into the next chapter and the next.”
I’m neither for nor against using the Tormentors (or something like them) as elements. If one wishes to include them, however, I will suggest that they follow O’Horgan’s lead and, rather than pursuing a specifically religious angle, let them symbolize the unseen forces – or motivations – that led these characters to do what they did.