In tonight’s live production of Jesus Christ Superstar on NBC John Legend, Sara Bareilles and Alice Cooper were terrible. And I bet you thought they were great. You are wrong. They were not. Any performer with musical theater experience will tell you the same. Any veteran theater enthusiast who’s actually seen quality productions will tell you the same. And that’s my problem: Too many people seem unable to discern quality. When did we all become such dolts?
Ben Daniels (Pilot), Brandon Victor Dixon (Judas), every “minor” role, and even the chorus, all were stellar, all came with Broadway experience, and were in an entirely different league from the three headliners.
Bareilles and Legend, no doubt, have beautiful, sophisticated vocal instruments. But let’s be blunt. Neither of them can act. Except for a few weeks as the replacement lead in her Musical Waitress, Bareilles’ musical theater experience is the same as Legend’s: Exactly zero.
Bareilles’ performance of “I Don’t Know How To Love Him” was flawless vocally, but wasn’t even close to the emotional depth called for. Legend was consistent. Every scene showed he was simply without the skill or experience to pull off more than a high school level performance (apologies to high schoolers). Even worse, the role requires a true rock tenor. That’s not Legend. God bless him, he tried. In fact, he was trying so hard I was worried half-way through that his voice might not make it to the end.
As for Alice Cooper as Herod, sure, it was good campy fun. But have you ever seen the song performed by a pro? It’s a singular piece that can (and should) be a tour de force. Done correctly, the opening lines of Herod’s Song pierce an audience. Cooper didn’t even bother to sing the great first verse. He spoke it! Unforgivable! He never got past the camp. I don’t care how much fun you think you had. It sucked.
Which brings me back to my main point: People don’t seem to know the difference between good and bad anymore. My social media feed was filled with praise for these three ill-prepared flops. I’m not blaming Bareilles, Legend, and Cooper. They were offered the gig, accepted, and did their best. I’m not even blaming NBC. For them it’s just economics – gotta have the names for top billing to get eyeballs. I don’t like it, but that’s a fight for another time.
A trained/experienced actor recognizes lousy acting just like a trained/experience singer or dancer recognizes lousy singing and dancing, just like a trained/experienced plumber or carpenter recognizes an amateur job, and so on. I’ll bet you care about the people who work on your car, fix your furnace, do your taxes. You want them to do it right. You want quality work. Why then, are we so forgiving of terrible artists?
I understand friends and parents “supporting” the kids in the school play or their neighbor in the local community theater. But this is different. This is not “support.” This is not knowing the difference between good and bad.
One might say at this point: “I enjoyed it and that’s all that matters! Why are you being such a killjoy? Just relax!” I had some of those comments in my feed. Call me crazy, but I think it does matter. It matters in the long run that we – and by “we” I mean a great number of us in society – can’t tell the difference between quality and crap, between real and fake.
The problem of the quality/crap/real/fake confusion spreads quickly beyond community theaters and reality TV voice competition shows and into other areas of life. Before you know it, the sellers use our lack of sophistication to sell us on other bad or fake products and services, and then bad or fake ideas that lead to bad or fake policies with real and devastating consequences.
So, here’s how you can do your part to save the world. Admit that Bareilles, Legend, and Cooper sucked tonight. Then go out and get some good old fashioned learning and experience so the next time you make a judgement on quality, whether it’s a TV singer or a presidential debate, you’ll be better at it.
Charles Bursell has been heard nationally on SiriusXM, National Public Radio, and The Pacifica Radio Network. He currently hosts the podcast Charles Bursell Presents.