Imaging the Divine: Jesus and Christ-Figures in Film

By Lloyd Baugh | Go to book overview

3
The Jesus Musicals:
Jesus Christ Superstar
and Godspell

If today the film colossals of the 1960s seem rather odd, a rather outdated and ultimately counterproductive way of representing the story and the image of Jesus the Christ, the Jesus-musicals of the 1970s appear only slightly less odd, and certainly their way of representing Jesus Christ raises no fewer problems than the colossals. The two major examples of this "Jesus-musical" film genre were first theatrical musical dramas, produced and popular in the 1960s. In 1973, both were made into films: Jesus Christ Superstar, billed as a rock opera, and Godspell, billed as a folk-rock musical. 1

The dramatic musical is a very particular genre, on the theater stage and especially in its adaptation to the film medium. Very different from the serious stage drama, the crucial elements of a stage musical are its songs, and the music and the dance numbers that accompany them. The development of the narrative is secondary: the story told is mainly a vehicle for the songs. The actions done, the words spoken are in function of the songs and music. Strong character development and precise motivation of characters becomes very secondary. The most tenuous motivation for singing a song is sufficient. In the musical drama, narrative space must be created for major production numbers, in which principal elements of the cast and chorus can sing and dance for several minutes. Regarding stage design in the musical, realism is not the crucial element. The setting must above all support the spirit of the music and song and the tone of a given scene or major number. In the musical drama, the spectator's suspension of disbelief is quite different from that required for a drama, say by Shakespeare or Arthur Miller. In a good musical, the spectator readily, enthusiastically accepts the unrealistic breaking into song and dance, the presence of chorus and dancers, the corresponding shifts in tone and register and then, after the production number, the return to relative normalcy until the next production number.

As a result of all of this, the identification and vicarious participation of the spectator in the experience of the protagonist -- struggle, tension, tragedy, triumph, joy -- is different, certainly more limited than in the case of the straight drama. The protagonist is perceived first and foremost as a singerdancer, and only secondarily as a real person with a serious human experience. Concretely, this can be noted for example at the end of a performance when the spectators comment on a musical. They speak especially of the great music, the beautiful singing, the exhilarating dancing, the marvelous special

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