Sometime in the mid 1990s, around Easter, I stumbled upon a VH-1 showing of the film adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. I caught it in the middle, but I sat mesmerized, watching what appeared to be a rag-tag bunch of 1970s hippies and yippies singing and dancing a passion play. In the desert (!?) Before I knew it, the film had ended. But, being VH-1, it naturally started up again. So I watched it a second time. A few hours later I couldn’t deny it. I was hooked. And most shocking of all, the character who affected me the most wasn’t the guy playing the requisite Lord and Savior. It was Judas.
Watching Jesus Christ Superstar the first time, you expect you pretty much know how things are going to turn out. You’ve heard the story, read it, seen it so many times, you don’t expect surprises. It’s part of the western canon after all. But what struck me was, there were surprises. The Romans here dressed in purple vests and tight pants. They carried machine guns and had tanks! There were jet fighters, and drug dealers and more. Jesus was a guy full of doubt and prone to bouts of anger. Some of those surrounding him were fanatical revolutionaries and prostitutes. And Judas was the most intriguing of all–a man torn by inner turmoil, personal jealousy, human frailty and a desire to actually do good. Judas? Out to do good? This wasn’t the story I was familiar with. As I sat there watching the Gospel tale set to rock opera amidst dancing and swaying bodies out of a commune, I realized this was something else entirely.
The 1973 film, directed by Noman Jewison, takes place among the hot and dusty backdrop of Israel (the less populated parts) and other sites in the Middle East. Like the Webber/Rice play, it focuses on the interpersonal struggles and conflicts of Judas and Jesus during the week leading up to the Crucifixion. Act I depicts the interpersonal struggle between the two men, while Act II focuses on the Last Supper, Judas’s betrayal and the tragic ending both will ultimately face.
The role of Jesus was played in the film by singer Ted Neely. As Jesus, he mirrors the image much of the modern West has gotten used to–a bearded, blonde guy with watery blue eyes and a serene countenance. In the original play, the actor chosen to play Jesus was similarly blonde and blue-eyed. This has raised more than a few eyebrows. I’ve often wondered why Webber/Rice, and eventually Jewison, decided to go with this image for the play. One thing you notice in both the Broadway production and the film is its diversity, reflecting the afterglow of the social transformations of the late 1960s. Yet this Jesus remains startlingly similar to something out of a Baroque painting. It could simply be that this was an accepted image of Jesus of the day. Rice after all famously said Neely, “just looked the part.”
Indeed, the Jesus we are presented with is the one that adorns our popular art, books and churches. It’s the one most people expect. It’s the one we’ve gotten used to. The one that “looked the part,” that puts many minds at ease. But as we continue to watch, we realize the Jesus of this play isn’t perhaps who we think he is.
This Jesus is sown with doubt and struggles with the popularity (the super stardom) into which he has been thrust. He feels misunderstood by his followers, who badger him incessantly. When in a dream the blind, the lame and lepers surround him, begging for aid, he has a panic attack. “Don’t crowd me!” he yells. “You’re too many!” He loses his temper often with Judas, who challenges his authority and his decisions. Once inspired, he now claims to simply be tired and uncertain of the path he’s been placed upon. At his lowest he reveals his loss of faith to God, asking if there’s a way perhaps to survive his fate. If he has to die, he begs (perhaps even demands) that God show him why. What will be his reward? Will his death be in vain he asks fearfully? Will his legacy (his super stardom) be assured? His greatest fear seems to be that after all this sacrifice, he might be forgotten. Near spiritual exhaustion, he tells God to get on with it then, before he changes his mind.
But if the casting of Jesus in the film raised eyebrows, the actor playing Judas stoked its own controversy. In the film, black theater actor and singer Carl Anderson played the role of Judas. Yeah. You heard that right. Jesus in this flick is a blonde haired and blue-eyed dude. Judas is black. With a fro. In the original Broadway play in fact, Judas was originally played by actor/singer/dancer Ben Vereen. Blonde Jesus, Black Judas. Say that five times fast. Bet you can’t.
Needless to say, this has not helped me win over fellow black folks to this play. I tend to usually get a “No, No, and HELL NAW!”
More than a few film critics noticed as much in the early 1970s. A TIME magazine article in 1971 gave an appropriate title of the cast: “Jesus Will be Blond; Judas Black.” The glaring visual racial imagery was enough so that even Roger Ebert had to at least address it in a review. And there were outcries from several that the play, and the film that followed, was “anti-black” and filled with blatant racial coding. When a group of African-American Baptists charged racism over the casting of Anderson as Judas, studio producers insisted it was not a matter of race but aesthetics. The Baptists countered if it was not race, then why couldn’t Jesus have been black?
Not all productions of the play portray Judas as a black man. The original album in fact used white English singer/actor Murray Head to voice Judas. And numerous plays have been made worldwide where he is played by non-black people. But there’s no denying that Carl Anderson (who took over for Ben Vereen on stage and remained on for the film) remains the definitive version of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar. He is the gold standard.
And you ain’t ever seen a Judas like this.
The film begins with Judas (Carl Anderson) breaking away from the others–a continual loner set apart; in some ways, much like Jesus. Dressed in all red with his chest out, he sits atop a crag of rock surveying Jesus and the other disciples. And he isn’t happy. In a lengthy heartfelt soliloquy set to an ominous guitar string, he sings “my mind is clearer now… at last all too well, I can see where we all soon will be.” Jesus he believes has become reckless. He’s let all this “son of God” talk in the streets go to his head, and has put himself above his ideals. This, Judas laments, the Romans will not take lightly. Has Jesus forgotten how put down his people are by the Romans? Has he forgotten that at any moment the Empire could crush them, ending all the good they’ve accomplished?
Nor does Judas buy into the adoration of the crowds. Super stardom is fleeting he says critically. “You have set them all on fire, they think they’ve found the new Messiah. [but]…they’ll hurt you when they find they’re wrong.” More than anything, Judas wants to be heard. He wants Jesus to listen, before it’s too late. The rest of the disciples are blind, he wails in disgust, “too much heaven on their minds.” He begs Jesus to abandon the super stardom and return to the simple days, for his sake, their sake and the sake of his nation. But Judas’s cries come from far away, atop a hilltop that sits as a metaphor for the distance that has grown up between the two men. And his words are wasted on the wind, never reaching his leader’s ears.
That scene alone establishes Anderson’s powerful delivery of a Judas we aren’t at all familiar with. This Judas is tormented, angry and scornful–but with reason. He is disgusted not only with the popularity he sees swirling about Jesus, but that Jesus as well buys into it–even seems to promote it. He questions the claims of divinity and sees Jesus instead as just a man, who in the end will lead both his followers and his people into a destructive confrontation with the Romans. After Jesus angrily attacks the money lenders in the temple (who sell everything from sex to military artillery) Judas comes to believe his leader has lost his mind. Sitting in contemplation, he watches a set of Roman tanks. Seeming to visualize what could happen were the full might of the Roman Empire brought to bear upon them, he decides Jesus has to be stopped. What he does is for the good of all, not “blood money.” He only asks that for his actions, he not be “damned for all time.”
The climax in the conflict between both men is intense. When Jesus announces that one of his followers will betray him, a fed up Judas jumps up and declares “cut the dramatics you know very well who!” His anger has boiled over into seething hatred. “To think I’d admired you,” he spits. “Well now I despise you!” Jesus angrily denounces him as a liar and tells him to go, not wanting to hear his excuses. For a brief moment, the two men clasp, and you remember they were once companions, a teacher and a pupil, comrades in a struggle. In both their faces there’s a moment of pain and regret. “Every time I look at you,” a frustrated Judas moans, “I don’t understand, why you let the things you did get so out of hand.” He flees to complete his deed. It’s the last time the two will speak.
There are other supporting figures of note. Mary Magdelene is portrayed by the Hawaiian-Chinese-Irish singer Yvonne Elliman. Yeah. Every time somebody writing a story tells me all the characters have to be white because it’s realistic blah blah blah, I like bringing up Yvonne Elliman. China and the Hawaiian islands are a long ways off from the Middle East. But guess what? Yvonne Elliman’s in the story. Why? Because the producers wanted her to be. It’s really that simple. Webber/Rice also don’t shy away from delving into the more controversial questions around Mary Magdelene and Jesus. She is obviously smitten, singing that she doesn’t “know how to love him.”
For his part, Jesus keeps her close, declaring with content that only she knows what he needs right here and now. Uhhh huh. She also serves as a foil for Judas. The one-time right hand man of Jesus can’t hide his jealousy of Mary, who appears to have taken his position. He lashes out, questioning how Jesus can consort with a woman of “ill-repute.” A protective Jesus angrily rebukes Judas for his apparent shaming, placing Mary in the middle of their continuing interpersonal struggle.
The other main characters in the film are undoubtedly the Pharisees. Often bare-chested and clad in all black (with mops of black curly hair no less), the priests and scribes conspire in secret cabals and stand around menacingly on fences glaring disapprovingly at Jesus and his followers. Appearing to give credence to the troublesome popular notion of Jews as those who orchestrated the death of Jesus, it was a depiction that drew swift criticisms. With the confluence of a black Judas and despotic Pharisees, Rabbi Marc Tanenbaum in 1973 declared the film “a witch’s brew of anti-black and anti-Semitic venom.” And there’s really no arguing that in the film, they are depicted as the key villains.
It can be argued however that even here the Pharisees get some nuance, albeit of the minor sort. The head priest Caiaphas’s main concern over Jesus after all mirrors that of Judas: that Jesus (now called a king) will bring down the wrath of the Romans. In Jesus he sees nothing less than “death and destruction” for both the priesthood and the people they are bound to protect, because of one man. And it is they, in the end, who set him up for the fall. When a desperate Judas comes calling, they are the ones who convince him to take his “blood money” (a fee, they call it), turning him into a reluctant pawn in their machinations. When they finally get their hands on Jesus they twist his words, and turn the crowds against him.
Pontius Pilate (actor Barry Dennen) also gets a touch up in the film version. Here, Pilate has a troubling dream that foreshadows his encounter with Jesus and the blame that history will heap upon him. Desperate to foil this prophecy, Pilate appears to go out of his way to keep Jesus blood from his hands. This more sympathetic portrayal also problematically places the Pharisees back into the center of the main plot against Jesus. He sends Jesus away to a foppish but tyrannical Herod (where we get a hilarious dance number), only to have him returned.
He tries to plead Jesus’s innocence, only to have the once supportive crowd call for his end. It is the crowd, whipped into a frenzy by the priests, who now threaten to end Pilate’s career if he doesn’t do his job and give them Jesus’s blood. Yes. Wince worthy. An exasperated Pilate tries to get a whipped and bloodied Jesus to save his own life, but Jesus declares everything is fixed and Pilate can’t change it. To this, Pilate declares Jesus a fool. Washing his hands of it all, he sentences Jesus to death, telling him “Die if you want to, you misguided martyr”…then softer still, “you innocent puppet.”
Judas won’t live to see the end. After bearing witness to Jesus being scourged, he runs back to the Pharisees to say this isn’t what he had agreed to. He cries out he would save Jesus if he could and seems overwrought by guilt. But the priests scornfully mock his remorse, reminding him of his willful role. In the end Judas realizes he’s been duped. But it’s not the Pharisees he blames. It’s not Jesus. It’s not even the Romans. In a final moment of clarity he looks up to the heavens, and he realizes that this was planned all along. Not by any men. This was planned by God. The one character who never makes an appearance in Jesus Christ Superstar but has been there all along.
God as ultimately responsible for this tragedy has been alluded to all along. Jesus says wearily earlier that the path he is on was started by God. Pontius Pilate calls Jesus a puppet. But who is pulling the strings?
“I’m sick!” Judas declares at his new-found revelation. “I’ve been used!” He runs about the desert aimlessly–as if trying to futilely escape the omnipresent Almighty. “You knew all the time,” he accuses. “God…I’ll never know why you chose me for YOUR crime!” Declaring God his murderer with his last breath, Judas hangs himself. In a final sequence he returns as a spirit surrounded by a what appear to be angels, or perhaps demons, and continues his philosophical questions while in other scenes Jesus is marched to his crucifixion. Who is Jesus? What has he sacrificed? Does he truly think he’s who the stories claim him to be? How do you separate the myth from the man? His questions go unanswered, echoed seemingly throughout eternity.
In the end, we realize this play isn’t really about Jesus. It’s about Judas. He is at the heart of the story. Though we get other perspectives, it is Judas we’re always drawn back to. It is the Passion of the Christ told from Judas’s perspective. It ends much as we expect. But the motives and reasoning are given new depth and contours. Judas isn’t just the black betrayer in the Webber/Rice retelling, he is the black anti-hero. He is a two-dimensional popular villain now turned into a complex human being. Even if you don’t take his side in the end, you certainly understand it.
When the play came out in the 1970s, its radical and alternative message caused a stir. Some religious groups called it sacrilege. The sympathetic depiction of Judas, the conflicting persona of Jesus and the (seeming) indictment of God was nothing less than blasphemous. The BBC banned the original album as sacrilegious. It was banned as well both in the Soviet Union and in apartheid South Africa. Throughout the US there were also similar protests, and in the decades since its initial release the album, play and film have been denounced by some Christian fundamentalists and groups.
But overall, it seems most Christians have adopted the Webber/Rice retelling–interpreting it as they see fit, or welcoming the dialogue it brings. The Vatican, following three decades of denouncement, finally endorsed the play in 1999 as appropriate. Everyone has a version, set in far flung locales, in different languages and in different temporal settings. There’s even a Muppet Christ Superstar. And until you hear Gonzo as Judas, you ain’t lived.
You don’t have to be a believer to enjoy the story, or retell it. So naturally, I created my version. Of course it takes place in a futurist star-spanning galactic Empire, where the Romans are renamed the Hro-Mah and come in several sentient castes, including genetically engineered soldiers. My Pharisees turn out to be empathic and I try to heap more blame back onto Pilate. Solved that whole blonde Jesus/black Judas thing too; everyone is a shade of blue. With stripes. The Romans are all shades of purple, of course. It turned into a full novella in the end, and was probably one of the stories I most enjoyed writing. Because I did it purely for the fun of it. My own personal Judas.