One of the biggest problems that directors face when tackling Jesus Christ Superstar is the lack of a book (for those unaware, theater term for the spoken parts of a script). Even to those with opera experience who know what they’re looking at – in terms of format – when it’s given to them, it’s probably a sizeable stumbling block. Tim Rice admits as much in his autobiography:
“Throughout Superstar Jesus gets little chance to demonstrate any of the power or charisma that earned him such devotion and the belief that he could be the Son of God, but then I had the luxury of assuming that most of my potential listeners would know what had happened before his last week of mortal existence. Some have said that the work fails because the Jesus of Superstar is never seen to be capable of the inspiration that led him to be considered divine…”
While I don’t share the opinion of those anonymous naysayers, I will concede one point to them: Christianity has been on thin ice since the Sixties, but at least back in 1970, most people had basic biblical knowledge, specifically of the New Testament, which meant the decision to dispense with a book for JCS (which would traditionally, in theater terms, help things out from an expositional standpoint) didn’t matter so much.
Today, despite what one may glean from the constant trumpeting by conservative circles about family values and the continuance of old-time religion, there is a widespread glaring lack of knowledge about the Bible, fundamental doctrines, and the traditions of one’s church, even among people who are staunch believers. The American Bible Society’s annual State of the Bible report recently revealed that as many as 26 million Americans have mostly or entirely stopped reading the Bible, a historic low. Study after study since the Nineties has reported such alarming (at least to fundamentalist Christians) statistics as 12% of Christians thinking Noah’s wife was Joan of Arc and 63% being unable to name the four Gospels. I can only imagine the learning curve is far steeper for those who don’t believe it.
Don’t you get me wrong (…don’t you get me wrong now…), if you know the basics, particularly of the Easter story, you should be fine. You might miss some of the nuances of it, especially the dynamic of the priests, Herod, and Pilate; still, if you already know who Jesus is, that he was betrayed by Judas (I mean, the name “Judas” being synonymous with betrayal is reasonably well known even from a secular standpoint), that Peter denied him, that it ended with a crucifixion, etc., then you’ll more or less know your way around. But it’s worth noting that you’ll be going in with more knowledge than others, and for people who come to this show with barely a grasp, the piece probably feels underwritten. Bearing this in mind, I’ve thrown together – for free – what would cost you roughly 20 bucks to read in The Bible for Dummies if you weren’t springing for the cheaper Kindle edition. Here’s a quick and dirty rundown of the historical context for the events outlined in JCS.
First, we must establish the world Jesus knew, and then we can get into what made him different. To do that, I’ll have to briefly re-tell the Old and New Testaments of the Christian Bible and then bring you into the Middle East around the time of Christ. Put on a helmet – it’ll be a bumpy ride.