• Danielle Purdy

Jesus Christ Superstar, or, I'm With Judas

I don’t know how to love him

Listen: I do not like Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. I need to start there.

Have you ever seen a compelling version of Starlight Express? How about a production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat that didn’t have the absolute worst costuming in the history of biblical costumes? ALW has had a history of turning interesting material into a kitschy, over-dramatized and impossibly boring “in the style of rock” version. There’s a good song every once in a while – I’m looking at you, Sunset Boulevard – but for every impeccable Glenn Close moment, there’s ten Donny Osmonds with pitch problems in a lacefront. The only redeeming quality of Cats is that bizarre video of a very young Celine Dion singing “Memory” in a cat suit while pawing her fists around.

And don’t even get me started on Phantom of the Opera. Christ.

I don’t know why he moves me

But I need to tell you how I finally heard the story of Judas.

He’s a man

He’s just a man

Judas is the first villain I remember learning about. I could probably still draw you a pretty accurate representation of my childhood image of him – a sort of cartoonish Rasputin type, scrawny, with a scraggly beard and wild eyes, a mouth that twisted easily. Snidely Whiplash. A malevolent, ugly man who enjoyed evil. I mean, he betrayed Jesus intentionally. He chose to plant that kiss and knew exactly what he was doing.

So… Jesus Christ Superstar. Another ALW original.

I’d avoided this show for years, assuming it was just a campier version of Godspell. I couldn’t get behind the concept. But I am a sucker for a spectacular pop/rock belt.

He is not a king

He is just the same as anyone I know

Two years ago, I discovered a performer named Drew Sarich. His voice is so free and supple; he can switch between screaming and beautiful, restrained lyrical passages with complete ease. His performance is a masterclass in fluidity, musical storytelling and the vocal freedom proper training allows. Drew Sarich played Judas at a very limited run of the show in Austria. The YouTube video of the 11th hour power ballad “Judas’ Death” has, at the time of writing this, 191,906 views. Roughly 100,000 of those views are from me just trying to wrap my brain around his instrument. His performance is so compelling, I could withhold my usual ALW eye roll. However, after watching Drew a few hundred times, the narrative awoke. I realized – Biblical context aside – that this is the story of two beloved friends who fundamentally disagree on politics. One tries to save the other, it goes horribly wrong and both end up confused, heart-broken and dead. It’s Shakespeare. Or Greek tragedy.

God, he scares me so.

When he’s cold and dead

Will he let me be?

Does he love me, too?

Does he care for me?

Drew’s Judas is attractive, young, compassionate, and faced with a best friend who starts calling himself the Son of God. I’m now of an age with Jesus and Judas. These boys are my friends. They are the brilliant, compassionate, activist, wine and beer drinking, socialist, Bernie Sanders lovers. I have a beloved brother who lives with schizophrenia. Knowing these men and loving someone with a mental illness, Judas’ actions suddenly become completely rational. Here is a kid who believes his best friend is losing his mind and putting himself in danger. He acts out of love, protecting Jesus. If Jesus is in prison, he will be safe, out of the public eye. There is nothing of the Snidely Whiplash in those actions. In “Judas’ Death”, he realizes mid-song that he has been a pawn in the game of “God’s Will”, forced unwillingly into the role of the villain. And Jesus, his best friend, knew all along and allowed it to happen. With this awakening, a shattered Judas takes his own life. Judas never betrayed Jesus. Jesus sacrificed Judas. So much for friendship.

My mind is in darkness now

My God, I’m sick

I’ve been used

And you knew all the time

In watching Drew Sarich, the beauty, complexity and humanity of Judas unfolded all at once, but with it came a distinct taste of bile. When my brother believed and pursued incomprehensible ideas, my parents took him to the hospital. They were met with somber, you-did-the-right-things and it’s-what’s-bests. But how is this any different? Why did anyone ever tell me Judas was a villain? Why had no one ever told me this story? How did this extremely human person become demonized? Why had anyone ever put Rasputin in my head?

I’ll never ever ever know

Why you chose me

For your crime

For your crime

For your crime

I don’t go to church anymore. I haven’t for a long time. I’m not a Christian. Much of that is due to a crippling resentment towards adults who steered me toward shame and judgment instead of love. If there ever was a god, I don’t think he lives in the evangelical church. I don’t see him in the adults I grew up with. But I do find God, or something like it, in music, in theatre, in literature, in nature. I found him in this story of a man trying to save his best friend from harm. I found God in Judas. If anyone asks, I’m on his side.

You have murdered me

You have murdered me

At some point I realized The Church had broken me. And not in the way Evangelicals speak of being broken for Christ – a brokenness that implies an opening, a lightness, an “awakening”. No, no. The Church broke me in the way torture breaks a person. It broke me the same way my sexual assault broke me and irrevocably changed me. I am still recovering.

I blame all those adults who told me the wrong story.

You have murdered me

I feel just as betrayed as Judas.

*Lyrics from “Judas’ Death”, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, Jesus Christ Superstar

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