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Village Theatre's 'Jesus Christ Superstar' perpetuates anti-semitism

A new production accentuates the flaws of the original and controversial musical, through bad costume choices and other missteps. Given the current religious and political strife in the Middle East, it's hard to even understand why this show is still being performed.

Michael K. Lee as Jesus and Aaron Finley as Judas in 'Jesus Christ Superstar.'

Michael K. Lee as Jesus and Aaron Finley as Judas in 'Jesus Christ Superstar.' Jay Koh/Village Theatre

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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Comments:

Posted Thu, May 19, 5:10 p.m. Inappropriate

Well, gosh, I haven't seen the show, and I certainly never thought of myself as an anti-semite, and (full disclosure, I'm not a Christian either) but if costume design and choice of shoes somehow makes a Broadway musical anti-semitic, sign me up.

The insensitivity that is hard for me to understand or accept in this day and age is the unwillingness to celebrate the freedom that allows any theater to produce any kind of show it deems desirable.

gabowker

Posted Thu, May 19, 5:56 p.m. Inappropriate

Ms. Kaderlan seems to have a very strong opinion of “Jesus Christ Superstar” independent of the production currently on stage, which is certainly her right. I don’t wish to debate the merits of the score or script, or the challenges inherent in the telling of this particular story. It has been controversial since the initial concept album, and clearly still generates high emotional responses some 40 years later.

I do wish to call her out on her description of the costume design choices, however. I fear that Ms. Kaderlan has leaped to erroneous conclusions regarding some of the interpretive choices.

The production concept for this revival seeks to place the characters in a modern context. Ms. Kaderlan accurately describes the contemporary analogs made for many of the characters. Money lenders become bankers, apostles take on the garb of a youth driven protest movement, Roman soldiers wear the armor of riot police, etc. However, her statement “Jewish priests are still Jewish priests” is not strictly accurate. The characters on stage are certainly figures of religious leadership and dramaturgically must remain so, but the costume choices made are not the look of a present-day Rabbi or even a biblical era Pharisee. The specific design (which the author fails to describe) of a white, contemporary cut suit, red necktie, and white skull cap cannot be found in a simple Google image search were one attempting to look for visual representations of Jewish religious figures. The closest images that pop up are that of the two most recent Popes, both wearing white robes with zuchetti (their version of a skullcap) and even this is not a direct cut-and-paste. I suspect that the image of a skullcap alone may have set off Ms. Kaderlan’s ant-semitism radar, even though variations on this style of headgear can also be found within Catholic, Muslim, and Buddhist religious traditions. When searching for a modern day analog for an entrenched religious hierarchy, it can be reasonably argued that something that suggests both the liturgical garb of the Vatican and the white suit of a 90’s era televangelist is quite appropriate.

Certainly, Ms. Kaderlan is welcome to draw her own conclusions. Such is the nature of art. They are not the only conclusions that can be drawn in this case, and If Ms. Kaderlan had taken the time to accurately describe the clothing in question, perhaps she could see that they do not support her preconceived thesis.

msmucker

Posted Thu, May 19, 10:13 p.m. Inappropriate

Good heavens, don't obsess over the costumes. Ms. Kaderlan made it clear that it was mainly the script which was the problem, and the script still contains anti-Semitism because without it, the whole play doesn't really make sense. Which is a good reason why it shouldn't have been mounted.

Ms. Kaderlan refers to the "historical record". There is no historical record; the Christian scriptural books contain varying accounts of the supposed condemnation of Jesus, and the earliest of those books is now thought by scholars to have been written no earlier than 80 CE, and the latest some 50 years later. That's not a "record" of an event.

sarah90

Posted Thu, May 19, 10:36 p.m. Inappropriate

I agree with sarah90, but I think Ms. Kadleran's point about costumes is relevant. Theater is also a visual medium in which visuals convey meaning. Why else would a director "update" the costuming, except to suggest contemporary relevance. Msmucker's attempt to recast the kippah as a possible symbol of Buddhism or papal authority in a play about Jews is, well, a bit of a stretch, as is the attempt to link white suits to televangelists. But then, the choice of this juvenile play in the contemporary repertoire is a bit of a stretch.

bkochis

Posted Fri, May 20, 8:08 a.m. Inappropriate

I like the music, like the play.....have not seen this production. I think that the author is overreacting to what most people do not see. Most of the theater goers are there for the entertainment and do not read as much into what they are seeing as all of the symbolism that the author perceives.

buddycats

Posted Fri, May 20, 8:13 a.m. Inappropriate

Alice Kaderlan is justly concerned about anti-semitism around the world. She appears to experience Jesus Christ Superstar, whenever it appears, as primarily an anti-semetic play that could trigger more religious hatred so she doesn't want it to be performed - at least in our state. I experience it very differently, as a musical with glorious and uplifting songs. Different people, different experiences of the play.

Ms. Kaderlan has given us an opportunity to discuss whether silence is the best way to combat bigotry. Is censorship, even self-censorship, the best way to suppress our tribal instincts? Should any artform or discussion that makes any one person or group uncomfortable be suppressed?

A wonderful topic of discussion for which we owe the author a vote of thanks.

Posted Fri, May 20, 8:22 a.m. Inappropriate

What an unfettered, close-minded, baggage-riddled, piece of horse poop of a review. This production underlined class-warfare and the human quotient over greed and power. It uses the Jesus story to illuminate the injustices occuring in our society today. In this production, WE ARE ALL the Jews. Whether it's pilot's struggle, or Caiuphus' problem, or Judas' humanity, we can all find a piece of ourselves in these characters. And your description of Herod is homophobic. The character is clearly written as a feckless, petulant, entitled tyrant. That is Herod. His sexuality is MOOT. Why you felt the need to bring it up just highlights the many problems YOU HAVE in YOUR LIFE. It says that you have 30 years of reviewing experience. For the love of everything that is good and holy about the theatrical experience: PLEASE STOP. RETIRE. YOU'RE DONE. If you can't let go of all that baggage and crap you bring the theatre, we don't want you there.

Posted Fri, May 20, 8:34 a.m. Inappropriate

Oh, and those noises you heard:
That loud jet-plane noise, was this production's message flying right over your head.

That loud thud, was your career.

Posted Fri, May 20, 9:09 a.m. Inappropriate

Um. Is this supposed to be a review? ...because if it is, I'd suggest that the writer has a wee bit o'bias issue.

Controversial or not, it's a hit Broadway play- standard fare for community theaters everywhere. A kids' group did it in Olympia a few years ago. If you don't like it, go picket the production, or simply ignore it. Don't use your platform to slam community theater which, in this day & age, has a hard enough time surviving.

debbalee

Posted Fri, May 20, 10:52 a.m. Inappropriate

There is plenty of anti-Semitism in these parts. Jesus Christ Superstar is unlikely to trigger an increase for the simple reason that those susceptible to the disorder are unlikely to be in attendance.

Posted Fri, May 20, 12:26 p.m. Inappropriate

Costumes aside (since that clearly is open to interpretation) it seems clear that this production didn't have a prayer of a fair review from Ms. Kaderlan. She makes it clear she's offended that the show is even being performed -- anywhere, anytime.

How was the singing? The acting? The staging? Who knows? Ms. Kaderlan doesn't tell us. Ninety percent of this review (or screed) could have been written before the show even opened. Given the reviewer's point of view it's hard to imagine the production could ever get a fair shake.

bigyaz

Posted Fri, May 20, 3:55 p.m. Inappropriate

Talk about anti-Semitic - they literally crucified that one nice Jewish man!

Good Heavens! Were those responsible for having Jesus executed by the occupying Roman government Jewish? um, yeah. Were "The Jews" responsible for the death of Jesus? um, no. It's impossible to tell the story of Jesus apart from the context of his and the surrounding society's Judaism. Those that chose to cheer for Jesus execution were Jewish. Why? because the story is set in the Jewish lands in the early first century, that's why. Have some Biblical interpretations and translations been anti-Semetic? Oh hell yes. One would have to be a fool to not see that. Could one take the story of Jesus and twist it to push an anti-Semetic agenda? Sadly, that answer is yes to these questions as well. But the objection here seems to be that Christianity is Anti-Semetic. This view seems to completely obliterate any chance at objectivity on the part of the reviewer. The crowds were Jewish - the story is set in Jerusalem at Passover. From a Jewish perspective, Jesus was a Jewish reformer who was pretty ticked off that the leaders of his religion had sold out and were in cahoots with the occupying Romans. Jesus was ticked off that the leaders of his religion had let their self serving interpretation of their own scriptures, get in the way of authentic living. The story is anti-religious, pro-God. The religion of the people in the story is Judiasm. People who get that confused and propigate anti-semitism with the story are the problem. It seems to me that the reviewer has been subject to this so much that the Jesus story has been completely corrupted for her. Jesus has much to say of worth to Jewish people - completely apart from the Evangelical message that is so often assumed to speak for all of Christianity. Jesus never asked anyone to stop being Jewish.

As for this production of Jesus Christ, Superstar? I have no idea if it plays up Jewish stereotypes or not as the author is too busy being concerned with Christian stereotypes.

Posted Sun, May 22, 8:59 a.m. Inappropriate

As a casual Christian who supports Israel and Jewish traditions, I see this critique as over-kill, relative to the plot and the production. Historic records of the time are far more solid than other similar historic events. Keep in mind that Jesus WAS a Jew who was condemned by other Jews. Kind of like being convicted by a jury of peers - what a concept.

This ranting critique only serves to diminish Kaderlan's professional reputation. I truly hope she can redeem herself in the future by avoiding her own political/religious bias.

siderod

Posted Mon, May 23, 9:31 a.m. Inappropriate

Jesus was a Jew who was executed by the Roman political structure. That much is history, as much as anything that happened in that small and unimportant outpost of the Roman empire could be history. The rest is Christian conjecture transformed into theology in non-contemporarily-written chapters of the New Testament. I highly doubt, given the fact that the Jews were a subject people and various groups were fomenting revolt against the Roman overlords, that the Romans consulted the priests of that subject people on who to kill.

Commenters' personal remarks about the reviewer are as inappropriate as they deem her review to be. She's a reviewer -- i.e., a critic -- not a promoter, and ad hominem remarks display more about the commenter than the critic.

sarah90

Posted Thu, May 26, 4:20 p.m. Inappropriate

Although sarah90 has cited an undocumented stable of scholars, she's right about one thing: it appears that Jesus was executed by Romans. That does not diminish the issue that Jesus was first condemned by Jews at the Sanhedrin, also cited by scholars. Oh, and many scholars are citing that historical events of the time were recorded in oral and written traditions much earlier than previously thought. Thanks Scholar sarah!

In any case, a mob scene of fellow nationals condemning Jesus does not constitute antisemitism. Long live Israel, Long live Jesus.

siderod

Posted Tue, Apr 2, 10:47 p.m. Inappropriate

Yeah a bunch of people that believed in a make believe God killed some guy that said he was the son of that make believe God. And like a bunch of idiots, some people started believing he actually was the son of God. Who cares? It is a good musical.

westman20

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