NBC’s next live musical to enrage Jewish people, Christians, your mom

Yesterday during the television “upfront” presentations, NBC announced plans to broadcast Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s 1971 retelling of the Passion, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” as part of its live musical series. Scheduled for Easter Sunday next year, the broadcast will follow NBC’s other ventures into live musical performances, such as “Peter Pan Live,” “Sound of Music Live,”“The Wiz Live” and “Hairspray Live.”

Though no cast has been announced at this time, Variety reported that Marc Platt of “La La Land” will join NBC’s existing live-musicals production team, with original “Superstar” creators Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice taking on executive producer roles.

Said NBC Entertainment chairman Robert Greenblatt, “As we continue to expand the profile of our live musicals, we are thrilled to be partnering with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice to bring a new live staging of the iconic ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ to NBC.” He continued, “Casting has just begun, but we want to fill out this classic show with as many recording artists as possible to give proper voice to what is the original rock opera score.”

While “Jesus Christ Superstar” — which tells the story of the days leading up to Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection through often intimate, often emotional songs — has collected praise at times, it also has weathered its fair share of criticism due to plot points that could be interpreted as anti-Semitic.

While most New Testament accounts spread the blame for Jesus’ condemnation across a variety of parties (including the occupying Roman government that then controlled Galilee and Judah, the leading community of Jewish priests, puppet king Herod I and the area’s Jewish population), Lloyd Webber and Rice have been criticized for de-emphasizing the Romans’ role. Specifically, Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, has a solo song that serves to humanize yet absolve him of blame while the Jewish priests appear to be conniving, sneering villains.

It’s a take on Christ’s death that has at least some basis in Christian sources, though one that has helped inspire millennia of Jewish discrimination, persecution and genocide and remains a sore and often dangerous subject to this very day. In the past Jewish groups have bristled at Lloyd Webber’s interpretation. It remains to be seen how they will react to NBC’s move. In light of the uptick in anti-Semitic violence and discourse tied to the election of Donald Trump as president, it is difficult to image the production will go forward without at least some protest about this very point.

Possible anti-Semitic resonances aren’t the only cultural bear trap awaiting NBC. Overall, “Jesus Christ Superstar” forwards — and benefits from — a particularly emotional, permissive portrayal of Jesus’ story, one strongly influenced by the free-love, countercultural movements of the late 1960s. Jazz dance, multiethnic, scantily clad chorus members and ’70s-appropriate slang come along with the package. It’s a vision of the Christ story that could run afoul of America’s powerful religious right. A positive, empathetic portrayal of prostitute Mary Magdalene as a woman clearly romantically in love with Jesus could also be a sore spot for the very vocal population of Christian conservatives.

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