Tim Rice may not be listed in the recently announced ‘Stage 100’, but he is currently our hero of the week. According to an article in the Telegraph, he has spoken out against Andrew Lloyd Webber’s plans to cast his forthcoming stadium tour of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ using a TV casting show on ITV, titled, with telling secularity, ‘Superstar’. Unlike ourselves, Rice does not object to the TV casting format per se, but he has made it clear that he thinks that ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ is not the right show to receive this treatment, and that the result will be ‘tacky’ and ‘tasteless’. He has also threatened to use his right of veto if he does not approve of the casting.
Whatsonstage.com meanwhile seem unremittingly chirpy at the prospect of a reality show, pointing out that ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ topped their poll of shows which audiences most wanted to see cast by reality TV, and relishing the prospect of cringeworthy catchphrases such as ‘You could be Jesus’ and ‘Saved by the Lord’, and speculating on just how each week’s departing ‘Jesus’ might be dealt with. So, exactly the kind of ridicule which Tim Rice is worried about. And even Steve Rich, an enthusiastic follower of previous casting shows, wittily anticipated problems of good taste in his theatremonkey blog back in early January.
Judging by initial comments from the public on these news pieces, it may be that the appetite for yet another casting show is not be as keen as Andrew Lloyd Webber thinks it is, but this venture does seem to be particularly fraught with difficulty. Even Matthew Hemley of ‘The Stage’ wondered aloud on Barbara Windsor’s Radio 2 musical theatre show last week ‘will any of them be able to reach those high notes like Steve Balsamo‘?
Have the executives at ITV worked out how they are going to deal with the protests which will almost certainly come from religious groups? It’s not that long ago that the BBC provoked an Ofcom investigation following their screening of ‘Jerry Springer – the Opera’, in which the Devil and Jesus were minor characters. In this case we have a high-profile TV show dealing with complex issues which are likely to cause controversy, in a format which will not allow any opportunity for serious discussion. Meanwhile the original musical, which was written as a sincere attempt to depict the life of Jesus, may become the target of ridicule.
There is another worrying element to this production. The cultural landscape of Britain has changed considerably since the original show was first performed, and within the context of a TV casting show, we wonder how the producers will deal with the issue of non-traditional casting and racial stereotyping? The ‘tradition’ of casting a black actor to play Judas Iscariot seems to have started on Broadway, and was sealed in the 1973 film with Carl Anderson’s highly acclaimed performance. Meanwhile Ted Neely’s blond haired, blue-eyed Christ fitted the racial stereotype of an Aryan Jesus perfectly. Back in the seventies, nobody would have batted an eyelid, but nearly forty years on, we feel a little less comfortable about black actors being stereotyped as the ‘baddie’. If they do decide to cast Judas on the show, will we see this racial divide being repeated and stereotypes reinforced? Most of the casting shows have had some controversy over the ‘looks’ of the contestants and their ‘suitability’ for the part.
It would be easier to challenge these assumptions on stage, where non-traditional casting is much more advanced, but on primetime TV? If the finalists are truly representative of the UK culturally, will anyone want to mention this elephant in the room? And if you think we are exaggerating, have a look at this depiction of the ‘true face of Jesus’, and compare it with his image from the 2002 BBC programme ‘The Real face of Jesus’ which tried to give a more authentic indication of how he might have looked.
As for Tim Rice’s threat to veto the final casting, it’s an intriguing possibility, and the idea that Lloyd Webber’s nemesis could come in the form of his former writing partner, without whom this musical would not even exist, has a certain poetic justice to it. Indeed, the first two lines of ‘Superstar’ seem to express it pretty well:
“Every time I look at you I don’t understand
Why you let the things you did get so out of hand”