Whatever your religious beliefs – or total lack of them, the story of the crucifixion of Jesus remains a powerful and moving tale. Andrew Lloyd-Webber and Tim Rice’s telling is hardly the first, after all Passion plays have been a central part of Christian Easter Ceremonies for centuries. As with the Passion plays, Lloyd Webber and Rice only tell the story as far as the crucifixion and death of Christ, not the resurrection. This is something that some Christians find hard to accept, as well the suggestion that Jesus was just a man, not God embodied.
Enough of the theology. After all, many Jewish, Muslim and Christian stories are simply retellings of earlier religious texts, so why shouldn’t mere musical writers get in on the act?
Depending on how much of Lloyd Webber’s own musings you choose to believe, he and Tim Rice were persuaded to write the musical by a Sunday Times critic whose son was in the first large scale performance of their first commercial work – Joseph and his Coat of Many Colours. Conceived as a rock and roll arena show and album rather than a theatrical performance, it is of course much better known, at least in the UK, on the stage. This is because a full arena sized production has never been staged this side of the pond and it has been a good few years since it has taken place anywhere else.
The publicity and drive behind the 2012 production was the ITV show “Search for a Superstar”. This set out to find a new Jesus, plucked from obscurity and elevated to instant stardom. This had worked previously on the BBC with Oliver, The Sound of Music and Somewhere over the Rainbow, so it seemed a certain hit. A shame it did not work out really, with ratings of less than 3 million tuning in each week. By then, the arena tour was already booked, so tickets went on sale albeit at a limited number of shows and sold well. The remaining dates were released and good houses were recorded for all shows. Early on in the production planning, a live recording was scheduled and released in time for Christmas in the UK. Cinematic performances in Canada and around the world were planned but have not been delivered to date.
Now, I have worked on a number of these live recordings previously, having spent the thick end of twenty years as a concert touring engineer, working on both the sound and video disciplines, including directing live video to screens and operating the front of house sound console. The usual practice is to record the show after it has been up and running for a few shows and record over a couple of nights to ensure all angles are covered. Cameras used as part of the production will generally not be used, but a recording of previous shows will be sent to the director to allow them to plan their shots and quite often camera positions will be shared. These days, most live sound digital systems allow recording of every channel with nothing more complicated than a high spec PC fitted with a large drive and a MADI digital audio input card. Many engineers will routinely record the show to allow them to hone the mix without the talent present or leaving the comfort of the tour bus lounge and, of course, this can be synced to the playback and live video using time code. Plugging in a recording console is as just simple, literally just a couple of fibre optic cables for 96 channels of 24 bit audio. Therefore, getting all the sound assets together to capture even a complex show is actually pretty simple. The difficulties tend to be around lighting and the artistes themselves. On a tour, if someone has a bad night, the rest of the team can compensate for them and on a large production like this, there will be understudies as well. The show will go on as they say. The problem is that for a Blu-ray release, the stars simply have to be there and on form as the cost of rescheduling the shoot is prohibitive. The lighting issue can be complex to solve if a large rig is involved. It will be almost impossible to re-programme the whole moving light rig, so the usual solution is to add in some additional generic (fixed) audience lighting and reduce the intensity of the follow spots, thus reducing the span of light levels on stage and throughout the venue. The aim is not to impact upon the enjoyment of the live paying audience but still come out with a decent product at the end of the night.
So how well has this live video been produced? On the whole quite well and as you might expect for a major release all bases have been covered, with only a few issues. The question therefore becomes is it entertaining?
Bearing in mind this musical was written in 1969 and originally released in 1970, some updating has been necessary to keep things relevant. The recent riots in the UK and Arab Spring take the place of the discontent of the occupied Jewish nation in the prologue, with edited contemporary news footage of the violence and heavy handed police put downs shown on the big screen behind the performers. As we move into the first number, we get to hear most of the main cast members for the first time. Tim Minchin – that well known potty mouthed comedy singer plays Judas. This is possibly the largest role in the musical and also the most difficult to sing, with a huge vocal range and some pretty stretching vocal maneuverers to accomplish. There is more than a hint of auto-tune on this performance, but the jury is out on whether this is to correct for a poor performance or as a vocoder effect. There can be no doubt he is extremely talented and is one of the better Judas’s so far, but some concerns about aspects of his singing remain. Mel C, formerly Sporty Spice, plays Mary Magdalene and very good she is too. Her clear voice is thankfully pretty much accent free and not much in the way of acting is required, just rubbing a bit of oil into Jesus’s feet and stroking his face, the lucky boy! Jesus is played by supposed newcomer Ben Forster who has actually been in the West End for some years, although never in such starring roles. This is typical of pretty much all the “stars” that Lloyd Webber found during his TV shows as let’s be honest, how is a total newbie going to compete against seasoned professionals with years of training under their belts? His vocal performance is very strong, but I am not sure he has the stage presence to totally own this role. He appears much more as just a man in the right place in the right time as opposed to the son of god, but maybe this was what Lloyd-Webber was aiming for as he has always played down the spiritual side of the story. The last star is Chris Moyles, ex long term Radio 1 breakfast DJ and actually an extremely talented performer. As Herod, he just gets the one song and as such, must totally own the stage for the duration of his performance. There can be no doubt this role was written for him. His singing may not be the strongest, but bearing in mind Rik Mayall has worn the sequined jacket before, this is not a major issue. Some have played Herod as evil, but Moyles settles for shallow and uncaring – probably closer to the historical truth. Remember this is not the first born killing Herod of the Nativity but the bored puppet king of an occupied nation.
The staging of the show looks surprisingly simple at first glance, with just a tall and wide central staircase flanked by the band on scaffold risers and a large video screen at the rear. Having been to the live show, this worked incredibly well, but does not translate quite so well to the smaller screen. It just looks a bit messy as some of the scale is lost. There are too many rigging chains for the moving stage sections blocking the screen and the band risers are more prominent than I remember them. The screen at the back again looks fantastic in the flesh, delivering bright, clean albeit slightly vertically squashed images. On the recording it remains bright, but on too many shots, the individual LEDs are too visible or we see flashing images behind the actors as detail whips through the shot. Part of this is because the screen forms not only the relay of finer detail using a couple of live cameras to the plebs in the cheap seats but also acts as a digital backdrop to key scenes as well. This means that it is not possible to edit the screen out of the shots without compromising the film. The design of the screen and graphics is extremely clever. Video and most backdrops are displayed in the central 2/3rds, but occasional graphics and overlays “spill” outside of this behind the band’s risers. This gives the impression of 3D, as without the backdrop as reference, the overlay appears to move forward in space. A very simple trick and extremely effective. There are a few continuity errors between the screen and “live” action, with Minchin’s mic changing sides a couple of times as the most obvious.
Shots of the audience are very limited, which is a good thing, as they add nothing to the performance. No mosh pit to capture or lighters in the air as we get at a Bon Jovi concert, just nice middle class people sipping their plastic glasses of white wine and wondering if they will get home before the babysitter finishes the single malt. We do get some really big wide shots and sweeps from the jib, but these just add to the feeling of scale and do not feature paying guests to any degree.
We also need to mention the supporting cast. Unlike most West End musicals, many get solo performances at various points within the musical, giving a variety of voices to listen to. The show includes elements of Parkuor, pole dancing and contemporary dance, all on the steeply raked stairs, while avoiding moving staircases and flame pits. It all sounds more Harry Potter than Jesus Christ, but it is effective and powerful when combined with the other elements. Practical scenery and props are fairly limited and all are modern, with pop up tents, iPads and digital cameras all in attendance.
The music is pretty much a polished up original score. Many parts are re-orchestrated to bring the songs a little more up to date, but they are instantly recognisable to all but the terminally tone deaf. The band is made up of top of their game musicians, so they sound as tight as a duck’s bottom. We get treated to a few band shots during the show which is a nice salute to them and well deserved. This is not an easy piece to perform for either cast or musicians, so coming together this well night after night is some achievement.
It is no spoiler to reveal the final scene features the crucifixion of Jesus. Bloodied and beaten, his body is tied to a cross and hauled thirty feet into the air. Now here’s the tricky bit: Just how do you end an arena or for that matter theatrical performance in this way? Traditional passion plays end with Christ dying on the cross and the audience drift slowly away, usually in silence or weeping, but this is no way to end a musical. Instead we get a final cool down number and then a full cast salute with a reprise of Superstar that featured during the crucifixion scene minutes earlier. There is always some disconnection between the sombre end to the main part of the story and the uplifting final moments of the musical, but at least most people leave with a smile.
All in all, this is an enjoyable and well produced live recording. Comparing it to earlier staged productions would be unfair, but it still does stand up well. The stars are well up to the roles and ability required to perform them and the supporting cast and band are first rate. If you did not see the show live, this Blu-ray remains the next best thing, at least until the new film comes out in 2014.
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