USD theatre department showcases ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ rock opera
8 mins read

USD theatre department showcases ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ rock opera

“If you strip away the myth from the man, you will see where we all soon will be.”

This opening line encapsulates the theme of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the 1970s rock opera that USD students had the chance to perform in and both USD and Vermillion community members had a chance to see last week.

“Jesus Christ Superstar” was first an album produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, and then became a Broadway musical in 1971 and a film in 1973. The musical was met with such success that it has had several off-Broadway worldwide tours since its first Broadway debut.

Senior musical theater major Ebrin Stanley portrayed Jesus Christ in the USD production, and he said he wanted to emphasize the fact that this was an album first.

“The teenager who starts off the show is set in the now, so when he gets that needle on the album, we take you into another world,” Stanley said. “It’s letting the people who are watching know that this wasn’t a musical first, it was a rock album, and one of the best rock albums ever made.”

The idea of one of the most popular religious tales in the world being set to rock music was radical and somewhat upsetting to religious people in the 1970s, yet it led to Broadway success and adds a layer of irony to the production.

“At that time, rock music was definitely seen as sex, drugs and alcohol,” Stanley said. “It had a sinful connotation to it. I don’t know if they were trying to piss people off, but I think the irony of it is interesting.”

Fellow senior musical theater major Braeden Garrett said he enjoyed the musical spin of the show. Garrett played Caiaphas, who was partially responsible for the death of Jesus in the production, so he could see the historical themes playing out firsthand.

“This show lends itself to be relevant to the political war that was going on in the 60’s and 70’s with the controversy between the government not caring for the people as much as they should have,” Garrett said. “Caiaphas and Annas are the government not caring about the people, and then there’s this Jesus who comes out of the blue and says (to the people) to be true to yourself and be a good person.”

The Jesus in this show is not quite like the biblical Jesus one might read about. He doubts God’s choices, he has an internal monologue, he questions life and his role in it .

“I’m religious myself, but I like the musical in the fact that it does challenge your thoughts about it,” Stanley said. “I think we grow up and people make Jesus seem like he’s not human. Since I’ve been doing this role, he sure was human. Not that he made all these mistakes and stuff like that, but I do think there were times where he doubted and questioned a lot of things.”

One of Jesus’ uniquely human relationships is that with Mary Magdalene.

“Mary Magdalene is a right-hand woman to Jesus,” Stanley said. “Not even in a sexual or romantic sort of way, very much so on an intellectual, loving, caring and passionate way. She’s really the peacemaker in Jesus’ life. She constantly tries to make sure I’m at peace and let me know everything’s alright.”

In the story, Jesus needs reassurance from Mary that he’s on the right path as well as the righteous path. The song “Gethsemane” is a prime example of Jesus’ journey to righteousness and his ultimate decision to follow his father’s plan for his life.

“I absolutely love ‘Gethsemane,’ and Ebrin does a phenomenal job with it and puts a lot of passion into it,” Garrett said. “He knows he’s going to die and that’s insane. I love the beauty in that song because there’s so many push and pull moments in it. That song in particular has such potential to have an impact on anybody, no matter what your beliefs are.”

The audience and cast is split between religious and non-religious on both sides, and that dichotomy contributes to open minds and new thoughts on the subject, Garrett said.

“If you are religious from that point of view, you’re watching this person that you have idolized your entire life and you see the struggle they’re going through,” Garrett said. “If you’re non-religious, you look at it and you think this was a real person, there’s no doubt that Jesus was a real person, and he’s having to go through that.”

What Jesus has to go through in this show is the struggle of deciding to follow God’s plan and accept death by crucifixion. Stanley said one of the final scenes, where Jesus is suffering under Pontius Pilate was incredibly difficult.

“One of the first days of blocking the flogging scene was super rough,” Stanley said. “One, that was the first time as an actor that I’ve ever had to portray being whipped on stage. Two, for a lot of us who are religious, our religion was staring us right in the face. Three, for our non-religious members, just the fact that this was happening to a human being. Four, for some people, the fact that they were watching their friend who also happens to be an African-American being whipped by a predominately white male crowd on stage. So you put all those things together, that made for a rough rehearsal.”

With that scene, Stanley not only had to work through the difficulty of portraying Christ and his emotion, but also had to figure out how to handle that scene as a black man and as a religious person. He said he wanted to do his best and was grateful for the role for that reason.

“To honor such a story and to honor the work is a blessing and it’s awesome to do in that regard,” Stanley said. “My job is to tell the story. At the end of the day, I am an actor first. On top of that, my faith is huge. I believe in God like nobody’s business, so when you put that with being an actor, I want to tell the story as truthful and honest as possible.”

This role meant a lot to Stanley, he said.

“I’ve been very honored and blessed to be able to play this role and to tell one of the greatest stories of all time,” Stanley said. “It’s been humbling to know that the work we’re doing is moving people the way that it is.”

Garrett said he sees the teaching moments in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and the intersections between religion and history.

“This is historical,” Garrett said. “Whether you believe in God and higher power and Genesis and all of that, you cannot deny that this story is actually real. These were historical figures, these were real people, this all did happen, and I think it can teach you a lot about yourself, your religion, about history and it’s fun. It’s really fun and I think everybody will benefit from seeing it because it’s a powerful show.”