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Global newsreaders and soldiers normally choose their words carefully. In a globalised world, hundreds of languages exist and increasingly the world’s forces and communities are in constant need of diplomacy.
But when the temperature of a conflict hit a high enough pitch, reporters will know the difference: the conflict is being labelled as viral. Viral outbreaks of course are always exaggerated as examples of disease and contagion. So when epidemic diseases break out across different communities around the world, it can present a cultural challenge for warring factions.
The Broadway smash-hit Jesus Christ Superstar tour came to Toronto’s La Jolla Playhouse last week – in a production fit for a virulent pandemic.
Now in the sixteenth staging, the show has a modern post-apocalyptic spin and embodies what you might call “kindred” powers. This mix of solid and personable has come to define the Jesus Christ story throughout history, and the Canadian production seems to be tapping into this zeitgeist.
If any faith is to be found, it’s in the good will between a well-meaning team of angels and Jesus’s mischievous band of misfits. The songs are good – pop songs with pop lyrics – and the cheering throng, who seem to melt at the sight of Jesus, are moved by the escape that he permits.
“It’s a fine line between a zealot and a hero,” says production manager Brendan Martin. “We wanted to show the tolerance for difference and an ability to listen and empathise with the other side. But to do that we’ve got to make him a human being.”
Jesus, a young, idealistic rock star coming off a long life-changing tour, abandons his earthly home for a new beginning, but the people of the Holy Land – still deeply upset by his tour – resent this new order.
To get along, the band of outlaws who take Jesus under their wing – and convince him to sign on as their frontman – must unite under a single point of view and love.
The show calls to mind the chicken and egg debate over whether religion and environmentalism are intertwined in a society of goodwill and compassion. Is there a way to reconcile these two seemingly contradictory forces, or do both often get in the way of the latter? The crucifixion, in this production, is hardly a martyrdom, but an act of horrific violence as though their world had been ravaged by a viral attack.
Either way, Jesus suffers, and one wonders if the battle he goes through to save the world has been influenced by today’s global refugee crisis, some of which has to make its way through Toronto’s cramped downtown shelters.
Neuroscience academic and past president of Toronto’s theatre society, Philip Lyons, says it’s possible for theatre to help overcome psychological traumas in the same way books can, even though musicals are sometimes viewed with a level of condescension. “There’s a deep well of meaning behind the plays and the experiences people have,” he says. “Music is such a vivid experience in a live space and so powerful, it really is an agent of healing.”
And so the show gently simmers into its conclusion: Jesus is taken from his sick bed by the Angels to start a new life.
The new empire also has the good fortune to keep its iconic headless, bearded rock-star alive, in hopes that he will become its greatest ambassador and the symbol of unity and victory. Jesus was true to the word of God – but for this thing to succeed, he has to be true to humanity.