Hosanna or heresy? Jesus Christ, the Superstar that is, makes his post-Resurrection debut on a Moscow stage in a black leather jacket, straddling a motorcycle borrowed from the local Soviet militia.
The scene could hardly be considered orthodox, either politically or religiously, in the Moscow of old. In today's Soviet Union, however, where religion and Western culture are embraced as enthusiastically as they were once officially condemned, the rock opera "Jesus Christ Superstar" is playing to packed houses at Moscow's Mossoviet Theater.
Twenty years after "Superstar's" spectacular debut in the West, Andrew Lloyd Weber's rock opera has been given new life in what once seemed the unlikeliest of places. Director Pavel Khomsky and an energetic young cast of dancing disciples have created a "Superstar" with a uniquely Soviet twist.
That "Jesus Christ Superstar" should now enjoy popular success with Soviet audiences is no accident. Religion, forcibly suppressed since the founding years of the Soviet state, is now enjoying a vivid revival among citizens of all ages.
In a recent nationwide survey where people were asked what figures would have "a major influence" on Soviet citizens in the year 2000, 58% named Jesus Christ. Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev was cited by only 26% of those participating in the poll and V. I. Lenin, the leader of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, by 36%, according to results published in Moscow News, a liberal weekly newspaper.
Signs of the religious revival are everywhere visible in the capital. Hare Krishnas chant outside the Soviet Defense Ministry. Posters advertise "faith seminars" by American evangelists. A Jewish cultural center opened with fanfare in Moscow. And peddlers sell Russian Orthodox trinkets on street corners.
In the last month, both the Rev. Billy Graham and the Dalai Lama spoke to crowds here. Pope John Paul II may visit the Soviet Union in the next year or two.
Communist Party bureaucrats and radical democrats alike, have been quick to sense that religion, once the vilified "opiate of the masses," may now be an ally in an effort to strengthen the moral fiber of a decaying society.
Russian Federation President Boris N. Yeltsin was blessed by the Patriarch Alexei II at his recent inauguration. This spring, Yeltsin and Soviet Prime Minister Valentin S. Pavlov were shown on central television attending Orthodox services on Easter.
The search for something to fill the vacuum of a now-discredited official ideology and something to believe in during a time of great uncertainty has assumed new urgency for Soviet youth. The crowds of blue jeans-clad teen-agers who fill "Superstar's" audiences demonstrate that this rock opera taps and articulates the spiritual aspirations of the current generation of Soviet young people, as it did for American youth 20 years ago.
Most Soviet viewers of "Superstar" know of Jesus' life not so much from the Bible as from Mikhail Bulgakov's novel "The Master and Margarita"--a Russian classic that was long suppressed by the Communists, but which nevertheless enjoyed a wide underground audience in samizdat (literally, self-published) form. Until recently, the Bible was available to the public here only on the black market, and even today it is too difficult or expensive for many Soviets to obtain.
"I've never read the Bible," said theater goer Irina Kiryukhina. "The Jesus I know is from 'The Master and Margarita.' When I remembered the book and heard the music from 'Superstar,' I just knew I had to see this play."
Some of the dialogues in the Soviet version of "Superstar" are adapted from dialogues between Jesus and the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate in Bulgakov's novel, in order to strike a chord with the Soviet audience.
"Superstar" has surprised believers because in contrast to the hierarchical and tradition-bound Russian Orthodox Church, the Jesus portrayed in the rock opera is a rebellious, anti-dogmatic figure who challenges all earthly authority.
Mossoviet's production comes almost too close to Soviet reality for some viewers. When three actors dressed in Soviet riot gear walk down the aisles in the first act, menacingly brandishing clubs, you can almost hear the audience draw in a breath and glance around nervously as if to say, "Hey, is this the real thing?"
Characters and scenes are also given different emphasis under Khomsky's direction, serving to reflect the Soviet context. In contrast with the original Andrew Lloyd Weber-Tim Rice production, for example, the role of Simon the Zealot has been enhanced, as it was in "The Master and Margarita."
"For us, Simon the Zealot is a key figure," Khomsky said. "He embodies many of the characteristics of Soviet crowds today. One minute they sing hosannas in the streets to their leader, their 'savior,' the next day they demand his head."
Costumes in this "Superstar" also provide none-too-subtle associations with infamous characters in Soviet life. Take the Pharisees, those Biblical authority figures of old. Dressed here in white linen suits, like characters from "Miami Vice," they suggest to a Soviet viewer the notorious, much-hated local mafia.
At Jesus' Crucifixion, the Pharisees reappear sporting dark business suits with red armbands, thus evoking the unmistakable image of a Communist Party leadership lineup atop Lenin's Tomb in Moscow's Red Square on May Day or the Nov. 7 anniversary of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The loud snickers prove this scene to be an audience favorite.
Khomsky first saw "Superstar" 20 years ago while touring America. At that time, the Soviet press severely criticized the opera for its portrayal of "bourgeois Western religion and hippie youth culture."
"Of course, this only made us more anxious to see it with our own eyes," Khomsky chuckled.
Entranced by the performance, he brought the "Superstar" album back home to Moscow. Bootleg recordings were promptly made and passed from hand to hand. Everyone wanted to hear the exuberant new dramatic form from the West: the rock opera.
Westerners who were in the Soviet Union in the 1970s describe the "Jesus Christ Superstar" album as among the hottest items on the black market, fetching the equivalent of a month's salary.
"Superstar" appealed strongly to those who thought of rock music, Western culture and religion as forbidden fruits.
"It was like a revelation to me," said a wistful Mikhail Shevelyov, a journalist at Moscow News, recalling his youthful encounter with the "Superstar" recording. "I listened to the album day and night, trying to figure out those crazy English lyrics. That music, that hosanna-heysanna chorus, is why I started learning English."
Smiling mischievously, Shevelyov mused that the authorities' fear of the appeal of Western pop culture was not entirely unfounded. "'Superstar' first inspired me to learn your country's language and culture," he said. "That lesson hasn't been lost in my current work."
Glasnost (openness) and the Communist Party's recent opportunistic support for religion have made "Superstar's" performance on Soviet stages possible. But it wasn't until two years ago, when Soviet songwriter and translator Yaroslav Kesler came up with a Russian version of the rock opera, that Mossoviet's Khomsky seriously considered staging it.
His theater colleagues were skeptical: "They looked at me in disbelief, asking, 'What are you, crazy? Where will you find Soviet actors who can sing a rock opera?' "
But Khomsky plowed ahead with his plans, convinced that "Superstar's" time had come for the Soviet stage. When the authorities did not object, "that was my green light," he said.
The director then navigated his way through the wily world of Soviet deal-making, indispensable in this shortage-plagued economy, to obtain the stage props he needed. The Soviet security forces were obliging, providing the theater with authentic riot police uniforms from the infamous "Black Beret" forces to outfit the show's Roman soldiers. The Moscow militia loaned Khomsky an old BMW motorcycle so that Jesus could make a classy post-Resurrection getaway with Mary Magdalene in tow.
"We're very proud that 'Superstar' brings a young audience that normally never goes to the theater," said Khomsky. "This play seems to strike a real chord with them, and with their parents."