REVIEW: Jesus Christ Superstar: Live in Concert - Original Soundtrack of the NBC Television Event

Recording CoverFew scores have been recorded as many times in as many different interpretations as Jesus Christ Superstar. Perhaps owing to its origins first as a concept album, then as a concert tour, and then as a world-wide stage musical phenomenon (with each country's production independently envisioned by its own production team) and film (created simultaneously with and distinct from the stage version), this score has never had a standard mold into which subsequent renditions must fit. Further, the recent NBC "television event" is at least the fifth English-language video production of the material, so there was no pressure to preserve a "definitive" rendition.

The result was received fairly rapturously on television, with two major, near-universal caveats: the sound mix on the live broadcast was less than ideal, and the noisy audience was intrusive. (Yes, yes, there was also some disagreement about whether John Legend's less screamy version of Jesus was suitable; more on that in a bit.)

So, I'm pleased to report that the mix for the TV soundtrack album is entirely different from what we heard on television. If anything, it has been overcorrected for the broadcast issues, with the lead vocals being moved so far forward the band occasionally feels weaker than it should, and the audience moved so far back they occasionally sound phantasmic. This makes the audience less annoying, but also less effective in the moments when they are called upon to represent the population of Jerusalem reacting to Jesus's ministry and persecution. The vocal/instrumental balance smooths over any vestigial rock edge the score once had while obscuring some of the orchestration innovations this production employed. Admittedly, there weren't many -- the music staff wisely hewed closely to the original 70s sound rather than giving the music a contemporary veneer.

While Brandon Victor Dixon's Judas walked away with most of the performance accolades -- as any Judas should in a properly done Jesus Christ Superstar -- the entire cast delivers exciting performances on the album. Some, most notably Alice Cooper, actually benefit from the removal of the visuals. While Cooper's Herod on screen seemed somewhat awkward without much to do physically, the wit of his performance shines on the album. Legend's performance also benefits from the album treatment, where his mellower take on Jesus charms in the intimacy of earbuds. His Jesus is more the "sad and tired" Christ than the shouty, angry messiah of Superstars past. It works. Sara Bareilles makes a fine Mary, and her duet with Jason Tam on "Could We Start Again, Please" may be the best that song has ever sounded.

Only Ben Daniels's performance seems to suffer from the loss of visuals. His embodiment of Pilate was a highlight of the broadcast, striking a balance between the vulnerable human of "Pilate's Dream" and commanding ruler of the later scenes. But he's a far better actor than singer, and while his songs aren't hard to listen to on the album, they don't give the listener a sense of what made his performance so effective on screen.

Overall, this album is a fine entry into the long list of Superstar recordings, and will surely become the go-to for those discovering the joys of this score for the first time through this presentation. For the rest of us, it's unlikely to supplant our previous favorites. (Mine is the original concept album, but I suspect for most it's whichever album was their first exposure.) But it wouldn't surprise me to see a couple of these tracks appear on Andrew Lloyd Webber compilation albums for years to come.


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