There are many serious problems with the Village Theatre’s current production of Jesus Christ Superstar. These include a bizarre contemporary updating in which Jesus and his disciples are depicted as street people; an anachronistic appearance by King Herod, who is erroneously portrayed as a flamboyant homosexual; orchestrations that destroy the beauty of the music; and an electronic band that is so over-amplified it makes the show sound like it’s being performed in an echo chamber.
But these difficulties pale before the fundamental issue the production raises, namely: Why is Village Theatre presenting an overtly anti-semitic show whose core premise — that the Jews were responsible for Jesus’ crucifixion — has been definitively refuted by none other than Pope Benedict XVI?
The accusation of anti-semitism has plagued Jesus Christ Superstar since its premiere on Broadway in 1971. The lyrics by Tim Rice — which include a chorus of Jews chanting “Crucify him, crucify him” and “this Jesus must die” — place the blame for Jesus’ death squarely on all the Jews, not just the priest Caiaphas. Even if the historical record suggests Caiaphas did denounce Jesus, it also makes it clear that Caiaphas had complex motives. In fact, the Romans were afraid of a Jewish insurrection because of Jesus’ popularity, and Caiaphas was trying to protect the Jewish community as a whole from Roman retribution, which nevertheless occurred some years later.
It’s important to note that Christians also criticized the original show. Their charge was that it was blasphemous given that, among other things, it suggests a sexual relationship between Jesus and Mary Magdalene. But it was the characterization of the Jews that caused the greatest uproar, one that got louder with the release of the film in 1973.
Despite these concerns, there’s no question Jesus Christ Superstar has been an international hit with productions in numerous countries around the world. However, many of those nations have relatively few, if any, Jews and a long history of anti-semitism, so it’s not surprising that their productions have generally been well received.
This is not the first time Village Theatre has produced Jesus Christ Superstar; the last time was in 1993. But if there ever was a justification for presenting the show, there is no longer. Anti-semitism is on the rise around the world, and the current situation in the Middle East — regardless of one’s views — continues to fuel hatred toward Jews. Locally, the recent controversy over pro-Palestinian bus boards and the shootings at the Jewish Federation (despite the obvious mental problems of the attacker) underscore the fact that Jews remain targets of scorn, animosity, and violence.
Against this backdrop, this Village Theatre production is hard to understand. Even if the Theatre feels it is artistically sound, there is no excuse for some of the production decisions director Brian Yorkey has made — decisions that reinforce rather than mitigate the rock opera’s inherent anti-semitism. For instance, there are no robes or sandals but rather an updating in costuming not just of Jesus and his apostles but of virtually all the other characters, except the Jewish priests. Pontius Pilate is a corporate honcho, his centurions are secret agents and riot police, the moneylenders are Wall Streeters, and Herod is a modern-day sybarite. But the Jewish priests are still Jewish priests, skullcaps and all. If the audience fails to get the message that it was the Jews who killed Jesus, Yorkey drives it home visually in a way that’s direct and unavoidable.
Yorkey was not available for an interview, and the Village Theatre said no one else could speak to the anti-semitism issue. So one can only guess at the theater's thinking. I doubt that the producers intentionally set out to incite anti-semitism, but this production and the Village Theatre’s failure to address the very serious questions it raises demonstrate an insensitivity that is hard to understand or accept in this day and age.
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