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Jesus Christ!

The Son of God takes Manhattan—from Bigger Than Jesus to Godspell—and the people blamed for his death wonder where to turn

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You can’t say we weren’t warned. No less an authority than Neil Patrick Harris told us in his hilarious opening number at last year’s Tony Awards: Broadway is “not just for gays anymore” (or the gays and the Jews, or cousins in from out-of-town you have to amuse …). Instead, it is now for those of us theater lovers who naively assumed the election of President Barack Obama had forever stanched the toxic religiosity that washed over us during the George W. Bush Administration like the flood waters of Lake Pontchartrain. A recent Tweet from New York Times theater editor Scott Heller points out that when Bigger Than Jesus, self-described “progressive Christian” Rich Miller’s one-man exploration of the life of Christ, opens at NYU’s Skirball Center this weekend, there will be four, count ’em, four separate depictions of Sons of God spreading the Good News to an audience who normally hears the word “Messiah” and thinks “Sondheim.” A single Jewish boy hasn’t dominated the New York stage like this since Neil Simon in 1966.

With so many Christ-figures running around Manhattan, where can your average Jew get maximum discomfort with the infectious suggestibility of Christianity and a vague sense of complicity in the horrific death of its prophet for her theater-going dollar? Simply put, if you’re going to see only one Jesus this Passover season, which one should it be?

I haven’t seen Bigger Than Jesus, and God knows I’m all for progressive Christianity—they are, after all, the people who gave us Kristin Chenoweth—but from what I can glean from the press materials, it seems to be, quite literally, preaching to the converted, so that’s out. Ditto The Book of Mormon, which is hilarious and wonderful, but takes as its subject a religion that is almost flatteringly Judaic in its relegation of Jesus to the background; a pleasant, even inspired fellow, but ultimately beside the point. Godspell? Don’t even talk to me about Godspell. As a still shell-shocked veteran of the community theater of the lower Midwest, I consider myself a Godspell survivor, and if you think it’s offensive to use that term in light of not-so-recent events, then you clearly haven’t seen Godspell lately. As for the new, relentlessly cheerful, “updated” production (i.e., fewer painfully earnest hippie references, more painfully earnest Facebook references) I think The New Yorker’s Michael Schulman said it best outside the theater immediately following the performance: “It made me homesick for New York.”

Which leaves us with the moody, rock-star Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar. To watch Paul Nolan, the actor playing Jesus, roaming the stage with the straggly mane of a wet lion and white T-shirt cut to bare a generous expanse of pectoral cleavage, like Russell Brand at a Kabbalah retreat, is to understand something of the seductive message of Christianity, of the genius of offering up not a thundering abstraction demanding one’s fealty to hard-to-find blue dye or adherence to arbitrary and onerous kitchen configurations, but a young, hot dude who lets you anoint him with fragrant oil and bury your face in his chest hair while he listens to you talk about your feelings (whether the rampant homophobia in some strains of Christianity developed in reaction to some essential homoeroticism embedded in the theology itself is a discussion worth having, but we’ll leave it in another time).

The apostles, also dressed in elaborately ruched and unexpectedly revealing knitwear, relate to Jesus and to each other with the furtive intensity of teenagers on the last night of summer camp; hushed conversations, lingering hugs, the contagious, unspoken sense that this has been the Most. Important. Time. Of their lives. You want to be a part of it. I certainly did, and so did the guy sitting in front of me, mouth open in holy ecstasy, leaning so far forward in his seat that the ballpoint pen tucked in the breast pocket of his short-sleeved sport shirt threatened to tumble over the mezzanine balcony and blind some unsuspecting soul below (who would then, presumably, be hauled up on stage to be healed, so no harm done). It all stands in marked contrast with the dourness of the Jewish high priest Caiphas and his cronies, clad in the black turbans and heavy eyeliner favored by the more dashing members of the Taliban and dreadlocked payot. Who wants to rub olive oil on them?

The arrival of Caiphas is always a tense moment for any Jew watching a Jesus play, as he is the character who pokes a conspicuous hole in the rebuttal passed down for generations by fretful Jewish mothers to the children they feared would be accused as “Christ-killers.” The ancient Jewish establishment may not have technically killed Jesus, but it seems to me they pretty enthusiastically handed them over to the people who would and pressed the issue when it looked like Pontius Pilate’s resolve might weaken. (I’m just working from Tim Rice’s lyrics here, which are as likely to be divinely inspired as anything in the Bible, and share a similarly awkward sentence construction.) OK, so we killed him, no matter who signed the order and actually nailed him to that big light-up cross. I understand that, and after watching Jesus rise on a crucifix of light from the stage of … wait for it … the Neil Simon Theater for the first time, I accept it.

What I don’t understand, and what I refuse to accept, is why they were mad about it for so long. Jesus Christ Superstar, and by association, the Gospels, clearly argue that Jesus’ excruciating death was mandated by God (it wouldn’t have been the first time He asked for something unreasonable), the ultimate sacrifice that would cleanse the world of sin and usher in the Golden Age of the A.D.’s. The Crucifixion had to happen for Jesus to move from the realm of friendly Reconstructionist guitar-playing rabbi to Our Lord and Savior; the only trouble is that nobody seemed to quite have the balls to go through with it on their own: not Pilate, not poor conflicted Judas, not even Jesus himself. Of all the leaders of Judea, only one man stood above the fray, was doctrinaire, unyielding, and certain enough of his divine rectitude (all excellent qualities for a pope, I might add) to put personal scruples aside and get that hippie on the cross where he belonged.

Forget St. Peter: St. Caiphas was the real rock upon which he built his Church. And frankly, I’m still waiting for my thank-you note.


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Esther says:

Well said Rachel!!!

musia schwartz says:

“balagan” is a russian word. dictionary : tomfoolery, buffoonery. usage (in russian & some other slavic languages) :”high mess”. imported to Israel no doubt.

Jennifer says:

“We did it, signed Morty.” — Lenny Bruce

The music in Jesus Christ Superstar is far superior to that of Godspell. I still haven’t forgiven Stephen Schwartz for writing it.

Frances says:

I saw Jesus Christ Superstar way back when it first came out and just saw the latest (re)incarnation. It was always a bit of a guilty pleasure, but now, since reading this article, I can enjoy it knowing that we were doing the work of G-d.

The music for Jesus Christ Superstar holds up pretty well, despite the sometimes dopey lyrics. (Don’t think Godspell ever had any really standout songs).

Asher says:

Thank you, Rachel, for a fun-filled article; what a great read. I am sure I got more joy from it than I would from any of the 4 plays discussed.

This is a great summary of modern American Christianity. Thank you.

Interesting and amusing article. But I wish there were finally a moratorium on gratuitous Bush-bashing. It’s getting old.

tantelaeh says:

There never was an individual from Nazareth named Jesus Christ. Scholars know the place did not exist until 200 years after Yhesshie the alleged Messiah died.

The whole story is Bull as there is no historical record whatsoever of such a person as JC.
The tribe of Judah was so assimilated into Babylonian culture they failed to return to Jerusalem.
How could a decendant of David suddenly appear at age 30 unmarried and without children and be taken seriously by Jews. Jews have no virgin theories. That’s a Greek thing.

Time for full page ads in the NYT and other publications touting the Good News: Jesus is a Mythological Figure.

Nice photo of Peter Beinart.

One of the most genuinely offensive articles I have read here on Tablet. Can’t quite put my finger on why. Perhaps, it seemed almost like trafe to me; something against my upbringing.

I, Zan Overall, The Wise Old Man on you tube, am not a great friend of the Tribe, as my comments on earlier Tablet articles will show. However, I am going to be helpful and tell you where to turn, faced as you are by Jesus all over Broadway.

Turn to the work of Joseph Atwill, author of the book “Caesar’s Messiah.” Mr. Atwill argues convincingly that there was no historical Jesus. The Gospels are a work of fiction created by the three Flavian Caesars years after you guys were accused
of offing him. No body, no crime.
Case dismissed!

No, no, don’t thank me! There is a downside to this for the Tribe. The Talmud says a lot of nasty things about Jesus:
son of a whore and a Roman soldier, boiling in Hell in a pot of semen for eternity. Jews are supposed to be smart but they
got fooled by the Romans like the rest of us.

(Irony aside. Mr. Atwill shows that the Gospels are a parody of Josephus’s “War of the Jews.” They were created by Romans at the time of revolts by a lot of tough Jews around 66 C.E. The Romans succeeded in creating a pacifist Messiah who urged Jews to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.

Is there anything real that we have been taught? How real is the Old Testament,
I wonder.)

The Wise Old Man resides at:

JCarpenter says:

from Godspell: “All good things around us/are sent from Heaven above/ Then thank the Lord, thank the Lord/for all his love . . . ” I’ll cherry-pick that one song to hang my black hat on. Work for peace, tolerance, acceptance.

Virginia Collis says:

Coming from a very conservative background and being brought up Christian, I just want to say-I liked your article!! and…”Thank You!”

Dulcy Freeman says:

Write on!!!

Quote: “OK, so we killed him, no matter who signed the order and actually nailed him to that big light-up cross. I understand that, and after watching Jesus rise on a crucifix of light from the stage of … wait for it … the Neil Simon Theater for the first time, I accept it.”

I know you meant this to be humorous, but for the record, I don’t think that *you* (in the plural, addressing your *we*) killed Jesus. Whether powerful members of the Jewish establishment of the time were instrumental in Jesus’ death is a parable to me for the cast of characters might have been composed of almost any one down to present-day establishments, say for example, that of the good old U.S. of A.

That the Jewish people have been protagonists in a vast drama is undeniable but those who see them as stand-ins for humanity are few and far between. That this is a burden unsought for and often resented is evident to me from my reading of Jewish authors, particularly in fiction.

The truth is that I am you: I killed Jesus and in the measure that Jews are blamed for Jesus’ death I, a goy, find myself within their number. Either all of humanity killed Jesus or no one did. It is a paradox that for lack of appreciation enabled many to kill and oppress so many innocents throughout the centuries.

Speaking for myself and my inmediate family, I’m no more guilty for persecuting and oppressing the Jews than contemporary Jews are guilty of Jesus’ death. I can’t change the past, but I can build bridges for the future.

– Teófilo de Jesús
Blogmaster, Vivificat

JCarpenter says:

TDJ: thoughtful comment, especially last paragraph. Re-use that wood from the cross and build a bridge. Blessings—JC

Which Jesus should you choose? How about the real one? Yeshua, who died not for Jews only but also for the Gentiles. As for who is responsible for His death? All of us are. For He didn’t die for His own sins, since He never sinned, He died for the sins of the world, both Jews as well as Gentiles. This is clearly seen in the crucifixion itself. The Jewish people handing Him over to the Gentiles (Romans) to be crucified. May the sons of Abraham find peace with G-d through Yeshua Messiah of Israel.

    Marina Sapir says:

    Essentially, you repeat what the author is saying: Jesus death saved people for ever and ever by the will of God, and the Jews are to blame for giving Jesus to Romans. 

    How about thanking the Jews for fulfilling the God’s  will, if it was the God’d will and the Jews did give him to Romans? 

    And I do not even start to understand how a death of a Jew may be so beneficial for the world, that millions of Christians wear the small copy of the murder weapon (cross) on their necks. 


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Jesus Christ!

The Son of God takes Manhattan—from Bigger Than Jesus to Godspell—and the people blamed for his death wonder where to turn

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