On Jesus Christ Superstar and the Power of a Handshake


It's only a handshake. But it's a handshake that has stuck with me.

It happens halfway through "Everything's Alright" in the 1973 film version of Jesus Christ Superstar. In this scene, Judas berates Mary Magdalene for her perceived wastefulness, and then turns his ire toward Jesus. The response from Jesus is both forceful and empathetic, defending his female friend's generous hospitality and reminding Judas that "you'll be lost and you'll be sorry when I'm gone." 

It's not so much the words of this moment that catches my attention so much as the gestures. We see Jesus reaching out to cup Judas's face. And as the camera pans out, we behold a small crowd surrounding Judas, laying their hands on him in a show of solidarity. Judas's face is one of wonder, frustration, admiration, and confusion.

Then, the two clasp their hands together tightly, reaffirming a bond and a friendship that was being tested and stretched to a breaking point. 

That's the handshake I'm talking about. For me, it captures the tension of the entire musical, a tension that has its roots in a messy friendship that ends with betrayal, death, and resurrection.

I think this is why I became enamored with this musical as a teenager. For starters, there is something gloriously transgressive about re-imagining Judas as a sympathetic character.

But even more, I think that this musical speaks more broadly to the complicated ways that friendships work. For me as a teenager, this could not have been more relevant. Friendships can be life-affirming, joyous, and a source of happiness. But they can also confound us and complicate our lives.

And yet, we need friends--real friends. At the same time, sometimes we treat those closest to us worse than we would any casual acquaintance.

All of this brings me to the latest telling of the Jesus Christ Superstar story, featuring John Legend and company. Long story short, I thought this was a superb production. Unlike some of the reviews that I read, I actually liked the Mad Max-esque setting. The live crowd added an energy to a performance that was captivating, lively, and powerful.

The casting could not have been more appropriate--except for Alice Cooper as Herod. His Herod relied more on our background knowledge of him rather than of the actual performance itself. So I rate that one somewhere between "underwhelming" and "meh." Yes, I went there. Not going back either (humph).

Otherwise, everyone from Simon to Pilate to Mary Magdalene absolutely owned the stage. But Judas, played by Brandon Victor Dixon, truly took control of the story. It's appropriate, in my view. Jesus Christ Superstar works because it reveals the very human turmoil of this character. We can relate to him precisely because of his imperfections.

Having said all of that...

I braced myself for "Everything's Alright." 



It was good. Very good. There was plenty of anger and frustration. But there was no dramatic separation between the two. No gestures of humanity exchanged between Judas and the crowd. And there was no handshake.

Just the image of two former friends, two new rivals. Judas stands aloof, unaffected, and exasperated.

This is my "I wish they would have" for this production. The Jesus/Judas dynamic certainly was intense and heated. But I didn't detect the complexity, the conflicted humanity. Maybe I missed something. Educate me if you think otherwise.

But I really liked that handshake.

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