On a very rare Easter Sunday-April Fools’ Day hybrid, John Legend (Jesus), Brandon Dixon (Judas), Sara Bareilles (Mary Magdalene), Alice Cooper (King Herod) and a full cast of superstar talent joined forces for Jesus Christ Superstar Live!
The show is admittedly not one of my favorites. To be fair, I’ve never given the show a chance. But with Legend as Jesus, I had to watch. Plus, NBC invited The Root to the Marcy Avenue Armory in New York City’s Brooklyn borough to attend the live show and to witness Legend’s strong gospel voice reach new heights.
Keeping that same energy of honesty, I still didn’t like the musical upon giving it a chance. This show began as an album back in 1970, and to me, that’s what it feels like: a performance of music.
What I love about Superstar and most Broadway productions in general is their ability to cast colorblind, therefore freeing them to cast talent. This isn’t the first time Jesus Christ Superstar has had a diverse cast. There have been other productions, like this all-black show, or the time Judas was played by Ben Vereen, among others, but with Legend as Jesus, we’re given a rock opera with buttery soul. “This role sits in a great place in John’s voice,” Legend’s co-star and scene-stealer Brandon Dixon, aka Judas, said of John’s talent.
Legend is knocking on EGOT status with this performance. With 10 Grammys, an Oscar and a Tony (and a Golden Globe to boot), all he needs now is an Emmy. Legend’s interpretation of Jesus was soulful and sincere. Beyond bending to the vocal acrobatics that the role of Jesus demands, Legend left me wanting more from his actual performance. So it was a good thing we had Judas.
One of the show’s interesting twists is that it’s mostly told from Judas’ eyes, a choice made by one of the show’s two creators, Tim Rice. Dixon’s Judas rocked this live performance to its core. If you’re lucky, you’ve seen Dixon as Aaron Burr in Hamilton after he replaced the amazing The Root 100 honoree Leslie Odom Jr. in the role.
So obviously he’s got the chops to carry a complicated character like Judas and even breathe new life into him. And he did. In the same way that Black Panther’s Killmonger gets under your skin and makes you want to root for him, Dixon’s Judas has that same magnetism, that same ability to deliver a message that’s slightly understandable. He was electric. Dixon made up for everything Legend lacked in acting.
Being in the audience made the performance feel more exciting than what it appeared to be on television. I’m sure you weren’t at home whooping and hollering like the live audience was. Being in the midst of the actual drama always makes it feel more visceral.
There were moments when I found it hard to stay connected to the story. With the screaming crowd, I could barely hear some of the lyrics. But the story is age-old, so I was able to fill in the spaces where I couldn’t hear past the roaring crowd. We are all there mainly to enjoy the spectacle of it all, but one of the show’s executive producers, Craig Zadan, came out before the show started and encouraged the audience to engage and interact. He wanted us to act as if we were in a rock concert. Needless to say, I think a lot of the audience overreacted.
The set was minimal: scaffolding with the live band draped throughout, extras climbing all over, Judas hanging himself on it, Alice Cooper emerging from it, but that wall in the back—the one with the graffiti? When that wall opened up with light pouring out onto Legend’s body hanging from the cross, the crowd, for once, settled down. We all witnessed the crucifixion scene, and Legend disappeared through the cross-shaped hole in the wall. The whole thing was so visually moving.
Overall, Jesus Christ Superstar Live! was a good and solid show. Dixon stole the entire night, and the choreography was most obviously done by a black woman (shoutout to Camille Brown!) and had me getting my whole life. I loved that representation played a strong part in the show’s cast. This television broadcast will show people of all shapes, sizes, colors—whatever—that dreams can be real. Thank you, Jesus ... Christ Superstar Live!