Reviews

Jesus Christ Superstar: 1 July 2012 - New York

Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

When I left the Neil Simon Theatre with my 21st century perspective, I asked, "Is Jesus Christ Superstar anti-Semitic?" If so, can there be any telling of the New Testament that is not anti-Semitic?

Jesus Christ Superstar

Venue: Neil Simon Theatre
City: New York
Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber
Lyrics: Tim Rice
Date: 2012-07-01

Director Des McAnuff's raucous, glam Jesus Christ Superstar revival led me to think of the New Testament in a completely new way.

The Broadway production opened with an LED ticker display starting at 2012 that rapidly counted down to the year 33. When the first notes of the overture pierced the air, audience members thrust fists upward, cheering in gleeful recognition of the 1970s rock opera. A stage manager voice had announced if anyone forgot to turn off a cell phone, it probably would be drowned out by the music, anyhow.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's catchy tunes with Tim Rice's conversational lyrics told a fast-paced story of Christ's betrayal, trial, crucifixion and resurrection. Actors wearing what looked like "Free People" brand fashions or wardrobes from Brooklyn Industries, zealously sang and danced as the followers of Jesus Christ (Paul Nolan). The Romans strutted authority in black leather. Judas Iscariot (Josh Young) expressed festering resentment and his own feelings of betrayal, while Mary Magdalene (Chilina Kennedy) sang familiar refrains of her love for Christ. Judas, the Jewish priests, Caiaphas (Marcus Nance) and Annas (Aaron Walpole), King Herrod (Bruce Dow), Pontius Pilate (Tom Hewitt), apostles, followers who later become the angry crowd, and angels belted out the New Testament storyline, often with head swinging, hip shaking choreography. The stage sported an electric, industrial look with metal, bleacher-like scaffolding swung in various ways for different scenes.

How could this be anything more than an entertaining, rockin' good time?

In grade school, I asked a friend if she wanted to see Jesus Christ Superstar. She said, "I can't go because my mom says it makes it look like the Jews killed Christ, and the Jews didn't kill Christ. The Romans did."

Flash forward to 2012. When I left the Neil Simon Theatre with my 21st century perspective, I asked, "Is Jesus Christ Superstar anti-Semitic?" If so, can there be any telling of the New Testament that is not anti-Semitic?

Gordon Haber teaches at American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He writes on religion for The Jewish Daily Forward and The Huffington Post. Haber sees the Lloyd Webber/Rice musical as an expression of popular culture. Due to the complex issues surrounding the idea of a messiah and Jewish law, Haber said he would not look to Jesus Christ Superstar to address serious questions about anti-Semitism.

As to the larger questions of Christ's story in relation to Jews, Haber pointed to the history of successive Abrahamic religions. Each one proposes theological arguments of why it abrogates the previous one.

In considering Christianity as a religion following and competing with Judaism, Haber said, "Of course, they are going to have hostility toward the Jews because these guys, Paul especially, were going around trying to convert Jews to accept that Jesus was the messiah. But they were all saying 'We're OK as we are. Thank you very much. We're fine.' [laughs] So, of course, there is hostility in the text." Haber added that the same is true later in the Koran with Islamic views toward Christianity.

"So, is there anti-Semitism embedded in the Christian Bible? Of course there is," he said. "Look at the Hebrew Bible and what the Hebrews did to the Canaanites. If there were Canaanites around, people would be talking about anti-Canaanism. So, is there anti-Semitism in the text by definition in any expression of the texts? Possibly."

Hal Taussig holds an A.B., M.Div. and Ph.D. in religion. He is a Methodist minister and a professor of New Testament studies at Union Theological Seminary and a professor of early Christianity at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. Taussig's scholarship includes knowing the five ancient biblical languages (Aramaic, Coptic, Greek, Hebrew and Latin) and publishing numerous books and articles on religion.

Taussig felt Jesus Christ Superstar did not distort the New Testament. However, he said a majority of biblical scholars today believe the New Testament, itself, inaccurately framed the Jewish people and leaders.

"From my point of view as biblical scholar, it is completely the case that the Romans killed Jesus," Taussig said. "The Romans never let go of the prerogative of capital punishment, and so it's very clear from a whole range of Roman documents that it would never allow a Jewish group to decide who gets capital punishment or not."

The musical portrayed Caiaphas and Annas as instigating the idea of Christ's death, while Pilate resisted executing an innocent man. However, records document Pilate crucified more than 10,000 people. Hesitancy in executing Christ would be completely out of character with the historical records, according to Taussig. Similar to Haber, Taussig concludes the early writers of the Gospel had reasons to shift blame away from Rome.

Taussig believes interpreting the New Testament (or Jesus Christ Superstar) through a historical, critical examination, does not discredit the entire story of Christ. The Gospels' profundity, beauty, wisdom and truth can exist, as well as its errors, as humans wrote, edited, collected, and compiled the stories.

"I, myself, love Jesus and read the New Testament for faith but that doesn't mean that Christianity must not face whether [it] in a musical or film semi-consciously participated in anti-Semitism, and for me the clear answer is yes," said Taussig.

"I think we all need to acknowledge and be honest and say that there is anti-Semitism embedded in Christian text. Whether there is a straight line from that to the Holocaust is certainly arguable. But I would never argue that we have to leave it alone or that people can't try to explore it artistically. That would be really bad," said Haber.

However, to me, the fury in blaming anyone for killing Christ never made sense. If Christianity requires belief that it was God's will for Christ to die on the cross for the salvation of mankind, then hatred for anyone involved in the crucifixion is illogical.

Taussig responded that this premise of salvation presents a Christian fundamentalist view of the New Testament. "There are many ways of being a Christian and many entrances to the grace of God," said Taussig. He added that the history of Christianity is filled with different interpretations and that American fundamentalism has tried to restrain the dialogue to only one story.

Taussig did not complain that Jesus Christ Superstar was more anti-Semitic than the Gospels, but believes that the Gospels clearly played a role in the Holocaust. Christ would never have intended for his story to lead in that direction. "Jesus never in the Gospels said he wanted to start a new religion. Jesus lived and died as a Jew," he said. Taussig said that he agreed with my childhood friend's mother but with one slight difference. "Jesus was always on her side," he said.

"You don't move on from the damage that the text you love did, until you address some of the basic issues at stake in your life. I think you illustrated clearly that most Christians haven't really asked this of the text they love," said Taussig.

Even if Lloyd Webber and Rice wrote their rock opera for sheer entertainment, it inevitably will stir more discussion. It takes a certain amount of guts and bravado to take on religion, an often highly sensitive subject. The production, which originated at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where McAnuff is the artistic director, closed on Broadway. Yet the musical continues its resurrection. Tickets are now on sale for a new production with a new cast, directed by Laurence Connor to open in London on September 21.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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