Superstar!

It’s Easter Monday – happy Easter, by the way – which means it’s time to go over NBC’s live broadcast of their version of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ, Superstar!

I’ve had opinions about this musical for two years longer than I’ve had opinions about Les Mis, so buckle up.

Norm Lewis as Caiaphas was perfect of course. The Annas was pretty good too. Backstory: the reason I ended up actually wanting to see this particular version of JCS was because of Norm Lewis as Caiaphas. Norm played Javert in the 25th Anniversary Concert for Les Mis, and also on Broadway; the guy is fantastic. So whatever else went on with JCS Live, I knew that the Caiaphas would be perfect. And I was right; and Annas and the other Pharisees were excellent too. “This Jesus Must Die” is the best number in the whole production.

Alice Cooper was … eh, he was alright as King Herod. Fumbled a line, didn’t have as much flair as I expected actually. I mean, come on. It’s Alice Cooper. I expected a bit more vocal diva. He wasn’t horrible, he wasn’t bad, he was just kinda alright. And that in and of itself isn’t a bad thing – not every cast member can be a powerhouse – but if the guy’s one of the three people you’re putting on the marquis to sell the show, you kind of expect him to be a powerhouse. Sorry, buddy. I like your cover of “This is Halloween,” though.

Sara Bareilles was great, as expected. She made a really wistful Mary Magdalene, balanced the sweetness and the belting very well, which of course is her calling card. And man, she delivered. The few trills and embellishments she made didn’t detract from her songs. They reminded us that, oh yes, this is Sara doing the singing. Nice. Solid performance, 10/10 good Mary Magdalene.

Erik Grönwall as Simon the Zealot was .. really good. Really, really good. Strong belt, lots of passion, hit a nice high note at the end, sustained his notes well. So … why wasn’t this guy cast as Judas instead? I’m just asking. This guy has potential. He was a strong member of the ensemble, but he could have been a real powerhouse if he’d been given the opportunity.

Jason Tam as Simon Peter was also a nice solid member of the ensemble, again, lots of passion. His final denial (in a song titled “Peter’s Denial”, who’d’a thought it) was a desperate frightened scream, and man, it worked. I wanna see more of these guys.

Ben Daniels as Pontius Pilate was pretty decent. He’s no David Burt, but I’m pretty sure only Anthony Warlow would be able to match David Burt for sheer British snarly menace. Ben Daniels is also a tenor, as far as I can tell, and the Pilate role was definitely written for a baritone. But he put his all into it, and the result is a Pilate who genuinely wants to be good but ends up doing evil anyway.

John Legend was .. wait for it … legendary.

The actor for Jesus I’m most familiar with is Steve Balsamo of the original cast album. That dude had a pair of pipes – he hit the high notes as hard as possible, and held them longer than is normally possible for human lungs. He also didn’t embellish the notes at all, just sang them straight, no trills and no frills. John Legend hits it from the other direction – he keeps to the lower register for the most part, and does trills almost every line, and he holds his notes a reasonable amount of time. But here’s the thing, though: Trills and frills and dipsy doodles can be annoying if that’s all you do, and you don’t put any power behind your notes; but John Legend puts power into everything he does, so they weren’t annoying at all. His “Gethsemane” is a very different kettle of fish from Steve Balsamo’s, but it’s just as good, because they both put all of their passion into it.

Meanwhile, Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas was … sweet.

Which is an extremely weird adjective to associate with Judas Iscariot, the ultimate traitor.

He went for the Zubin Varla riffs, the same ones from the original cast recording, which … I don’t know, it’s a bit odd considering how far John Legend deviated from Steve Balsamo’s performance in the original cast. This Judas is very pop-y, if that makes any sense. I mean, JCS is a rock opera, but he doesn’t belt the way you’d expect in a rock opera. In fact he doesn’t belt at all. For contrast just look at Drew Sarich as Judas in Amstetten 2005, who super leaned into the rock aspect and belted every line he could. – and actually, Brandon Victor Dixon doesn’t even lean into the rock aspect as much as Zubin Varla did either. On the one hand, the way he did “Damned for All Time/Blood Money” does a damn good job of making Judas reluctant to betray Jesus, and there’s a solid ten seconds’ silent hesitation before he actually does so. And for “Judas’ Death” he’s impressively torn up about it. But on the other hand …

… Where’s the anger? There’s no anger! And not even a hint of spite! You’re telling me that Judas Iscariot, ultimate traitor, isn’t even a little bit angry at the man he betrays?

The point of JCS is to portray both sides of the betrayal, and to explain that Judas had reasons for what he did. The lyrics do indicate a certain level of not only frustration but anger and vindictiveness that Judas feels towards Jesus. Brandon Victor Dixon is a decent vocalist, but the way that he delivered the lines didn’t exactly say “anger” to me. There’s despair and love and anguish in there, sure, but those are nuances that I look for to balance out the anger. It’s like putting all the garlic and onion and celery you could ever want into a chicken soup, but leaving out the dang chicken.

And this is exhibited the best in “The Last Supper.” John Legend is pouring all his passion into his lines, but with a sad-sweet-despairing Judas, what’s usually almost a fight scene is instead … really vocally unbalanced. “To think I admired you – well, now I despise you!” are words that should be hurled like arrows, like daggers, like a freaking fireball. Instead they’re almost whispered. “The Last Supper” is the opening number in Act Two, and it should start off with a punch! And with John Legend as Jesus, it does! But then Brandon Victor Dixon opens his mouth and … it kind of falls apart. I’m sorry, buddy, I really am. I’m sure you’d make a wonderful Peter. But I’d pick somebody else as Judas.

And honestly – if you’re gonna pick a guy from Hamilton to play Judas, why not pick Leslie Odom Jr? Or do you not think he’d work as well in the glittery shirts?

Or Erik Grönwall would look pretty good in the glittery shirts too. Just saying.

transliterate

Let’s talk about translations.

If you’ve read Cyrano de Bergerac in English, or seen the filmed version with Gerard Depardieu that has yellow English subtitles, that’s one thing. It’s a tragic story about unrequited love, and assumptions, and carefully constructed perceptions of other people, and also two guys willfully deceiving a woman for a ridiculously long period of time. Neat. I kind of want to yell at everyone in that play, but for a lot of French literature that’s par for the course.

If you’ve read Cyrano de Bergerac in French, you very quickly realize that the entire play is written in rhyming couplets.

Now – speaking as someone who’s performed a bit of Shakespeare – if you act in a show that has rhyming verse, and you recite it to emphasize that rhyming verse, pretty soon everything sounds like a nursery rhyme and you want to bash your head against a wall, and so does the audience. It’s much easier, both for the audience and the actors, to pretend that the rhymes don’t exist until you decide to emphasize them for dramatic effect. Great! Spectacular.

The fact remains that Shakespeare, one of the greatest poets in the English language, didn’t write everything in rhymes. There’s a lot of blank verse in there, with some prose tossed in for the peasant characters to remind us that they’re the salt of the earth etc. etc. Shakespeare used rhymes pretty sparingly, specifically for dramatic effect.

Edmond Rostand, who wrote Cyrano de Bergerac – that guy wrote the entire play in rhymes, line for line.

Mind you, French can be a lot easier to rhyme than English, but it’s still impressive.

But it is impossible to translate the entire play from French and still keep all of those rhymes as well as the sense. At some point, you either sacrifice the literal meaning for the aesthetic of the rhyme scheme, or you sacrifice the rhyme scheme. Maybe sometimes they can coincide, but for an entire play that’s nearly 80,000 words long? Yikes. I can respect the man as a poet, that takes some serious chops, but I don’t think even the best translators would be able to preserve 80k worth of pristine rhymes.

Which is … I don’t know if it’s sad or not. In translation theory, there’s the ethnographic which includes connotation and historical context, as well as the literal and the aesthetic. There are some linguistic things that you can only truly get the sense of, by encountering them in their native languages. There are some things that are elegant in one language but that become clunky in another. There are some things that will always be lost in translation, because it’s impossible to convey every connotation of every word without a billion footnotes. And that’s – weird, really, because there are so many works of literature that we wouldn’t have if they hadn’t been translated. How much smaller, how much poorer would our culture be without shared literature from other cultures? Can you imagine a France without the influence of the American Declaration of Independence? Can you imagine a Europe without the influence of Voltaire, or Marx, or Martin Luther? I know I can’t.

Good excuse to push for a multilingual society, I guess. English as the lingua franca is convenient for those of us who learn it from the cradle, but it engenders a complacency that to me feels stagnant, if not toxic. That stereotype about French people gossiping about American tourists is absolutely true – and, look, we get mad when other people refuse to speak English, so why wouldn’t they be mad when we don’t even try to learn French, or Spanish, or any other language? I absolutely get that it’s hard for some people the way math is hard for me – but again, it’s a skill that can be practiced rather than solely a talent to be born with. It means that no matter where we go, we can find a way to communicate with the people around us.

make the best of it

“Glitter and Be Gay” sounds like something out of a pride parade, doesn’t it. Bahaha. It’s actually from the operetta Candide, and it’s the song in which young waif Cunegonde decides to stop moping around about her situation and start taking advantage of it. The message or “plot” of the song is funny on its own, but the song is really technically difficult – if you take a listen, the notes jump around a lot, and very quickly, and get progressively higher and higher, some of them notes that only dogs can hear properly. Then on top of that, while the singer could just stand there and deliver a technical performance, the blocking of the scene generally requires a lot of jumping around and playing with costume jewelry.

I don’t usually think of acting in a musical as a strenuous workout, but seeing Kristen Chenoweth perform this song, I can definitely believe it.

What’s interesting to me about this song is that Cunegonde has been treated horribly by the narrative (thanks, Voltaire), so it isn’t as though the moping at the beginning of the song isn’t justified. I mean, if your family had been slaughtered in front of you, and you had been rock-paper-scissor divvied between a corrupt member of the Church and an old merchant, and that was only the start of your troubles … well. That kind of tragedy is pretty exhausting. But underlying this is a sort of meta idea that while it makes sense to feel sorry for yourself, it’s also boring to watch other people wallow in misery – and it doesn’t do anything for the plot, either. At some point the character’s gotta pick herself up and find a way to keep going, otherwise she’s a cardboard cut-out.

And while in the original novella, Cunegonde pretty much was a cardboard cut-out, the operetta’s got some dissenting opinions on that.

So, having endured so much already, Cunegonde decides to not only endure her current situation but to take as much advantage of it as she can. She redefines her character from “broken victim” status to “survivor,” and when she does finally reunite with Candide, she’s got the willpower and resilience to escape with him as an active participant in the plan.

(A cynic might ask, “well, if her situation is so horrible, why doesn’t she try to leave sooner?” But that discussion is a subject for a different post.)

(And if you’re thinking, “jeez, who reads this much into a musical number,” all I can say is I was an English minor for a reason.)

Anyway, if you’ve never read the book Candide, you’re not missing out on that much. The operetta sensationalizes the story and makes it a lot more fun for consumers, but it gets the main point across, too, and the plot points are easier to remember when they’re attached to snazzy musical numbers. I wouldn’t call it “pandering” so much as “making it more accessible.”

Besides, what book hasn’t been vastly improved by the inclusion of snazzy musical numbers.

classics

For those who haven’t seen it, the My Cousin Oskaar video is an annual classic when it comes to Daylight Savings Time. I’m a few days late, I know, but it’s one of those videos that just never gets old. Please go watch it and then cackle over Stallone with me.

Speaking of classics …

It’s funny to me that in high school I enjoyed the language of Shakespeare but very much hated the language of The Scarlet Letter. Hawthorne wrote in much the same linguistic era – the linguistic in/formal thee vs you dynamic is one of the things I remember – and the descriptions were florid, and the emotions everyone had were dramatic, and it was a big thinky piece about Sin and Blame and Revenge, and yeah, they made a modern film based off it with Emma Stone so apparently it’s still relevant today. Cool. Neato. If it were rewritten today using modern language, I might like it very much, because the themes are interesting and the characters are interestingly flawed (except for Hester, who … didn’t … do anything wrong? At all? if I remember correctly. She just slept with the wrong man). But the language is so excessive that it interfered with the reading experience for me. I haven’t read it in years but I remember it felt like wading through hip-deep mud just to get to the dang plot. And given that a lot of my classmates reacted the same way, I’m led to believe that if the novel hadn’t been branded as a classic, it would probably fall to the wayside.

Not so with stories like The Crucible. I read The Crucible in the same class where I read The Scarlet Letter, and while I didn’t like the first act at the time because I felt the plot was moving too slowly (that turned out to be a Bored Teenager lens; I think the first act is pretty interesting now), the rest of the play practically reached out and grabbed me. Abigail was one of the most compelling antagonists I’d come across, and the messy complicated nature of John Proctor was something I could sink my teeth into. I remember picking one of Abigail’s monologues to do an audition for the high school play that next year. The language is just archaic enough to remind you that the play took place in the 1690s, but it’s fluid enough to still appeal to a modern audience (and, more importantly, it doesn’t need to be translated heavily like Shakespeare sometimes is).

Whereas The Scarlet Letter was written in the 1850s and … hmmmm … doesn’t really have much of an excuse? Especially when you take other books written in that same time frame like Les Misérables (published 1863) – which, while astoundingly verbose, still managed to be compelling and not clogged up with archaic language.

Honestly, sometimes I think the board of education sits down and determines the reading requirements based on what makes you sound snobby and pretentious, rather than what’s actually enjoyable to read. And before you start bemoaning the Uncultured Youth for their Potter and Tolkien, maybe take a hot second and think about whether you’d rather force someone to read something practically illegible (and enforce reading as a chore), or have them read something fun and thought-provoking (and encourage reading as a hobby).

Oh, and Tolkien’s been a little more of a cultural influence in the past fifty years or so than Hawthorne has, I’ll bet. Take that, elitists.