There are actually two productions at Stratford this year where a principal character is greeted with “hosannas.” And now, having seen the other one, I finally understand what the fuss is about.
The fuss about Andrew Lloyd Webber, that is. My experience with his work has been relatively limited. I saw Cats (stupid) and Joseph (cute, but negligible) as a kid, and last year at Stratford I saw Evita (more enjoyable than I expected, but didn’t stay with me). Depending on my mood, I had classified him in my mind as either “not for me” or “sign of the apocalypse.”
I now must revise both assessments: he wrote at least one musical that has the potential, at least, to go right through me. Potential that was fully realized in the current Stratford production.
The central conceit of the show is wildly heretical. Jesus of Nazareth, in this show, dies not as a necessary sacrifice to redeem the blood-guilt of the world, but as a publicity stunt, the only way to ensure that his message would spread “to the ends of the earth” and endure for thousands of years. Wildly heretical, but dramatically electric. This Jesus, as beautifully realized by Paul Nolan, is a death-haunted man, a man who sees through his followers’ adoration, and knows that his inspiring presence isn’t working the ethical transformation he seeks. “For all you care, this wine could be my blood” is a bitter rendering of the gospel verses, all of which talk of Jesus’s blood being poured out for others and thereby forming a new covenant. This is not a man with a messiah complex; this is not a man who yearns for martyrdom. He is, rather, a superstar, a phenomenon, who is tortured inside by the fact that Judas is right – he has begun to matter more than the things he says – and sees only one way out of the box he’s built around himself.
Josh Young, who plays Judas, is a phenomenal vocal star, but more important even than his voice in this role are his qualities as an actor. For the entire show, he’s trying to reach Jesus, desperately trying to get him to listen – and then, in a way, Jesus does listen, does give him a central part to play. And the anguish and betrayal on both sides – Judas’s betrayal by Jesus as well as Jesus’s by Judas – plays out powerfully on both Young and Nolan’s faces in the pivotal and electric Last Supper scene (made even more electric by the hilarious irony that all through the scene the other apostles just keep singing about their own troubles, and how much they wanted to be apostles so they could write history – they don’t even notice the history that is being made before their eyes as they sing).
Another scene that works marvelously here to bring the three principals together, even though Judas is singing to himself and the others are not on stage, is the brief reprise of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” sung by Judas. What for Mary Magdalene is a source of wonder – if I know anything, I know how to love men, but I don’t know how to love him; isn’t that strange? doesn’t that make me love him more – is for Judas a cry of pain – all I want to do is love him, and be loved back, and he’s telling me the way to love him is to kill him? really? that’s my reward? I found Chilina Kennedy’s rendition of the song beautiful, but surprisingly distant; she seemed to be singing to the audience rather than to the sleeping man beside her. But Josh Young’s brief reprise was heartbreaking. Nikos Kazantzakis and Martin Scorsese gave us a Judas who was truly Jesus’s favorite, and who betrayed as part of a plan to achieve the necessary martyrdom, but Webber and Rice’s Judas takes the next step – realizes that by playing this necessary role, he has damned himself, made his own name an eternal infamy. And he could deal with that, even with that, if Jesus would only confirm to him that he understands, that he doesn’t damn him. But Jesus won’t give him that comfort.
And, at least in this staging, the final irony is that Jesus’s plan failed. He didn’t get out of the box. Jesus (resurrected before his death, in a white linen suit) strides out onto a runway that then extends out over the audience. And he begins to preach to us, telling us his message. But we can’t hear him. He’s completely drowned out by his backup singers proclaiming his superstardom, and by Josh Young’s (apparently also resurrected) Judas, standing just behind him, shouting what he’s been crying the whole show: “only want to know.” Even more in death than in life, Jesus matters more than the things he says. The plan failed.
The Nolan-Young, Jesus-Judas relationship is the fiercely beating heart of the show, but the subsidiary organs all show their own fierce life. Bruce Dow’s Herod is a vicious reprise of his emcee from Cabaret of several years ago – a nasty, overindulged, tantruming baby. Brent Carver cuts an elegant figure as Pilate, a connoisseur who sees the exceptional qualities in Jesus and has no desire to pluck this rare flower, but only late in the day realizes that he’s doomed to be a participant in this story rather than a critical observer, and who begs Jesus to let him off the hook, and, like everyone who begs something of Jesus, from the lepers to Judas, is denied. Marcus Nance as Caiphas has the vocal authority of a Verdi villain, and Lee Siegel is equally powerful as Simon Zealotes, urging Jesus to be the revolutionary leader his followers generally wish him to be. And, indeed, the entire cast has such a deep bench of talent that it’s almost scary.
I could quibble with a few bits of staging. The sexuality of the Temple sequence, for example, seemed to me to have nothing to do with anything; this is Caiphas’s temple, and he and his fellow Jewish leaders are got up as a cross between ultra-Orthodox Jews and the fedaykin of Frank Herbert’s Dune, and the lyrics themselves talk of thievery and commerce, but not specifically of the sexual kind. And I think the visual concept, which I found generally quite strong, could have benefited from a clearer distinction between Jews and Romans – the tossing back and forth between Herod and Pilate, the handing off to Rome for punishment, none of this has a visual resonance because we don’t see two distinct parties on stage. But these really are quibbles; the show is magnificent, and fully deserves the accolades it has received.