We found Jesus, and he is John Legend. Specifically, he is John Legend, in cozy loungewear, singing the songs of Andrew Lloyd Webber, in a Brooklyn armory transformed into a steampunk chapel. It’s Easter Sunday. Perhaps it’s fitting that someone took us to church, and this is just our kind of service.
NBC had hoped that its staging of Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert would look and feel like a rock concert more than a stuffy stage musical filmed for TV. We were in the audience for Sunday night’s live taping of the John Legend show. If you couldn’t tell from the whoops and hollers from the relentlessly screaming crowd that threatened to drown out the belting voices on your TV—all John Legend had to do was blink to get the live audience members to erupt in screeching adulation—the rock-concert vibe was certainly accomplished.
But, truly, it felt more special than that. Not to be corny, it felt like an actual spiritual experience.
Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert is the latest in the evolution of the live musicals that kicked off in blockbuster, if creatively dizzying, fashion with Sound of Music Live! five years ago. Since then, various networks have followed the Peacock Net’s lead and mounted live versions of everything from Peter Pan to Hairspray to Grease and A Christmas Story. All arrived with mixed creative reception, increasingly greater scale and ambition, and, as time has passed, diminishing ratings return.
Nothing primes you for hyperbole quite like a religious pageant recounting the Crucifixion, set to a rock opera score by Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber. That said, we’d go out on a limb to say that NBC performed miracles with this telecast. Expectations for what the live genre can produce, how it can be immersively and groundbreakingly staged, and how it can make the audience, be it live or at home, feel have been—last church pun, we promise—risen.
Exquisitely cast with daringly diverse talent sporting an array of blush-inducing deep-V tops, there was a cool confidence to the rock-concert proceedings. The airplane hangar and studio backlot’s worth of elaborate sets, requiring golf carts to transport cast members from scene to scene for Grease Live!, have been eschewed for, while hardly a simple set-up, a more confined one: a humble football-field-length tower of scaffolding and rustic frescos, as if the set of a touring production of Rent collided with the episode of Friends, in which they make a demolished British church cozy enough for Ross and Emily’s wedding.
The effect is the kind of confined energy that makes people still, in the age of countless screens, crave live experiences, that same magic that everyone you know who won’t shut up about seeing Hamilton has felt. All that, but amped up like an arena rock show.
The trick, of course, is to translate that energy and that feeling to screen—through the screen, really, to the viewers watching at home. The 1,300 or so of us watching live from Brooklyn’s Marcy Armory were encouraged to act like we were at a bonafide rock concert, down to a stress-inducing email instructing to dress for the “casual & fun” occasion, and the cast gave us the show we were being sold.
Using sweeping cameras on cranes and strategic handheld contraptions that let cameramen dive into the ensemble, the telecast, when we watched back after returning home, managed to capture the electricity of the live experience, zooming in for nuance but never sacrificing the scope.
The concert staging by design eradicated the need for film-quality realism or polish, but being freed from that made the telecast seem the most polished one yet. We’re past the days of simply filming a proscenium stage production and calling it a live telecast. Now these productions aren’t just taking you to the theater. They’re taking you to a concert. They’re taking you to church.
Our journey to church started with a bus ride from an audience meet-up point—NBC wanted to minimize disruption to the South Williamsburg neighborhood where the show was filmed by bussing in the audience—on which Zach Braff attempted to hype the passengers with a Jesus Christ Superstar sing-a-long. It turns out that no hyping can rival the iconic blaring of the horns in the opening bars of the musical’s title song. Paired with the dramatic parting of the set’s giant frescoes to reveal John Legend as Jesus, there was such a swell of excitement and emotion that the bleachers shook menacingly under the foot-stomping cheers of the audience.
It was essentially non-stop euphoria from there, with Legend in his best Big Little Lies drag—the coziest-looking floor-length gray cardigan we’ve ever seen over an all-white ensemble—triggering mass swooning each time he opened his mouth. The R&B singer’s stage presence, particularly as he athletically belted his way through “Gesthemane,” was more robust than we were prepared to give him credit for. If the falsetto didn’t quite reach the heavens the way he had likely hoped (and it didn’t), the audience was screaming loud enough at just the attempt that you didn’t much notice.
But Legend was but one blessing of this ensemble.
The nation was brought to its collective happy place—Sara Bareilles sitting on stoops, lilting earnestly—each time Mary Magdalene entered to sing. (If Legend earned the most raucous ovation, Bareilles easily had the most phones out to record her big number, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”)
Rocker Alice Cooper was a smarmy delight in the show’s curio comedic number, interrupting the Son of God’s death sentence with a showgirl song-and-dance. And the company’s parade of crazed costumes, from steampunk hoodies to bohemian leisurewear to Matrix assassin chic, heralded a wardrobe designer out to do the most, and a director wise enough to let him follow his heart.
And then there’s Judas.
As any musical theatre nerd will tell you—and I’m the one preaching today—the real beast of a role in Jesus Christ Superstar is Judas, whose arc of emotions should leave its performer drained and emptied, and whose outrageous solos should leave his vocal cords exploded into pieces and splayed on the floor. Stage star Brandon Victor Dixon took on the role for this telecast, and is about to be, because of it, a huge freaking star. Dixon is best known for starring in Hamilton as Aaron Burr—he’s the one who confronted Mike Pence after the curtain call of a performance last year—but will henceforth be known as the guy who did that.
What did we see by being in the audience that you didn’t catch on screen?
The scale of everything was jaw-dropping. Those frescoes were huge. Members of the 30-plus member band were scattered all up and down the scaffolding that outlined them, and that scaffolding climbed high. Speaking of, that gorgeous crucifixion scene, backlit so breathtakingly, took place wayyyyy up in the rafters. John Legend was really high up there—high enough for us to question the wisdom of dangling a national treasure from wires that far off the ground during a live telecast.
Aside from that, there were hilarious moments during commercial breaks when men with giant brooms rushed out to frantically sweep up the glitter strewn about during multiple scenes; things got hectic after Judas’s suicide, when a vacuum brought out to expedite matters appeared to malfunction. Also during commercial breaks, the cast would wink cheekily at the audience as they rushed on and off stage. Major ovations went to Legend after “Gethsemane” and for Dixon after the massive “Superstar” production number. People were on their feet before that one even ended.
And while it might not be in the superficial spirit of this show, which postures a religious savior as a rock-star celebrity, and this production, which leaned so aggressively into the performative concert of it all, it would be a sin not to visit the deep meaningfulness of what happened Sunday night.
There will, undoubtedly, be strong feelings had about a black performer portraying Jesus in an Easter Sunday telecast—and, hopefully, there will be viewers in equal volume who shrug their shoulders at the casting, too. The casting was as colorblind as it is significant. There are scenes in Jesus Christ Superstar—a figurehead of a movement being crucified by an angry mob; a community exploiting a revolutionary; a leader marshaling provocative ideas deemed a menace to society and threat to power—that take on a striking nuance and resonance with a person of color in the role, especially now.
So there’s that, but also it’s just a pleasure to have a great musical performed by phenomenal voices, regardless of the race of the people who possess them.
In other words, good luck to future live TV musicals. Especially if this one is as as big of a ratings hit as we suspect it will be, there’s a new standard set for them.