NBC's annual airing of live musicals took an enormous leap forward with their Easter broadcast of Jesus Christ Superstar. The 1970 Rock Opera, which Andrew Lloyd Webber composed when he was 22 (think on that for a moment), has been a fire rod of controversy and debate since its opening. I think we can agree that it has its fair share of fans and detractors.
So NBC certainly was rolling the dice when it decided to air this on one of the holiest days of the year. How did they do? Let's break it down.
Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas
Before last night, one could argue the most we knew about Mr. Dixon was his impromptu speech at Vice-President Pence following a performance of Hamilton. That's all changed now. He not only stole the entire show with his Judas, but also put in a performance for the ages. While many might feel that the definitive Judas is Tim Minchin or Carl Anderson or Jérôme Pradon, (from a vocal standpoint) Dixon has certainly thrown his hat into the ring.
For those wishing and hoping for more representation on stage and screens, Jesus Chris Superstar Live! delivered in a big way. Other than Sara Bareilles viewers probably often wondered where all the white people were?
But in a year when we're starting to see more and more performers of color and non-sample size populate our stages and TV's, it was great to see so many on display last night.
Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene
While I've never thought the character was that strong in the material, Bareilles certainly gave her songs depth and a certain tone I hadn't really heard before. It was certainly one of the better performances of the night. My only wish was that she had more to do.
As with the case with all live performances, especially televised, they live and die with sound mixing. As per usual, there were plenty of glitches and misses with mics and mixing issues with the music from the band. While not enough to ruin the show, enough to be a noticeable distraction. A good example is the video below(1:55 mark):
Commercial Breaks and Behind the Scene Shots
When it comes to these live musicals, commercial breaks are nothing more than momentum killers. To make matters worse, the camera backstage look like they're more annoying to the actors involved than anything else. From an artistic standpoint, it doesn't help seeing actors break character while changing or sipping tea or sprinting from one end of the set to the other.
Given how popular these events have become, it would be great for one company to sponsor the whole thing so we don't have to go from seeing Brandon Victor Dixon crush "Heaven on their Minds" to a trailer for Mamma Mia 2.
Alice Cooper as King Herod
While I was initially excited to see the Godfather of Shock Rock cast as King Herod, I was disappointed to see a mostly straight-laced performance. It lacked so much charisma that it left me wishing for Josh Mostel, which is something I never thought I would say. Then again, I couldn't have expected Cooper to be his usual self on network TV, but he certainly left me wanting more.
Ben Daniels as Pontius Pilate
While the role doesn't necessarily demand a strong singer, it does demand one better than Ben Daniels. Although Daniels certainly could act the role, his vocal stylings could best be described as shouting.
John Legend as Jesus
From the announcement of his casting, I thought Legend was an interesting choice for the title role. For a score that usually requires rock volume, choosing a quiet-crooner didn't seem like a perfect match. And it wasn't.
While Legend nailed the quieter moments of the score, he had issues mustering the raw power required for much of the material. None was this more evident during "Gethsemane". Now I'll say right off the bat that mastering this song is a like getting your doctorate in singing. I can count on a couple fingers the times I've seen someone nail this song and I'm sure those are even debatable. As Legend tried to put his own spin on the iconic piece, it just got worse and worse as it went along, ending with Legend all but giving up on the high notes.
It also didn't help that Legend isn't an actor. So in the event where the vocal stylings aren't being delivered, a strong acting one can save it, but Legend's acting also left a lot to be desired. He didn't do anything to ruin the show, but let's just say it was a good thing this was a concert performance and not a staged version.
The Final Verdict
All in all, this was the best presentation of a live musical NBC has done yet. Topping the energy and talent of this production is going to be a high bar for the network as their plans for Bye Bye Birdie keep getting pushed back thanks to Jennifer Lopez' schedule.
But most importantly, this production highlighted music, musicianship, and diversity which are only positive nowadays. While I don't think Broadway will be rushing a full-fledged revival(the 2012 revival only ran for 116 performances), I will definitely be interested to see how a new generation accepts this piece.