The Musical Madness of King Herod
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This Easter weekend the Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice hit rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar will be all over the screens, from YouTube to network television.
Last week composer Webber began releasing different hits from his back catalog of musicals, on his newly launched YouTube channel “The Shows Must Go On," putting up a new musical performance each Friday (each available for 48 hours only). Appropriately enough his Easter weekend offering is Jesus Christ Superstar.
On Easter Sunday, NBC will rebroadcast its 2018 Emmy winning special*, Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert* featuring John Legend in the title role with Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdaline. However, all those familiar with this performance will be tuning in to once again see the appearance of shock rock legend Alice Cooper as King Herod.
Cooper is an intriguing choice for Herod, as the man who brings his horror show spectacles to the concert stage, is a devout Christian and (from everything I read) a super cool, nice guy in real life.
The Herod we read about in of The Bible (Herod Archelaus) was the egotistical, jealous, and murderous heir to the throne of Herod I the Great, and was eventually deposed by Rome due his unpopularity with the Jews. In the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, he is portrayed as an edgy, sometimes campy, charismatic but evil ruler who mocks and challenges Jesus, before sending him to his fate. Like any good villain, he is often the most fun to watch as he emerges for the Act II showstopper. All the “cool kids” want to play him.
Jesus Christ Superstar was the first musical I remember. My mom had the cassette and I played it all the time (much to the disapproval of my dad who found the production blasphemous). I always just thought of it as a modern day passion play. “Herod’s Song” was performed by Mike d’Abo, known best as the lead singer for Manfred Mann. When I was a teenager, I got to see a touring production that featured some of the cast of the 1973 film version of the musical, including Ted Neeley (Jesus) and Carl Anderson (Judas), as well as Irene Cara (well, we got to see her understudy that day) as Mary Magdalene and Styx's Dennis DeYoung s Pilate. It was the guy who was Herod who stood out, as always. I still can’t remember his name, but he pranced out wearing those David Lee Roth style butt-cheek revealing pants and chewed up the scenery so effectively, he got a standing ovation after both his song and at the end of the show.
Herod always does, and is the one character actors can really play around with.
Josh Mostel who played Herod in the 1970s film version (and ironically plays a rabbi today on the series Hunters), gave Herod a shaggy-haired evil hippy nerd mixed with a bit of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and some Life of Brian.
Recently, there have been a couple of more contemporary portrayals of Herod.
The version of Jesus Christ Superstar coming out this weekend on Webber’s YouTube channel will be the 2012 arena tour, which was later released on video from Universal. Moyles is a popular radio and television presenter known throughout the U.K. for hosting The Chris Moyles Show on Radio X and formerly on BBC Radio 1. His Herod got to rock a crushed red velvet suit, and he portrayed Herod as an over-the-top game show host.
Mayall was a pioneer in the alternative, edgy comedy scene, and his self-absorbed Rick from The Young Ones was described as the epitome of the “try-hard wanna-be Leftie” found on every college campus, according to show writer Ben Elton. He was also the creepy cool star of Drop Dead Fred, among other things. Mayall, died of a sudden heart attack while jogging at age 56. His Herod performance in the style of a 1920s cabaret owner is my personal favorite of all the interpretations. Mayall goes Marvel supervillain in his depiction.
This version of the musical aired in 2000 on Great Performances, and you can still find clips of most of it on YouTube.
Johnny Rotten (Almost)
Yes, the ultimate anarchist punker and former Sex Pistol John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) was set to portray King Herod in a 2014 arena tour, which had already booked several North American tour dates, before production was abruptly halted because of poor advance ticket sales. It’s too bad, because this would have been an interesting one. Other cast members included Destiny’s Child’s Michelle Williams as Mary, Brandon Boyd of Incubus as Judas Iscariot, and NSync’s JC Chasez as Pilate. Singer and actor Ben Forster, cast as Jesus, went on to be seen in the 2014 arena tour as well.
Unfortunately, we’ll never get to see this performance, but here’s Johnny giving us a tour of the exhibit, “Too Fast to Live, Too Young to Die: Punk Graphics” exhibit at Museum of Art in Design last year. Love him or hate him, Johnny Rotten never holds back his honest opinion on everything.
The Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert rebroadcast is 7 p.m. (6 p.m. Central) on Sunday, April 12.
Header video from The Daily Motion, 2018