In my younger days, my mother would turn on the record player (yes, I’m around that age) while she was cleaning the house. The two albums that got the most airplay were Evita and Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. So in my early years, I became familiar with the works of Andrew Lloyd Webber, as well as his artistic license with scripture.
With that formative foundation, I was eager to watch NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live” on Easter Sunday night. I had always enjoyed the music, and I was certainly not disappointed with this production. John Legend was steady and reliable as Jesus, Brandon Victor Dixon stole the show as Judas, Sara Bareilles did what she does as Mary Magdalene, and we can’t forget Alice Cooper knocking out Herod’s playful/angry number.
It was Legend’s performance of “Gethsemane (I Only Wanted to Say),” however, that moved me with its combination of words and performance, sparking thoughts of Christ as He began His Atonement for us.
While “Superstar” follows the biblical narrative chronologically, Webber and co-writer Tim Rice assign emotions to the major players that are not necessarily apparent on the pages of scripture. It may or may not be accurate, but it came through in a moving way as Legend put into tune the Savior’s harrowing night in the garden.
Immediately, I thought of LDS Atonement theology, best summarized in the Book of Mormon in Alma 7: 11-13.
11 And he shall go forth, suffering pains and afflictions and temptations of every kind; and this that the word might be fulfilled which saith he will take upon him the pains and the sicknesses of his people.
12 And he will take upon him death, that he may loose the bands of death which bind his people; and he will take upon him their infirmities, that his bowels may be filled with mercy, according to the flesh, that he may know according to the flesh how to succor his people according to their infirmities.
13 Now the Spirit knoweth all things; nevertheless the Son of God suffereth according to the flesh that he might take upon him the sins of his people, that he might blot out their transgressions according to the power of his deliverance; and now behold, this is the testimony which is in me.
This passage, probably more than any other, illuminates the Mormon belief of Christ taking on all our sicknesses and pains — physical, emotional, spiritual — as part of his atoning sacrifice the night before he took on death itself. Through this experience, our Savior has perfect empathy for every way we hurt, and combined with His perfect love and the enabling power of His grace, he succors and carries us through our deepening trials.
One question, however, remains: Do we have empathy for Him? A better way to phrase that would be whether we comprehend what he suffered. And while I believe that our finite human minds cannot comprehend all the pain he felt, this musical version portrays the Lord slogging through an existential crisis in a way that could make one say, “He understands me!”
He reveals that there are highs and lows:
Then I was inspired
Now I’m sad and tired
He wants to know if there is/was any purpose not only to His death, but to anything He had done leading up to that point. The miracles, teachings, ministry, were they worth it?
Why I should die
Would I be more noticed than I ever was before?
Would the things I’ve said and done matter anymore?
He has trepidation for this leap of faith He is about to make, and, in a moment that is true to human nature, He wants to see the end from the beginning, just to be sure.
Can you show me now that I would not be killed in vain?
Show me just a little of your omnipresent brain
Show me there’s a reason for your wanting me to die
You’re far too keen on ‘where’ and ‘how’ and not so hot on ‘why’
Then, vulnerably admitting fear, while essentially screaming at His Father: “This was YOUR idea, remember?”
Scared to finish what I started
What you started, I didn’t start it!
He then finishes the song by accepting the Father’s will to drink the bitter cup.
I’m not going to pretend that this is high-level biblical scholarship or explicitly divinely revealed. It’s entertainment and artistic license. At the same time, Christ is portrayed in a way that we can see ourselves being. His humanity is more on display than His divinity, and it is done in a way that draws our hearts to Him.