Don't forget the sandals
From the medieval Mysteries to the annual school nativity play, from Godspell to The Greatest Story Ever Told, film and theatre audiences have been letting Jesus into their lives in a miraculous variety of dramatic incarnations. As the curtain rises again on a 25th-anniversary revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber's messianic musical, David Benedict surveys the many comings of Jesus Christ, superstar of stage and screen
Wednesday 13 November 1996
This post-Hair, hippyesque musical beat Jesus Christ, Superstar to the stage by a few months, opening off-Broadway on 17 May 1971. John-Michael Tebelak's book was based on the Gospel According to Saint Matthew (sans the Resurrection) and cast Jesus as a flower-child cum clown. With music - Broadway meets gospel lite - and lyrics by the 22-year-old Stephen Schwartz (two weeks older than Andrew Lloyd Webber) that contained "Day by Day" and "Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord", the London production not only made a star out of David Essex, but featured happy, bouncy performances from Julie Covington, Marti Webb and Jeremy Irons. Yes, that Jeremy Irons. "'s Sunday school, Jesus-loves-me prettification is an equal disservice to drama and religion," snarled critic Robert Cushman. The 1973 film version found our hero living and dying in the Big Apple: it's terrifyingly dated, required viewing only for those with inexhaustibly fond memories of the late Sixties / early Seventies.
The National Theatre first performed The Crucifixion on Easter Sunday 1977, in a promenade production staged out of doors on the riverside terraces. Over the years the work, based on the York Mystery Cycles as re-written by the poet Tony Harrison, developed into the marathon-length The Mysteries, which covered the Creation, the Nativity, the Passion and Judgement Day and transferred to... yes, the (then defunct) Lyceum Theatre, which Superstar is about to rechristen. Karl Johnson was a heartrending Christ, Jack Shepherd a supremely guilty Judas, Dinah Stabb a luminous Mary.
Into the Light
This spectacularly misguided $3m Broadway musical will probably never be overtaken in the Bad Taste Stakes. A musical about the Turin Shroud? Sorry, it's true. Dean Jones, better known for That Darn Cat!, Herbie Rides Again and the lead in Sondheim's Company, was the star, playing the scientist trying to authenticate the shroud, believed to be the burial cloth of Christ. "Theatre should inspire and uplift the human spirit," said the genuinly devout Jones. In this instance, it didn't. Nothing could save it, not even "Let There Be Light", a rip-roaring dance number for nuns, priests and an archbishop. It ran for precisely six performances.
The Gospel According to St Matthew
Either Pasolini's greatest film, or a mind-numbingly drawn-out portrait of Christ as a political revolutionary. The gritty documentary style is enhanced by an amateur cast, including the director's mother as the Virgin Mary. "So static I could hardly wait for that loathsome prissy young man to get crucified," spat New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael.
The Greatest Story Ever Told
Deciding that Palestine didn't look Palestinian enough, George Stevens shot his 1965 international all-star 225 minute epic in Utah. Max von Sydow was smart casting as Christ having diced, or rather played, chess with Death in Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Everyone in Hollywood joined in from Sidney Poitier, Telly Savalas, Angela Lansbury, Shelley Winters and Roddy McDowall to John Wayne as a Roman Centurion organising the crucifixion who got to utter the one immortal line, "Truly this man was the son of Ga-a-a-ard." "Who but an audience of diplomats could sit through this thing?" growled Life magazine.
The Last Temptation of Christ
Actress Barbara Hershey pointed Martin Scorsese in the direction of Nikos Kazantzakis's novel Christ Recrucified as far back as 1972, but the Studios fought shy. At one point Aidan Quinn was lined up to play Christ for Paramount, but they caved in to religious pressure and the project fell through. Scorsese went to Universal and wanted De Niro but he proved unavaliable so he went with Willem Dafoe. The altogether predicatable furore obscured the fact that although the film lapsed into wordiness on occasion, it was an exceptional statement of artistic and religious vision. The industry recognised it as such and Scorsese was nominated for an Oscar, but everyone knew he had no chance of winning given the controversy surrounding the subject matter. Score by Peter Gabriel. (Good name for the job.)
King of Kings
The dangerously young, dramatically good-looking Jeffrey Hunter starred in Nicholas Ray's 1961 remake of Cecil B De Mille's silent epic, which led to its unofficial industry title, "I Was a Teenage Jesus". Veteran British film critic Dilys Powell awarded it her 1961 Scripture Prizes... for Dullest and Most Undenominational film.
The Man Born to Be King
Dorothy L Sayers, daughter of a clergyman, forsook her hero Lord Peter Wimsey and wrote religious plays. The Man Who Would Be King avoided all the pitfalls of representing Christ on stage: she wrote it for radio.
Jesus of Nazareth
Robert Powell's finest hour, or rather his finest 371 minutes. Zeffirelli's 1977 TV version is certainly the longest on film. The production values are lush and plush - the music is by Maurice Jarre who scored Doctor Zhivago - and the supporting cast is distinctly upmarket with Anne Bancroft, Ernest Borgnine, Claudia Cardinale, Laurence Olivier and Anthony Quinn doing their bit.
This tiny Austrian village perform their version of the Passion every 10 years. The local Zwink family, originally millers, have been involved from the 15th century. Jacob Zwink played Christ from 1800-1820 and in 1910 his daughter Ottolie, now 80 years old, played Mary. Clearly, not a theatre tradition hidebound by naturalism.
A supposedly authentic life shot in Israel in 1979 using genuine artefacts. Little seen, the film featured Brian Deacon stepping into the famous sandals. He is now playing the illicit lover in Dial M for Murder but the film's most captivating detail is that the angel who appears to Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane was played by the Independent's TV previewer Gerard Gilbert. He admits to having used his own beard for the role and that Rula Lenska (ex Mrs Deacon) did his hair.
An unusual take on the Bible, with the Resurrection as mystery thriller. Keith Carradine is a hardbitten Roman investigator sent to discover what happened to the missing body of Christ. A dubbed Italian film with Phyllis Logan and Bronx-sounding Pontius Pilate from Harvey Keitel.
Son of Man
Dennis Potter's play about Christ's return from the wilderness through to the crucifixion began life as an immensely powerful TV play which confounded notions of his supposed atheism. First shown on 16 April 1969, with Colin Blakely in the title role. Frank Finlay played Him in the stage version six months later which also starred in the role of the Zealot one Andrew Neil (no relation). That transferred to the Roundhouse, where rather than erupt into applause at the end of the play, the audience was moved to leave in silence. In the wake of Potter's death, Bill Bryden revived the play at the Pit for the RSC with Joseph Fiennes giving a suitably tortured performance.
Jesus of Montreal
One of the finest films to deal with the subject, Denys Arcand's 1989 version features Lothaire Bluteau as an actor hired to produce a local version of the Passion. Blutheau's contemporary retelling enrages the authorities but captivates audiences. Arcand's film balances the ironies strongly and the result is compelling, satirical and haunting.
not to mention...
The Gospel According to Mark
Alec McCowen dumbfounded audiences with his breathtakingly simple piece of stoytelling, which consisted of him performing the whole of Mark's Gospel from memory. Why not Matthew, Luke or John? Mark's is the oldest, the barest and the sparest. And the shortest.
School Nativity Plays
Endless dolls have performed the role of Christ, with only rare cases of disasters. However, Rita Mae Brown's novel Rubyfruit Jungle has a laugh- aloud account of a nightmare school production.
Whistle Down the Wind
Alan Bates is a fugitive holed up in a Lancashire barn accidentally discovered by a bunch of children who believe him to be Jesus. Ludicrous in synopsis but enchanting on screen, Bryan Forbes's 1961 directing debut is remarkable, with New Testament symbolism beautifully placed within the texture of the film.
Monty Python's Life of Brian
Not strictly a contender as this bad-taste bonanza is about a hapless peasant mistaken for the Messiah, rather than the real thing. Those without irony were distinctly unhappy with the result. None was happy with the subsequent rip-off, Wholly Moses, but then it did star Dudley Moore.
Children of Eden
Being the (flop) musical of the book of Genesis, Jesus didn't get a look in, but God did as played by Ken Page. Highlights (or perhaps lowlights) included "Ain't it good", a song sung by Mama Noah and her Family and the Ark Angels.
Jesus Christ Superstar
In the beginning there were two young men who didn't have knighthoods but they did have an idea. They dreamed of a show for schools and lo, they did write it and upon its publication and recording, children throughout the land did sing along and it was called Joseph and His Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat. And it was good. And they saw that it was good and they did go forth and multiply. Joseph begat Jesus, who was called Superstar, and he travelled throughout the lands on a double album which shot up the charts, went gold, spawned concert stagings and verily, it did wind up at the Mark Hellinger Theatre on Broadway on 17 October 1971.
The subsequent London staging opened on 9 August 1972 and ran for eight years clocking up a staggering 3,358 performances. Paul Nicholas made his name in the title role of this through-sung piece which, like all Lloyd Webber's shows until By Jeeves, expunged spoken dialogue. It covers the last seven days in the life of Christ as seen through the eyes of Judas. He believes that the "personality cult" which has grown up around Him is getting out of hand, putting the crusade of Christianity at risk. His betrayal, therefore, is charged up by a wish to act for the greater good.
Judas was recognised as the best role in the show (Zubin Varla, a recent RSC Romeo, gets to have a crack at it this time round), and everybody sang along to the giant hit (already recorded by Yvonne Elliman and Helen Reddy), "I Know Him So Well", since covered by more female singers than you can shake a stick at.
The remarkably prescient review in Plays and Players described it as "one of the most imaginative pieces of staging I've seen in London" but added that at times it conjured up Star Trek rather than the New Testament and closed with a warning: "This fixation with technology has done much to further the feeling of detachment that performers often seem to exhibit on stage these days." Indeed.
Twenty-five years on from the original, it's back. The Lyceum Theatre has been refurbished and re-opened after years of darkness and decay (with the exception of the National Theatre run of, appropriately enough, The Mysteries) and Gale Edwards is directing a completely new production designed by John Napier with Steve Balsamo bearing the cross.
Perhaps the best thing to say about the film version is that not only is porn star Paul Thomas singing in the chorus (a case of atoning for his sins, perhaps?) but it was directed by the man with the perfect name: Norman Jewison. He also co-wrote the screenplay. With whom? None other than Melvyn Bragg.
Jesus Christ Superstar was, bizarrely enough, banned in South Africa on religious grounds. We are educated to be believe that the Bible stories should be read metaphorically. Religious fundamentalists have no truck with this type of thinking. They demand literal interpretation. That's the problem with all portrayals of Christ. Goodbye drama, hello slavish authenticity. For the designer and props buyers it's a another case of sandals and a wig and a trip to the baker and the fishmonger.
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