Songs from Musicals: #15, “Gethsemane,” from Jesus Christ Superstar

Honorable mentions: “Heaven on Their Minds,” “The Temple”

(Got here just in time for Easter. Boom.)

I wish ministers would spend more time noticing that Jesus of Nazareth was a man, a real historical person. This is basically indisputable; one can honestly and intelligently argue about his birthplace, the message of his ministry, and his divinity, but only people on the fringes really believe that Jesus wasn’t a person. In the churches I’ve worshiped at, Jesus’ humanity is convenient or even amusing before it is relevant. It’s far more important that Jesus is the son of God, the one who is sacrificed to atone for the sins of the world (or, depending on your theological bent, the sins of the elect). His miracles are proof of his divinity, and his actions fulfill the Scripture. And sometimes preachers mention the irony that God was a person: Jesus was born humbly, and ate food, and went to the bathroom at least six or seven times, and wept, too. But the fact that Jesus was a person, and had feelings, like a person, is as indisputable as his existence. Whether he was just another apocalyptic prophet or he is the fulcrum of human history is something else entirely. And while Jesus Christ Superstar wants to weigh in on that debate a little (see “Superstar” and the fact that Jesus is not resurrected at the end), it does better when it looks at Jesus and wonders about the person rather than the icon.

There is no more fascinating mystery in Jesus’ life than what he said and did and thought about in the garden of Gethsemane. He was, according to the Book of Mark, deeply agitated when he got there, and he remains that way throughout; he spends most of his time in the garden yelling at his disciples to get up. The one thing we hear him say that betrays something of him is a statement of abject fear, a recognition of God’s power, a recognition that God’s power could rescue him from a horrific execution, and ultimately a rejection of that way out. Jesus chooses in the garden that he will die perhaps twelve to eighteen hours later. There was doubtless more that he said, and far more that he must have thought. “Gethsemane” seeks to answer that question, and the portrait is simultaneously unflattering and sympathetic. Jesus is concerned with the legacy of his message, with how the last three years of his life have pushed him to the breaking point, with how someone else might have done the job. And at the same time, Jesus is also entertaining the possibility of his own death, which gives the lie to whatever egotism he seems to be holding onto. He seems convinced that it’s something that God wants him to do. His concern, by the end of the song, is not that he will die brutally, but that he will die needlessly.

“Gethsemane” is a good song. When other people do it, it’s probably in the high forties of my showtunes rankings. (If that were the case, you’d be reading about “Heaven on Their Minds,” which is what you get when you compress all of Burr’s songs in Hamilton and turn it into a four minute song.) What pushes it up this high for me is Ted Neeley, who is more than adequate as a singer and actor, but who possesses a skill that I don’t think anyone else has. He screams. “All right! I’ll die!” he screams. It’s a note, still, an almost impossibly high note, but it is also very clearly a scream of desperation and anxiety and pain. It is the representation of the lethal cocktail of emotions that Jesus must have felt in that garden, and Neeley’s ability to represent it with that unique scream that can pop blood vessels from fifty yards. Regardless of one’s perspective of the divinity of Jesus, Neeley’s howling is the gold standard of Jesus’ human feeling as he waited for the soldiers to come get him.

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