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Special to The PREVIEW
This year, Curtains Up Pagosa! will celebrate its 25th anniversary as a non-profit organization in Pagosa Springs supporting students in the arts. Each year, this unique theater-based group has presented high-quality musical theater productions to raise money for college scholarships, musical and theater equipment for the public schools and to support student mentoring in the arts.
“As our organization has grown and matured, the quality of our productions have grown and matured as well, offering amateur actors and musicians the opportunity to sink their teeth into often difficult Broadway-style productions,” says director Dale Johnson. “Our Silver Anniversary production will be the most challenging in our organization’s history. ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ has long been on the wish list of shows we wanted to present, but it is terribly difficult and brings with it a number of difficult challenges. The board agreed that this would be the right year to do it.”
The production will hit the stage at Pagosa Springs High School June 26, 27, 28 and July 2, 3 and 6 (Sunday 2 p.m. matinee).
In the early 1970s, what are now known as praise bands, consisting of rock-style Christian music, guitars and drums playing within the context of Sunday morning church services were not as common as they are today. In fact, in the minds of traditional denominations, such instrumentation and music would have been considered sacrilegious; antithetical to what was “proper” religious practice. In the minds of those in mainstream religions, rock music was still largely considered suspect at the least and, at the most, leading young people into a life of sin and decadence.
So, when the rock musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” made its musical debut in 1970, it struck terror in the hearts of many in the religious communities. Who were Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice to dare to put Jesus in such a setting? Who were they to interpret the Bible in such a way? What message were they presenting to the youth? Were they biblical scholars? Perhaps not, but one thing they were able to do that traditional churches had not was to dare to ask the hard questions and present Jesus in a format that young people related to. The music and its subject matter were a revolutionary take on the most revolutionary subject in history.
Whether or not one totally agrees with the take the lyricist and composer have on the story of the last week of Jesus’ life, the fact that the music and the libretto have withstood the test of time is undeniable. Young and old alike continue to be drawn to the rock-style setting of a subject that continues to astonish and fascinate the world, one that continues to change the lives of millions. Is the Rice/Webber interpretation accurate? Perhaps … perhaps not. However, the question continues to be asked, leaving the answer to the audience member to determine. What is the question? “Who is Jesus?”
This question in the production is not presented in a flip or disrespectful way. The opera is a serious one, albeit with a few moments of satire, such as “Herod’s Song.” Librettist Tim Rice doesn’t attempt to answer the question for you, either. The opera ends with Jesus dying on the cross, without any portrayal of his resurrection or ascension into heaven. In deference to that, there will be no traditional upbeat curtain call at the end of this production. It will end solemnly.
Initially, the rock opera was presented only in vinyl record format as opposed to the stage. There were no theater groups that wanted to touch it at that time due to the controversy. But, the record became a mainstream hit among the youth of the era, with “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and the title theme, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” hitting the top of the charts. Ultimately, the stage claimed it and it made Broadway its home.
Whether or not this rock-style opera is your religious cup of tea or even in your comfort zone, the quality of the performances will wow you. CUP has a reputation for presenting very high-quality productions and this one will certainly not disappoint.
The opera presents the apostles as emphatically clueless as to who Jesus is, constantly urging him to help them go to battle and stand up against Rome. Jesus tells them that none of them understands what real power is. But the disciples are ready to ride into Jerusalem with swords in hand to rally the crowd, with Jesus at the helm.
The Last Supper departs from the biblical texts that depict the last meal with his disciples as a love feast. Rather, it goes straight to the betrayal and showdown with Judas. With the apostles drunk with wine, Jesus despairs that they still don’t get what he has been telling them and still have no clue who he is or what he is about to do for them. Jesus, in a heart-wrenching scene in Gethsemane, questions God’s decision to allow him to die a gruesome death. He asks God if anyone will care if he dies, if what he has been teaching will remain with them or if it has all been for nothing.
In the meantime, Judas, who has tried desperately to get Jesus to see reason, to back off from his rhetoric that is rousing the authorities to arrest and kill him and all associated with him, finally goes to the chief priests and tells them where to find Jesus. He figures they will arrest him and get him out of circulation for a while until things calm down. He takes a “fee” for his disclosure,which he rationalizes will be given to the poor. Ultimately, it becomes “blood money.”
After the betrayal of Judas, Jesus is taken to the chief priests who turn him over to Pilate. Pilate is portrayed as one who has serious reservations about putting an innocent man to death. He sends Jesus to Herod, who sings a mocking ragtime song asking Jesus to perform a miracle to prove who he is. Jesus ignores him and Herod sends him back to Pilate. Pilate is sympathetic to Jesus’ plight, but ultimately, in frustration to Jesus’ refusal to make excuses or admit to lesser charges, gives up trying to save him.