Originally submitted as part of an assignment for Matt Zoller Seitz's Literature of Criticism class at Newhouse.
For better and worse, the live version of Jesus Christ Superstar has changed live musical broadcasts forever. It’s easy to take that statement and turn it into “because it was just sooo marvelous that nothing will ever top it.” It’s really a double edged swoard, especially when considering what’s next. When television execs from all of the major networks sit down to think about what show to do next, I’m interested in what they will choose.
First, I do want to say that JCS was very good and the theatre nerd in me felt so much joy seeing stagecraft executed so well on television (seriously, bless everyone involved in Jesus dying on the cross and rising into heaven—what a weird thing to type). The set was beautifully crafted with its classic JCS/any rock musical scaffolding—though not giving Jesus tables to flip seems like a waste. Then again, I can’t really see John Legend flipping a table. Maybe giving it a light shove, but not flipping it. The point is, the entire musical was incredibly put together, the acting was mostly top notch, the singing was basically flawless, it was visually spectacular, and, thanks to a live audience, it felt electric. It’s obvious why people loved it and are saying that it has raised the bar for future televised musicals.
But here’s the problem: most musicals aren’t like JCS. JCS is a rock musical that naturally lends itself to screaming fans, dramatic staging, and a celebrity like Legend coming in and simply existing as the famous person he is. JCS lends itself to the vibrant concert feel that the creators of this live staging achieved, most musicals do not. Sure, JCS deserves credit for showing the televised musical audience that some shows can be cool and not just the overproduced, cutesy nonsense that was Grease, Hairspray, and Peter Pan when they were televised live. Most musicals (at least the good ones that deserve to be broadcast) are somewhere in the middle.
First, a quick look at the six musicals that make up what can be seen as a new love of televising musicals. Of Grease, Peter Pan, The Wiz, Hairspray, The Sound of Music, and JCS, only Hairspray (2002) had its Broadway premiere after 1975. But even Hairspray is a throwback to the 60s. Televised musicals of modern musicals just aren’t being done. I bring that up because if JCS has set a new bar for televised musicals, only a modern musical will be able to come close to recreating its fervor. I’m talking about having to stage Wicked or Book of Mormon. Julie Taymor directing a staged version of her design for The Lion King could be a smash.
But even these wildly popular musicals don’t bring the electricity that JCS’s rock vibe has. I’ve seen Rent batted around as a possibility for a follow up. The issue is that people forget how much down time there is in Rent. Sure, it’s the quintessential rock musical, but it’s extremely subdued and not something that you’re going to get that same kind of audience interaction with. Even Rent will send audiences back to the politely clapping, barely present audiences of Sound of Music.
At some points off and on over the years Netflix has hosted the musical version of Shrek, Raul Esparza starring in John Doyle’s innovative production of Company, and John Mulaney and Nick Kroll’s Oh Hello filmed on Broadway. These were all filmed versions of the musical (or play) on a stage as would be performed on Broadway or the like. This is where the future of these live musicals should be. A combination of JCS’s ability to create a spectacle on stage with its design and star power with Company’s ability to simply put theater into people’s homes. (This probably means eliminating the excessive commercial breaks.)
So here’s my thing, we shouldn’t look at JCS as a new benchmark for future live musicals. It’s going to be borderline impossible for someone else to hit (again, I think Taymor has a chance if someone gives her a go). JCS is the perfect storm of wall to wall music, in your face rock vibes, and audience excitement matched with star power and talent. It perfectly lends itself to dominate a medium like this in a way nothing besides perhaps Hamilton can. I think the best lesson studios should take from JCS is that audiences don’t need full, built out studio sets. Just film the musicals. Stage them well, set up your camera crews, and let the performers do their job.