Pontius Pilate

Male. Rock Baritone (or Tenor). Governor of Judea who foresees the events of Jesus’ crucifixion from beginning to aftermath in a dream and finds himself being presented with that very situation.

Age range: 18-60
Vocal range: A2–B♭4
Voice type: “A strong baritone with extended high register […] a singer of great stillness, yet with the ability to tear the roof off in the final bars […] must sing with precision” (50th)
Possible musical influences: “Think Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Robert Plant” (50th)

Relevant Insights

“Pilate is a strong man — an intelligent man, and when something bothers him, I see him trying to understand it and analyze it rather than allowing the fear to control him outright. That’s part of what makes his whole journey in this show interesting. […] Pilate, to me, sees himself as the representative of a vastly superior culture amongst not-quite-savages. He’s sure he is far more intelligent and knows more of the true nature of the world than his charges (the Jews, etc.) and it is the challenging of that assuredness that he finds so very disturbing, bringing much of what he knows to be true into question.”

– Donald Winsor (Pilate, Dutch Apple Dinner Theatre, 2004)

“[Pilate] is the one that most people connect with in Jesus Christ Superstar. [He] asks the questions that any intelligent human being would ask if they had the chance. […] I think Pilate is on the verge of madness and his confrontation with Jesus pushes him over the edge. […] I think that Israel was the last post any Roman wanted, and Pilate was an intelligent man who was out of his depth with all the chaos in that country.”

– Randy Wilson (several leading roles in the earliest American companies, including Pilate in the 1977 Broadway revival)

“I studied him and decided he was such a bad dude, the Romans just wanted to get rid of him. Then, when he got to Jerusalem, he really screwed up.”

– Rick Carrier (Pontius Pilate, Walk the Via Dolorosa [which incorporates JCS selections], Chelsea Community Church)

“Pilate is traditionally played as a black-hearted villain who is responsible for Jesus’ death. I thought, ‘That can’t be the whole story.’ I mean, this was a man who was smart enough to become Governor of [Judea] at the time. He knew that the Jewish people were always pushing against Roman authority in those days, and Pilate knew that this was something that Rome would not put up with. It would end in a very bloody outcome. This sort of thing went on and on. There were all these messiahs, it wasn’t just Jesus Christ, there were messiahs all the time all over Jerusalem because the Bible had predicted it, so there were lots and lots of gentlemen who went to the cross saying that they were the Messiah, and Jesus was just one of them. Jesus had a very big following, a very notable following, and Pilate felt he had to squash it. […] This man had a very disturbing dream in this country full of political forcefulness and righteousness. He had this dream, in which this man, who he had never seen before… he was very struck and moved by it, and he knew that it would be intertwined with his fate in a very serious and unnerving type of way. Suddenly, he meets the face that he saw in the dream. I think anyone would be freaked out by that. He would have moved and behaved in all sorts of ways that he may not have anticipated himself doing. […] I wanted to get to the heart of this guy, and to move the audience, and to try to put them in the same kind of conflicted position that Pilate himself is in, so they think, ‘Oh my God. He’s in a terrible situation.’ He’s trying to save this guy’s life by giving him all the clues that he needs to escape the punishment of crucifixion, and Jesus just doesn’t get it. That leads to the final outburst, where he loses his temper, and control all goes out the window. He knows he has lost. He knows he has lost in a very spiritual way as well.”

– Barry Dennen (Pilate, original concept album, 1970; original Broadway cast, 1971; original motion picture, 1973)

Further Analysis

Ted Neeley put it best when he once told an interviewer that the part he’d most like to play in the show (besides Jesus) was Pontius Pilate, saying something along the lines of: “Pilate is the only role that has a beginning, middle, and end to it.” He’s not wrong. There’s a reason why in all the multitudes of recordings of JCS, there’s not one second-class Pilate – it’s easily the best and most well-sketched role in it. We catch everyone else at a specific moment and proceed to the end of that moment, but uniquely, the show contains Pilate’s whole arc, to the extent there is one in the limited space of JCS.

(One reason this may be the case is that before Jesus Christ Superstar began, and Judas was placed firmly in the spotlight, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber also discussed writing a musical about Pilate, again with Jesus as a minor character. It’s interesting to note the similarities between Pilate and Judas that make them so ripe for the picking. Like Judas, he’s a man caught in the irrevocable flow of a historical situation that will condemn him throughout time and which he cannot avoid, a man of great power unable to escape the responsibility that comes with it. But I digress…)

So, let’s explore him a little further. First, a brief recap of Pontius Pilate’s historical role is in order. The words and phrases that come most readily to mind are “strong,” “stoic,” and “very oriented towards law and order.” Unpacking that a bit… Pilate was the prefect of Judea, the Roman-appointed governor. In that role, he commanded Roman military units, authorized construction projects (not one to care about popularity polls, he pillaged the Temple treasury in Jerusalem to finance one such undertaking, a move decried by many as outrageous), arranged for the collection of imperial taxes, and decided civil and criminal cases.

Where these cases concerned sedition, he didn’t hesitate to sentence with extreme prejudice; indeed, during his decade-long tenure (associated by his contemporaries with “briberies, insults, robberies, outrages, wanton injustices, constantly repeated executions without trial, and ceaseless and grievous cruelty”), he executed so many Jews that the harshness of his suppression became an embarrassment to the emperor himself; he was ultimately recalled to Rome, stripped of his title, and died in disgrace. Bearing this in mind, it’s odd – both in the Gospels and in JCS – to see a Pilate who is conflicted and reluctant to play a role in the persecution of Christ.

Look at the facts: the region was in near-constant turmoil. Jerusalem at Passover would be strained under the weight of thousands of pilgrims (many equally unhappy with the Roman Empire) coming to the Temple to celebrate, often leading to violent political uprisings. In the time of Christ, the state put down several Jewish insurgencies, executing thousands. Pilate’s main concern was crowd control; he undoubtedly knew that past messianic claims had led to civil unrest. It was a no-brainer. He needed to keep a lid on the tumult that year. He did not need a bloodthirsty crowd or a request from high Jewish officials to deal harshly with anyone who proclaimed himself “King of the Jews.” He’d have been eager to end the potential threat to the existing order presented by Jesus’ subversive theology. The form of execution used – crucifixion – establishes that Jesus was condemned as a violator of Roman, not Jewish, law.

So, leaving aside what we now know about the writing (and careful editing) of the Gospels by those with agendas (see the “My Two Cents” blurb under “Caiaphas & Annas”), what would freeze him in his tracks when this Jesus thing is dropped in his lap? Perhaps the fact that, at least in JCS, it’s hardly dropped there in the usual fashion… as a prophetic dream about Christ’s fate and Pilate’s future of endless blameworthiness for his death.

Savvy Christian listeners/readers/viewers will note that a bit of dramatic license is taken here. As Tim Rice put it in his autobiography (bracketed insertion mine), “[I]n the Bible [the dream] is credited to his wife [and much closer to the actual time of execution at that, according to the Gospel of Matthew]. However, introducing another character for just one brief scene was impractical, mainly for economic reasons, so we had no At Home with The Pilates number.” Instead, as Barry Dennen did so well with the trial scene, which Lloyd Webber’s memoir notes was among the first recorded, they decided to bring him in sooner in the piece (an excellent example of what happens when you have a unique match of performer and character).

Barry certainly didn’t object, citing one of the basic rules of musical theater in a later interview: “You can’t wait until halfway through for the character to appear. He has to show up near the beginning […] to establish himself as a character, so you’re interested in him. When he reappears in the second act, you know who he is and understand what he is about.” Per his memoir, Rice agrees: “Pilate’s one troubled appearance in the first half of the show makes his second-half dialogue with Jesus infinitely more powerful.”

The lyrics of the song “Pilate’s Dream” (sung to the tune of “Poor Jerusalem” – a neat way to signal that his and Jesus’ paths will inevitably cross) subtly reveal a lot about who the authors feel Pilate is if one pays close attention. The portrait painted is that of a politician trying desperately to avoid controversy and, more than anything, responsibility. He’s not a terrible person as much as he’s a modern politician (at least as written) – amoral more than immoral, more interested in preserving his power than anything else, always looking to his future and his climb up that political ladder. In his dream, he sees all that will happen and knows that despite his efforts to the contrary, he will be blamed for Jesus’ death. He may even guess that once Jesus dies, the whole thing will only continue to grow.

It’s an intriguing solo partially because it says so much about his character without revealing the bare facts about the man, not even his name. As one observer opined in a conversation with this author, “It’s a weird song in the show. Who the hell is this guy?” But to me, that’s the coolest part of the challenge for the actor and the director. The secret of creating good, successful theater is that the hard work involved is the fun of doing a play.

How to establish Pilate as a person is up to the director. I’ve seen many productions choose to introduce the authority figures and who they are up-front during the overture – if not as recurring personalities – so that the audience knows them when they show up instead of guessing by context. If I were in charge, I might use the fact that the audience initially has no conception of his station in life. (As my late grandmother once said, “Everybody looks somewhat alike in their nightshirts.”) At first, we don’t know who Pilate is; he’s just some guy who dreamed about meeting a figure we assume to be Jesus, who senses trouble coming over the horizon and knows he’ll be waist-deep in it soon. During the song, however, I’d surround him with valets and advisors who calm, soothe, and dress him, gradually revealing the extent of the power which this man wields – the age-old principle of “show, don’t tell” (somewhere, my English teacher smiles).

As for the task expected of the performer, Donald Winsor, whom I’ve quoted previously, seemed to have a pretty good idea as to the “way in”:

“I experimented with a few different takes on the song, but I think it works best when it is what it is. The biggest pitfalls I see are either trying to make the song ‘more than it is’ by adding an ‘up’ ending (i.e., trying to show off vocally or something) or being too shaken up from the beginning. I see it more as that nagging feeling you get when you can’t quite remember the entirety of a dream and throughout the song Pilate puts the pieces together, recollecting the dream as you sometimes do after a particularly strange or disturbing one.”

Oddly, considering how mystical this moment of waking from a nightmare is, it’s the last moment of normalcy for Pilate in the show. For those of us who know the story already, that makes the inescapable grip of fate even more upsetting; we know that his dream will come true, no matter how hard he tries to avoid it. And it also dramatizes for us the banality of evil. Pilate is just a politician, a power broker. He merely does what the polls tell him the people want. But this time, it will etch his name into the history of the world as a villain of biblical proportions.

We next catch him on a particularly eventful day amid the hassles of Passover week. Along come the priests with this prisoner they’ve convicted of blasphemy. That’s not a Roman crime, so it’s coming to his desk for a reason: they’d like this guy executed, and since they have no authority to put him to death, it’s now his problem. What to do, what to do… wait – can he pass the buck? Yes… he thinks he can! Since this Jesus is a Jew, he falls under Herod’s jurisdiction. Take the unimportant peasant over there, if you please. Not my animals, not my circus.

Of course, Herod sends him right back. Moreover, the crowd has now turned on their leader and demands his crucifixion. Just what he needs. He doesn’t mind killing another rebel, truth be told, but he also has a legitimate reason to feel vaguely uncomfortable; if the mob demanding Jesus’ death now decides they’re unhappy with Pilate’s decision later, there could be yet another uprising in the city.

So, he picks at the proverbial scab, unsure why it’s worth so much fuss, but then he looks at him for the first time: “Talk to me, Jesus Christ…” And suddenly, that face seems eerily familiar. Right away, he acts as any good Roman would upon recognizing an omen coming true: he assures the crowd that Jesus isn’t worth their hatred, pleading that they forget him. But they want him crucified, and he gives in, kicking and screaming the whole way down.

I’ve said elsewhere that one of JCS’ cardinal themes is choice and the removal of choice by the forces of politics and public opinion. Throughout the show, characters make choices that will greatly affect the outcome of events. In Pilate’s case, he tries to avoid making any choice regarding Jesus, but in the end, the choice is forced upon him by fate, regardless of the roles the priests, Herod, or the crowd play in the journey there.

My Two Cents

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