Passion of the Christ(s)

He can fill churches and help win elections, but what makes him such a modern-day theatre star?
Two plays coming soon to Toronto are among a flock on Jesus’s life

What a mutual friend they have in Jesus.

Rick Miller and Eric Kunze don’t know each other, but this month the two actors will both be on stage in Toronto, playing arguably the most famous figure in history.

Miller’s latest one-man show, Bigger Than Jesus, opens at the Factory Theatre on Nov. 18 and Kunze tackles the title role in Jesus Christ Superstar at the Canon, starting on Nov. 23.

“How come this crucified Jewish man has wound up as the star of blockbuster movies and Broadway musicals?” asks Miller over coffee before a recent rehearsal. “Why does he get onto boxer shorts and key chains? How did he become part of our popular culture?”

These questions are more relevant than ever, especially coming at the end of a year when Mel Gibson’s The Passion Of The Christ grossed over $600 million (U.S.) worldwide and Christian recordings are the fastest-growing sector of the music industry. The Christian Right is given a large share of the credit for George W. Bush’s re-election to the White House.

Kunze has been with the touring production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical for 18 months now and he’s seen a cross-section of North America respond to the show.

On the phone from his home in Los Angeles, he offers his theory on the enduring popularity of Jesus.

“Whether or not you believe he was the Messiah doesn’t matter. He was a man who has touched millions of people for thousands of years. I believe it’s because he had his own demons and flaws and had to deal with them.”

Miller shares Kunze’s belief that the possible divinity of Jesus is not the most important factor in the compelling hold he has on people.

“Knowing what we know now, how could you possibly believe that the story of Jesus is factually true?” he demands.

“You can believe in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, but how can you believe that Jesus Christ is literally the Son of God descended to earth?”

What’s interesting is that this pair of very different shows opening in the city just a few days apart are only two of the theatrical manifestations of the Nazarene that have appeared on our stages in the last 30 years.

Jesus Christ Superstar was written in 1970 by a then-unknown pair of songwriters named Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. It was first released as a concept album and then went on to worldwide fame on stage and screen.

Despite its box office success, it was widely attacked by forces inside the church for its “heresy” about Jesus’ life. Matters weren’t helped by author Rice, who cheerfully gave out interviews where he insisted “I believe Christ was a man, not a God, and that’s what I wanted to put on the stage.”

Seen at a distance of three decades, the show’s wannabe hip rhetoric (“Jesus Christ, superstar/Do you think you’re what they say you are?”) may now seem more like campy cheek than raging heresy. But, not surprisingly, there are still religious groups and individuals out there angrily protesting its message.

The Faith Free Presbyterian Church of Granville, S.C. recently published a pamphlet to coincide with the production’s arrival in its area, denouncing it as “a conscious blasphemy against Christ.”

“We usually have a couple of picketers outside the theatre,” admits Kunze, “but they don’t give us a lot of trouble.” Kunze was raised Catholic and still practises his faith, but he has no trouble defending the show.

“If any of them talk to me, I usually say, `Hey, this isn’t Sunday school; you’re not going to Mass, you’re going to a theatrical production.”

The next show-business version of the story of Jesus to come along, however, was a lot more benign and easily accepted.

Godspell began as a Master’s thesis for its director, John-Michael Tebelak. In it, he saw Jesus as a kind of hippie clown, preaching the gospels through cute interactive skits.

The idea was clever, but it was really the tuneful score by Stephen Schwartz that led to an off-Broadway run of 2,124 performances starting in 1971, followed by a now-legendary Toronto production the next year.

Both of these musicals have remained enormously popular in the aftermath and it wasn’t until recent years that a new crop of Jesus shows came up, most of them on the decidedly irreverent side.

Terrence McNally’s 1998 play Corpus Christi caused a scandal when the Manhattan Theatre Club announced it, cancelled it due to public pressure and then reinstated it in the face of media outrage.

McNally’s script was set in Texas in the middle years of the last century and featured as its leading character a gay young messianic figure named Joshua who had a Christ-like group of apostles around him.

A few years later, Jesus appeared as a fantasy figure in the cult hit Reefer Madness: The Musical, haunting the smoker in his stoned paranoia.

“Listen to Jesus, Jimmy/I’m the face on the Shroud of Turin/Do I need to test your urine?” is probably the most outrageous statement an actor playing Christ has ever had to utter onstage.

But that doesn’t take into consideration what Rick Miller might have in store for us with Bigger Than Jesus.

After all, Miller is the man who alternatively delighted and horrified critics and audiences with his last show MacHomer: The Simpsons Do Macbeth, in which Homer and his clan romped through Shakespeare’s bloodstained tragedy.

But Miller is anxious to assure us that Bigger Than Jesus is not merely a piece of deconstructionist irreverence. It examines the myth and reality of the Saviour from various contemporary perspectives.

“I grew up Catholic in Montreal,” he recalls. “I went to church every Sunday until I was 28. But then the artist in me started questioning and doubting.”

Miller, now 34, left the church but later found “that I still knew all those words, all that liturgy by heart and I wondered why. I wanted to give meaning to them.”

So he began an examination of the very nature of Christianity “in an attempt to understand it, to find meaning in it and to challenge why we need to believe in something in the first place.

“We’re not confronting anyone’s faith in an attempt to denigrate it or belittle it,” he says reassuringly. “We’re trying to understand why people believe in this man who through a certain series of cause and effects became known as the Son of God.

“We’re trying to discover why this ritual has shaped the world for the past 2,000 years, for better or worse.”

Miller defends his right to offer a new spin on this iconic tale. “Like everyone throughout history, I’m interpreting Jesus for myself and hoping my interpretation has meaning for others.”

One version he doesn’t accept, however, is Mel Gibson’s in The Passion Of The Christ.

“It’s an action movie,” he scoffs, “based on inaccurate portrayals that were never intended to be history. You have to realize that the gospels were all myth-based. They were simply vehicles for belief.”

The fervour of zealots who buy Gibson’s view to the exclusion of all others frightens Miller. “People who claim to know the one absolute truth are dangerous. If I’m trying to do anything with this play, it’s to fight fundamentalism of any kind.”

“In the question lies the God, rather than in the answer. The miracle about faith is that we don’t know. Yes, we’re all going to fall at the end, but do we fall to our knees in fear, or do we fall to our knees in wonder?

“That’s what I’m really asking here.”

Additional articles by Richard Ouzounian

Read the Toronto Star online

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog)
The Toronto Star, Canada
Nov. 7, 2004 Theater Review
Richard Ouzounian, Theatre Critic

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This post was last updated: Monday, November 30, -0001 at 12:00 AM, Central European Time (CET)