Ruth Leon wrote a great piece about Andrew Lloyd Webber for Playbill. It really does feel like the right time to look back at his career in the context of Broadway. Phantom of the Opera played its 10000th performance. Both Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar are returning to Broadway in new revivals. The threat of Love Never Dies still looms on the horizon and Webber still seems keen on bringing his expanded production of The Wizard of Oz on tour. Leon, however, beat me to my Webber retrospective. Instead, I'll be looking at the upcoming revivals coming in the next few months.
Jesus Christ Superstar is one of the more successful and better remembered rock operas to come out after The Who defined the form with Tommy. It is inspired by the last week of Jesus' life as told in the Gospel, but really hones in on almost political struggles between Jesus, Judas, and Roman authorities. The show, though popular, is still considered controversial because of the liberties taken in telling the story--Judas is a sympathetic figure, Mary Magdalene is written as a prostitute and Jesus' main confidante--as well as the majority of the villains being written as Jewish characters.
Still, forty-one years later, Jesus Christ Superstar is regularly performed all over the world. It's a great example of a well known story being elevated to easily consumed entertainment by the right approach. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice found a great deal of truth in the story with rock music and the result is a thrilling night of theater.
The show happens to contain one of my favorite songs in all of musical theater. "Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)" is a tightly wound and overtly dramatic interpretation of the story of Jesus. The night before Jesus will be handed over to Roman authorities for punishment, he steps away from his apostles to pray for guidance. He knows that he was put on Earth to die, but he wants to make sure that God is positive that will be his fate.
Everything about this song works for me on paper. From the steady build of the verses to the more erratic--almost violent--orchestrations at the chorus to the humbling conclusion where everything is accepted, "Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)" serves as an excellent character song. The one caveat to this is how the vocal performance quickly shifted to what can be overly dramatic at the beginning. The opening verses are written to be performed very straight to create more of a contrast with the explosive chorus. It's a minor quibble as it just takes a song that went from control to desperation into perhaps a more fitting paradigm of fear and determination. The right actor makes the more popular approach work.
Jesus Christ Superstar begins previews 1 March and opens 22 March.
Evita is, in some ways, a nice complement to Jesus Christ Superstar. They're both mostly sung through shows that embraced the conventions of theater with atypical scores. For Evita, the Latin-hued score will be going even more out of the wheelhouse of traditional musical theater with this revival. Andrew Lloyd Webber was invited to revisit his score by revival director Michael Grandage. Webber promises to have added more Latin flourishes to a score that already evoked Argentina in some clever ways.
Evita sets itself up to tell the life story of Eva Peron, the former first lady of Argentina who passed away from cancer at the age of thirty-three. What the show actually does is provide an intriguing look into the rise of political and cultural figures in the guise of telling Eva's story. Everything in the show is an act of manipulation to push the audience in unexpected directions.
Even the narrator figure, Che, refuses to play into the sentimentalism that the chorus of Argentine citizens acts on throughout the show. He provides a strong critical counterpoint to all of Peron's actions. The result is a show that challenges the viewer to examine the public images of famous figures with the safety net of one charismatic woman's life story. There's a great video on YouTube that shows how this device was used in a clear visual way in the original production. Watch for how the citizens are kept removed from the backroom politics that overtake the stage.
The difficulty of putting on a production of Evita really is the title role. Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote a bear of a role for a belting soprano. The show requires so much vocal strength to come across right. That's not even taking into account how often the score forces Eva to sing in the upper range of her voice again and again without break. This is particularly evident in "Buenos Aires."
Elena Roger has been playing this role for quite a few years now and will be taking it on in the upcoming Broadway revival. If you watch enough videos of her performances, you'll see even she struggles sometimes to belt out the final phrase of the song. And just think: "Buenos Aires" is only her second song in the show. She's in that range again and again and again for close to two hours after this. Let's just say there's a good reason that most productions of Evita use an alternate for some performances every week.
Evita begins previews 12 March for a 5 April opening.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.