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Taking Jesus Christ Superstar back to the rock arena

The rock world has been doing it for ages, of course; though I don’t go to many, concert tours regularly seem to turn into fully-fledged theatrical presentations. The Pet Shop Boys, for instance, have regularly sought to make more of a show of their live appearances than just concerts, employing people like the late Derek Jarman, ENO’s David Alden and David Fielding, Sam Taylor-Wood and theatre designer Es Devlin (who did the Olympics opening ceremony) to hep create their live concert shows.

That, in turn, has meant that shows like American Idiot (coming to the UK next month, to open in Southampton then tour), The Who’s Tommy and We Will Rock You have embraced the rock arena style of presentation to bring rock music back to the theatre. Just tonight Let It Be, the latest Beatles tribute show, opens at the West End’s Prince of Wales.

And now the traffic is going the other way: last Friday Jesus Christ Superstar began an arena stage tour, returning Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s self-styled rock opera to the rock arena, where 41 years ago it made its live debut. On July 12, 1971, the year before it opened on Broadway, a live concert rendition of the album was staged at Pittsburgh’s Civic Arena, and led to what Andrew Lloyd Webber in a programme note to the new production calls “the biggest live event that the USA had seen up to that time”, with three separate tours playing at once.

Lloyd Webber also writes:

Here was I, just 23, and in charge of the music of the biggest event of its sort staged to date. I had to find a new American rock band, a new American cast (although Yvonne Elliman could still play Mary because she was a US citizen, thus satisfying US immigration and actors’ union rules), a choir and a symphony orchestra and put the whole thing together for shows in front of 10,000.

His producer Robert Stigwood, he goes on, “sat with with me at the sound console which I wasn’t allowed to operate because I wasn’t American.” And, he adds,

For some reason Tim [Rice] wasn’t at the opening (it was the cricket season after all). My nerves were not of steel. The audience was quiet at first and at the interval I was sure we were in trouble. But Robert said, ‘just wait for Herod’s Song.’ He was right, the audience erupted. At the end of the show there was uproar and I was brought on stage. I truly don’t think I’ve ever experienced a reaction like that since.”

When Lloyd Webber took to the stage at the O2 on Friday — again without Tim (though I don’t think it’s the cricket season this time) — he declared that it was, after 42 years, the Jesus Christ Superstar he always wanted to see (presumably since that last one). Of course as author of the work he’s entirely entitled to his opinion and I’m glad that he got his wish, even if it is the public who are indulging it by stumping up the hard cash to see it. With premium tickets at £95, and otherwise scaled from £45 to £65, it’s more or less the same prices as the West End, but with many more thousand seats to fill (and more and more remote views of the stage to offer).

But while he’s entitled to his opinion, so am I, and I’ve been more than a little disturbed to watch one of Lloyd Webber’s best-ever scores being so readily thrown to the wind and whims of becoming a public circus. It all started, of course, with the ITV reality TV casting shows for the title role that saw tried and already trusted performers — including Alex Gaumond (a one-time Olivier Award nominee for Legally Blonde), Oliver Tompsett (a lead in a current West End musical Rock of Ages), Roger Wright (a former lead from the original cast of The Lion King) and Jonathan Ansell (a one-time member of a chart-topping band) — submitting themselves to the humiliation of a public auditioning process.

I’ve previously written extensively about this and I don’t need to re-visit it, except to say that I’ve just started a weekly class teaching first year students at ArtsEd, and speaking to them last week I found them appalled at the prospect of having to submit themselves to this kind of cattle call. It’s difficult enough to enter a crowded profession (and maybe, of course, for the lucky few who win the contest, like Connie Fisher or Danielle Hope, it’s a way of doing so with a lot of publicity attached), but this isn’t why they’ve just started three years of training to do so.

As for the show itself, the demands of an arena staging — and reaching the very back of the massive hall — meant that the production was inevitably painted in broad brushstrokes, removing any subtlety and nuance. It also meant, as I’ve written in my review for The Stage, that “We watch the entire action in duplicate: the actors on stage are simultaneously shown projected on a massive screen behind them. That’s a considerate step to the people in the upper reaches of the 02, but why not simply wait for the DVD release of the event in November?”

On the other hand, perhaps this concert tour is intended to reach an audience who don’t typically go to the theatre at all. Certainly the two girls sitting behind me (for the first half at least, before I moved for the second) on Friday seemed to think they were at a rock gig where what was happening onstage was designed to accompany their personal concert, which included standing and shouting “We love you Ben” when Ben Forster, the contest winner as Jesus, appeared, keeping a running commentary throughout and singing along, out of tune, whenever they knew the melody (and even when they didn’t).

But never mind the irritations of that section of the audience; most people wouldn’t have heard them, as the show was so loud. But the production was providing enough irritations of its own for me. This was largely no fault of a hard-working, even harder-singing cast; in particular, Tim Minchin and Alexander Hanson rose easily above the redundant, overwhelming staging to produce the best performances of the night. And a fantastic onstage band provided plenty of (over-amplified) musical muscle.

Still, one ensemble member took to Twitter to publicly rebuke me: “I think @ShentonStage needs to keep his horrible opinions to himself!! No need for it…” That’s to fundamentally misunderstand my role as a critic. That isn’t to say I’m right — other critics for both the Daily Telegraph and The Independent have felt very differently. Should they keep their opinions to themselves, too? Obviously not. We’re just doing our jobs, and reporting our reactions as honestly as we can.

2 Comments

The show starts with civil unrest and the producers are lucky it hasn't ended in civil unrest by the working class who have paid hard earned money to line the pockets of greedy producers. These producers don't care that you can't see a thing from the cheap seats, not even the back projection. Corporate seats with the best views remained empty throughout the show on Saturday at O2. Nor do they care that like me the whole trip by train, hotel, tickets, food cost over £1000 for me and my 80 year old mother. I can't forgive the organisers for they know exactly what they do, let's gets as much money for half the effort and don't care that half the audience can't see a thing.

You took your 80 year old mother to what was always going to be a really full-on, loud version of this show in a huge rock arena? You wanted the train, hotel and food cost to be included in your tickets?

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