Two frustrated theatre nerds got to enjoy the rare delight of an actual live musical in summer 2020 and welcome you along for the authentic post-show analysis experience.
A few Sundays ago, your illustrious editors went to the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre to watch Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert, a socially-distanced production of the show that was previously staged there in summer 2016 and 2017 and at the Barbican Centre a couple of years later. We love theatre very much: watching it, thinking about it, talking about it, writing about it. Basically we’ve missed it a lot. What follows is our contribution to the theatrical canon of 2020.
“The art is being created in the moment and the moment is the art.”
Regent’s Park, London. Day.
JODIE, a tall woman, sits on the grass under a tree she has demanded they shelter under to get out of the glaring late-summer sun. ELLIE, her friend, who would rather be catching some rays, sits opposite her. They both press ‘record’ on their phones.
J: We’re recording here in Regent’s Park. I’m here with Ellie, say hi!
J: We’re not doing a podcast – this is all getting cut out. So, how are we feeling about going to see a musical?
E: It’s weird! It’s weird, I feel like I should be massively excited but it feels like I’m just doing a thing I normally do, it’s just I just haven’t done it for a while, if that makes sense?
J: That does make sense, and yeah, same. I was thinking about it this morning, thinking, like… I’m very excited, not to underplay it, I’m excited but also, it’s kind of normal.
E: I’m mostly just worried about whether it’s going to be strange and awkward and I will feel like I’m supposed to be enjoying it and be very impressed by how they’ve managed to do it despite all the restrictions but it’s just going to be awkward.
J: I’m actually not worried about it being weird because I think I just… I’ve not seen anyone say that it is. I’m just excited to see a show.
E: I think that article I showed you that was all about that experience of being in a crowd of people and experiencing the same thing, I –
J: I don’t want to be in a crowd! To be clear…
E: Not a “crowd”, a very responsible and socially-distanced scattered group of people.
J: So, common experiences?
E: Yeah, exactly, all experiencing and watching the same thing and the thrill of it being live and just, like, seeing people be good at stuff?
ELLIE is Australian so sometimes her quizzical inflection simply can’t be helped?
J: Yeah. We’ve watched performances online; we’ve had Zoom theatre, like we watched The Last Five Years from the Other Palace and we were texting our friend Renuka during that, and it’s just different isn’t it? Because obviously if watching something while texting someone was as good as theatre then we’d all just watch terrestrial TV. You remember in the early days it was fun to tweet while watching something live? But actually yes, experiencing something that we are the only ones experiencing – not in like a gatekeepery way, but-
E: Yeah, it’s the things that can only happen once, the things you had to be there for, that is what makes it so great.
J: Yeah, the art is being created in the moment and the moment is the art [laughs]. Oh dear. But it’s true though! It is true, and that’s what’s so great about live theatre.
E: Well it’s like I was saying earlier, in lockdown, the thing I really missed when West End stars were doing Zoom performances and stuff, I just really missed production values. I missed them being on a stage with proper acoustics and wearing a costume and everyone’s made an effort.
J: It will be interesting to check in at the end with all the social distancing and all the different measures that have been put in place to make it a safe production, whether that has taken away from the core experience that we enjoy.
E: Yeah! Or like the fact that the applause will be so sparse and scattered, I think that’s going to be depressing. It’ll be interesting comparing it to the last thing I saw here, which was Little Shop Of Horrors, which was major production values.
J: I think this is different though because it’s a “concert”, rather than a… This is like Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert.
E: Oh really? See I didn’t know that. I thought it was properly going to be like the show except they were going to be acting out crucifying Jesus from two metres away somehow!
J: Ohhh, I see what you mean, so you were worrying it would be weird from that perspective? Oh, well, I don’t know how they’re going to crucify Jesus! Maybe they’re going to crucify Jesus, we’ll find out.
E: Or he’ll just be standing at a microphone screaming.
J: We’ll see.
“I feel like glitter is unsanitary, right?”
Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, London. A few minutes later.
ELLIE and JODIE sit in a sparsely-occupied open air theatre as the band warm up and people take their seats.
J: We’re in a theatre! Very exciting.
E: Are you recording?
J: I am.
E: We are in a theatre. You know what? I like the space and I hope they keep it.
J: [laughing] Forever!
E: Yeah. I’m down with it. I like not having a stranger’s leg touching my leg. But it still looks gorgeous, and this is a lovely way to spend an afternoon. And it doesn’t feel… it doesn’t feel depressing, which I was worried about.
J: Yeah, no. I mean it’s weird. It feels like they haven’t sold enough tickets!
E: But it feels like this is actually quite a pleasant level of crowd.
J: Yeah, it’s not empty, certainly.
JODIE notices the set has been repurposed from the previous summer’s production of Evita and wonders if this show will have the same impressive ticker tape budget.
E: Is this a ticker tape kind of show? Are they doing the glitter?
J: There was so much glitter when I saw it at the Barbican.
E: I feel like glitter is unsanitary, right?
J: Well yeah, that’s the thing, I dunno…
E: And also, if you can’t actually touch them…
J: They threw the glitter at Jesus to indicate the flogging. This might be spoilers..!
E: And that might be difficult if you’re outside, the glitter might go…
J: Well it was originally outside.
E: Oh, okay.
J: I spy glitter on the floor! Okay, tuning out, it’s 3 o’clock. Bye.
“It still felt like theatre. It didn’t feel awkward or like just a pale imitation of theatre, it’s still the real deal.”
Regent’s Park, again. Still day.
ELLIE and JODIE are back outside the theatre, sitting on the grass with drinks and delicious walnut and chocolate baked goods. They are joined by several wasps.
J: Ellie, thoughts.
E: Do you know what? This is going to sound really terrible – it was a really good show but my favourite part was honestly the standing ovation at the end because how long has it been?
J: Your favourite part?!
E: Well, I found myself so exhilarated I was grinning all over my face even though, like, Jesus had just died because – sorry, spoilers! – because it was the feeling of being with everyone who had just appreciated a thing, and that mutual appreciation between you and the actors, that back and forth and give and take and stuff, and that relationship I had really missed.
J: A moment that felt very powerful, in a sort of unique way, was when we were all applauding them, and then they applauded us, and, like, I know that often happens, they’re like “thank you for coming” or whatever but it really felt almost like we were all working together to create this piece? Like, obviously they were doing the work, but I think I took that to mean them being grateful to the audience for still being there. I also felt at the end, more so than when I have seen other shows, gratitude, especially because it’s really really hot, so people are in hot, sunny weather and dancing and singing and performing for us, and it’s been so long since someone has “performed” for me. You get kind of used to it as a part of life, but it’s really nice to have someone stand on a stage and give of themselves for your enjoyment and it’s a strangely personal interaction, I think.
E: Yeah, I felt that too, their gratitude, it was like, “you’ve taken a risk by coming out today,” and watching them staying two metres apart from each other really hammered home the point that they also are taking a risk to go back to work.
J: Yeah, absolutely, I mean obviously work is work and that’s important, but they don’t need to be, you know, doing that for us.
E: There was a moment right at the beginning where they all came out in masks and you’re a little bit like, “is this going to be the thing, are they keeping the masks on? Oh, I suppose we have to…” and then they all took their masks off, and even though that’s less safe, it was such a jubilant moment.
J: It was! And it was weird because it felt strangely triumphant, but also… that’s a bad thing! Because you don’t want to be like, “Yeah! Actually, let’s all take off our masks!” [laughs]. But yeah, I thought it was very powerful to see them in their face coverings. And the cast were very good.
E: They were very good! I am a convert to the church of Tyrone Huntley.
It’s important to understand at this juncture that JODIE has been yelling at ELLIE several times a month for years about how wonderful Tyrone Huntley’s performance as Judas was in the 2016 production, based on one YouTube video she saw once.
He started singing and I got fully chills, partially because it had been so long, and partially because he’s just very, very good and his voice is gorgeous and velvety and, quite honestly I think he was the star of the whole thing.
J: Oh, yeah. I mean every time he came out on stage I was excited to hear him sing. Which is not to say that I wasn’t excited for everyone else because Jesus, Pepe Nufrio, was unbelievable. Those notes that Andrew Lloyd Webber makes Jesus sing are just ridiculous.
E: You’re on tenterhooks aren’t you, waiting for that!
J: And his ‘Gethsemane’ was incredible. What feels different about theatre now?
E: I guess it feels like when you do anything now, in that there’s always a reminder of the risks. You know, the pre-show announcement is not just “turn off your phones”, it’s “please keep your distance and keep your masks on”.
J: And the applause was worse! I didn’t think it would be affected but it was worse.
E: I felt like that was okay.
J: Oh really? I really love when something finishes and it just, like, erupts, and it was more like a patter patter patter into a gentle round of applause, and I think if it had been full it would have been more erupty. Because the songs are so huge, they deserve an eruption afterwards. I think we did our best.
E: We did, yeah. People were much more ready to get on their feet and be really enthusiastic.
J: They attempted mid-show ovations.
E: Yeah! After ‘Gethsemane’. It still felt like theatre. It didn’t feel awkward or like just a pale imitation of theatre, it’s still the real deal.
E: The glitter was great. There were a lot of midriffs cavorting covered in glitter – it was very distracting!
J: Did you feel safe?
E: Yeah, actually, yeah I did. I was thinking about this, it’s like there’s an extra layer of theatre which is ‘Covid-19 Safety Theatre’ on top of everything else, like “we are making everyone wear a mask, we are checking your temperature with a beepy thing, we are keeping your seats distant.”
J: On the question of “was it worth it?”: I am very glad I came and I feel very lucky to be someone who has seen a musical in 2020. And what a musical. It’s so good, and so weird!
E: It was absolutely worth seeing that. I’m actually really glad I saw that now, and not last year, because I think I appreciate it more.
J: I think for me, for the production of this, in this setting in this moment, five stars. For Jesus Christ Superstar as a show? I think it needs some work [laughs]. But it was just great.
E: Yeah. I haven’t felt… We have watched some very good Zoom shows but I haven’t felt exhilarated like that by watching something in the last 6 months.
J: And you’ve touched on this before, but the thing that’s so amazing is, you’re surrounded by strangers, and someone hits an incredible note, and you see someone out of the corner of your eye do a little fist pump and it’s like “Yeah! You’re right! That was incredible!” And the energy of a crowd all being on the same page is amazing.
E: I think especially right now, we are all on the same page here, like, this is special and we’ve missed it.
J: And so many people were wearing The Show Must Go On shirts!
E: And people brought their kids, that was strange.
J: Because it gets so graphic?
E: Oh, I had a point, actually, about the graphic bit. I thought it was really interesting how Jesus crucified himself.
J: I mean obviously, yes, that was a staging consideration, but…
E: That was a staging consideration and I was wondering how they were going to do it but actually it really made the point that they had been making in the previous songs with Pilate where he’s like, “I can save you”.
J: “This doesn’t have to happen”.
E: And Jesus is like “Yeah, it does. This is happening whether we want it to or not,” and so he basically, he has to just go through and do it himself.
J: When I saw it last time and the cast and production people came out and talked about it, they talked about the part where he’s covered in glitter and how it’s symbolic of him going from a man to a golden crucifix icon. And I just thought it was really interesting. I don’t think it’s meant to be “Oh! I see what they’re doing – they’re turning him into…” It’s meant to be subtle, like an association you might make in your unconscious mind. I absolutely love, love, love the silver paint touch.
E: So you can see his guilt is visible on his hands!
J: Exactly. I just think it’s so powerful. I really, really love the visual design of this production.
E: It is gorgeous. It’s quite original, everyone’s in grey and then you’ve got this stark silver and gold and the blood and that’s kind of the only colours.
J: What’s actually quite fun and interesting about it is taking a slightly cheesy Andrew Lloyd Webber show and doing it in quite a gritty way. It’s sort of inherently my cup of tea, I think. Give us the gritty Joseph!
E: There’s a lot of times they try to be edgy in streetwear or whatever, but they’re doing it with an Andrew Lloyd Webber show, which is deeply uncool.
J: I had a great time. As a show, a roaring success. What was the best bit? The standing ovation?
E: That was among my favourite parts, yeah. Tyrone’s opening song, definitely a highlight.
J: That run he does on the final “all gone sour”, that was my personal highlight. Any final conclusions you want to add?
E: I don’t have a closing statement, I guess. It was a good time, and I really miss theatre. And even if it’s not back-back, it’s still back.
J: Or it’s still there.
E: Yeah, it’s still there. It might go away again but it hasn’t gone completely and more than anything it was just sort of life-affirming, I guess.
J: Yeah, it has the thing that live theatre is and it’s, you know… It’s got it. It’s still got its soul and heart.
E: Exactly… Thank you for listening!
ELLIE and JODIE stop recording, lie down in the grass and continue to chat about how wonderful musicals are, surrounded by picnickers and families and sunshine and life. It’s a little oasis of normality and they love it very much.