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John Legend’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ Was Nearly Miraculous

The pop star’s trademark affableness was so overpowering in NBC’s live musical that hate-watching was not an option

NBC/Ringer illustration

We all had our own motivations for spending Easter Sunday night watching NBC’s live staging of Jesus Christ Superstar, with Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene, Alice Cooper as King Herod, and the usual flabbergasted audience on Twitter primed to either deify or crucify. I was there to watch John Legend, as Jesus, kick the money-changers out of the temple. It is the one moment in the 1970 Andrew Lloyd Webber–Tim Rice musical—and the one moment in the Bible, come to think of it—when the Son of God gets to kick some ass.

And so! “Myyyyyyyy temple should be a house of prayyyyyer!” snarled John Legend, swinging a chair around with awfully uncharacteristic fury. “But you’ve made it into a den of thieves!” In the 1973 film version, Jesus trashes what amounts to an illicit flea market, flipping tables and toppling shelves and generally Hulking out. NBC’s production involved a lot of glitter as a stand-in for cocaine, with Legend towering over the sniveling hordes as he tossed his chair aside and screamed, “Get out! Get out! Get out!” That it was hilarious doesn’t mean it wasn’t cathartic. Doing this show justice necessarily involves doing the most.

The lavish NBC staging of America’s most devoutly sacrilegious rock opera was broadcast from the Marcy Avenue Armory in Williamsburg, on a stage large enough to accomodate a jumbo jet, or at least several elaborate, full-company mosh pits. An Ozzfest-worthy rock band and blaring orchestra were stacked three stories high on gleaming heavy-metal-video risers, competing volume-wise with an unironically raucous studio audience. The recent live-TV-musical craze kicked off in 2013 with NBC’s Carrie Underwood-led The Sound of Music, but the network’s subsequent efforts—a mercilessly hate-watched Peter Pan in 2014, The Wiz in 2015, and Hairspray in 2016—stumbled by comparison, with Fox’s competing attempts (Grease in 2016, and A Christmas Story late last year) faring no better. Quality-wise, at least, Sunday night’s spectacle was a massive improvement, if only for the vastly superior two-screen experience offered by John Legend’s notably famous wife.

The 1971 Broadway version of Jesus Christ Superstar inspired protests and moderate controversy, with Andrew Lloyd Webber (the composer) and Tim Rice (the lyricist) accused of wallowing in anti-Semitism and overly valorizing Judas, who is this story’s unambiguous villain—in the New Testament, at least. But in 2018, on network television, the production was designed as church for rock-musical lovers, not a vehicle to troll churchgoers. (It was also apparently designed to vault Legend, Webber, and Rice alike to EGOT status.) The show began with a chorus member spray-painting “Jesus” in huge letters on the back wall in blood red; Legend emerged in a ball of light, beatific in a white shirt that transformed, as he emoted and suffered, from a V-neck to a tank top to a humble rag to be discarded. (Chrissy Teigen had some thoughts.) Meanwhile, Judas Iscariot—as played by Brandon Victor Dixon, best known as the Hamilton star who personally addressed Mike Pence—howled through “Heaven on Their Minds,” the show’s first big prog-rocking set piece, stalking the stage in a black leather vest, like a steampunker loose in the Matrix.

As for the plot, well, most likely, one way or another, a spoiler alert is unnecessary. The bad guys, led by the concussive baritone Caiaphas (Norm Lewis) and the yelping Annas (Jin Ha), schemed while rocking jet-black, even more Matrix-core outerwear. Pontius Pilate (Ben Daniels) was the conflicted bureaucrat. Mary Magdalene fawned over Jesus with an almost painful sort of ’70s folk-singer naiveté (her first big number is called “Everything’s Alright”), for which Bareilles, a modest pop star and a modest Broadway star, was ideal. And King Herod was the hammy supervillain, a role for which Alice Cooper proved even more ideal, a fellow ’70s rock-opera icon fully capable of selling the beyond-corny Vaudeville goof “King Herod’s Song.” (Cooper previously recorded the song in 1996 for a studio recording of the play.) He alone, in retrospect, could’ve brought the proper amount of dignity to the song’s proud indignity. “And now I understand you’re God,” he taunted Jesus. “Wow!” Which got a big, unironic audience laugh. He probably brought the skull-head cane from home.

John Legend is a less-modest pop star but still, traditionally, not exactly a flamethrower, whether he’s in soft-rock balladeer mode or throwback soul-belter mode. The Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar is a very precise balance of active and passive, doomed and defiant, determined but understandably a little whiny about it. The chest-pounding “Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)” required him to climactically howl, “See how I die!” in a piercing falsetto you won’t much find on a chart-topping John Legend record, and this is probably for the best. But his commitment here was total, and his trademark affableness so overpowering that hate-watching wasn’t an option.

This musical, historically, is devoid of nuance and proud of its imperfections, and the NBC version accordingly left little room for subtlety even when the subtlest moments hit the hardest. The dead-silent sequence when Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss on the cheek was immediately undercut by Legend moaning, “Judas! [Ominous synth blurt.] Must you betray me with a kiss?” But that’s showbiz, and the actual crucifixion scene, with Legend strung high in the air like a macabre kite, the stage behind him breaking apart into a cross itself and swallowing him up in another slow burst of blinding white, had a genuinely unsettling elegance. And whatever gala, decidedly extra musical NBC stages next, it’ll at least avoid outright disaster if it finds even one person with Brandon Victor Dixon’s casual command, on display in both Judas’s maximum-pathos death scene and his glitzy resurrection for the galactic-Motown climax “Superstar.”

“Outright disaster” is the scale on which these live-TV-musical stunts are judged: There’s an aura of garish danger to the whole concept, and at least half the people tuning in are usually rooting for some sort of humiliating calamity. (More than half, in the case of Allison Williams as Peter Pan.) But Jesus Christ Superstar, even at its gaudiest, never once registered as a joke, or an out-of-control melodrama in need of a collective social media puncturing. You might’ve found yourself rooting for even the people you weren’t supposed to be rooting for, and marveling at John Legend’s previously unknown reserves of ferocity, and reveling in the expert audacity of it all. That audacity felt almost holy, in fact. But not too holy.