By Carol Pipes
NBC is hoping Easter Sunday ends with a bang—or at least a show-stopping song-and-dance number—with the network’s live performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
The once-controversial rock opera about the last week of Jesus’ life is NBC’s fourth live musical production since “The Sound of Music Live!” in 2013. NBC’s “Superstar” features pop-music superstars John Legend as Jesus, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene, and Alice Cooper as King Herod, as well as “Hamilton” actor Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas.
Written by lyricist Tim Rice and composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, “Jesus Christ Superstar” was first released as a double album in 1970 and became Billboard’s best-selling album of 1971. It was adapted into a Broadway production that same year and earned five Tony nominations. The Oscar-nominated film version (1973) made $23 million at the box office. Both adaptations had a distinctly ’60s hippie-culture feel.
The musical is loosely based on the Gospels’ accounts of the week leading up to Jesus’ death on the cross and ends with the crucifixion—no resurrection. It focuses on Jesus’ relationship with his disciples—primarily the interpersonal struggle between Judas and Jesus. While it gets some of the details correct, it largely deviates from Scripture.
The musical’s portrayal of the Passion brought criticism from conservative Christians when it debuted. Billy Graham himself said it “bordered on blasphemy and sacrilege,” while other evangelical Christians picketed the theater where the musical was first staged, according to The Guardian. The objections centered on the show’s emphasis of “the humanity of Jesus almost to the exclusion of his divinity.”
With a star-studded cast, NBC is hoping to draw audience numbers similar to those of previous live musical productions. The network kicked off the live musical phenomena in 2013 with “The Sound of Music Live!” drawing 18.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen ratings. Next were “Peter Pan Live!” in 2014 with 9.2 million viewers, “The Wiz Live!” in 2015 with 11.5 million viewers, and the 2016 production of “Hairspray Live!” with 9 million.
If NBC execs are banking on Christian families gathering around the television Sunday night after their Easter ham and deviled eggs, they may have chosen the wrong musical. A non-divine Jesus who doubts his mission is not the Jesus of the Bible. And a Passion play minus the resurrection misses the point of Easter.
Still, if “Superstar” manages to draw a crowd, Christians will have the opportunity Monday morning to talk to their friends and co-workers about the rest of the story.
CAROL PIPES (@CarolPipes) is editor in chief of Facts & Trends.