The Fox-produced 'live' musical could have been better, but it also could have been worse
The Passion wasn’t your typical entry in the booming genre of event TV musical, even one that was made to capitalize on the growing faith audience. “Typical” might have been an adaptation of Godspell or Jesus Christ Superstar, iconic theatrical entertainments that took as their subject the life of Jesus Christ. The Passion was something else. It was a new gloss on an old Christian ritual, a “passion play,” a rehearsal of Christ’s betrayal, suffering, execution, and resurrection performed by a community of believers. Grease this was not.
Passion plays are difficult things to do well. They can provide an opportunity to reflect on the brutal cost of Christian salvation and the hope that’s found in the miracle of God’s triumph over death. A recent example: Mel Gibson’s film The Passion of the Christ. But they have also been presented in ways that excite and promulgate anti-Semitism, intentionally or otherwise. (Many people thought The Passion of The Christ was a deeply felt example of that, too.) Passion plays can be used as evangelism or to make statements about cultural identity, all of which makes The Passion something of a loaded thing given the times. A broadcast network aligned with a politically conservative worldview staging Christian propaganda at the start of Holy Week? Against the backdrop of a contentious election season in which Republican presidential candidates have marketed themselves as agents of “Judeo-Christian” values? During a media moment clamoring for greater diversity and representation on television? The Passion had the potential to be divisive instead of uniting, an ecstatic religious experience for many, one more powerfully alienating experience for everyone else.
The mixed report I have about The Passion’s version of The Good News was that it wasn’t the worst possible thing it could be, but it was also far from the best. Fox’s broadcast was never going to succeed as sacred ritual, not when it was also that most vulgar of television things, a delivery system for advertising messages. To go from an emotionally intense moment with Mary, the mother of Jesus, to a Verizon ad with caustic comedian, impolitic Golden Globes host and Mel Gibson troll — not to mention famous atheist — Ricky Gervais was jarring to say the least. There were commercials for several films targeting the Christian market, beginning with God Is Not Dead 2, an apparent polemic that portrays believers of Jesus as victims of persecution by forces of secularism and science or whatever the hell Ray Wise is playing with ripe Reaper devilishness. But even that spot was tonally discordant for a TV event that aspired to be gentle in spirit and embracing of everyone, from true believers to those willing to see it as allegory that affirms various positive universal values. Friendship. Love. Forgiveness. Tide, the laundry detergent, was another sponsor, but The Passion really wanted to be all-temperature Cheer, heavily scented with evangelism yet well bleached of offending bits.
The Passion wrapped itself in the persona of its host and narrator, Tyler Perry, to the point where I assumed that it was another original from the Madea-made media mogul and entertainment brand. But The Passion came from Dick Clark Productions, using a TV format derived from the 2006 British TV production Manchester Passion and developed by a Dutch company that specializes in (quoting from their website) “communicating positive values to a broad audience” and “translating seemingly difficult or unpopular but always relevant or important subjects into attractive, accessible, and successful communication applications.” Translation: This was cultural missionary work, “shared in the language of today,” to borrow from Perry’s script, written by Peter Barsocchini, a screenwriter best known for the High School Musical movies.
The Passion included elements common to passion plays, like an open-air theater, some street theater, acted and narrated drama, and live choral and instrumental music. Some passion plays function as civic ritual as well as religious ritual, performed by a community to recall deliverance from calamity. The Passion did this, too. It was staged in New Orleans, Perry’s hometown, and it was contextualized by the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina. But Perry asked us to identify with their gutting and grief and ongoing recovery. We are all New Orleaners, The Passion argued, and hope for restoration after suffering comes from brotherly, neighborly love.
The Passion was also noisy with elements rather novel to the form. Pop songs were used to express the internal lives of the characters, making this the Moulin Rouge of passion plays. It was a risky move. Christians might have been alienated by the use of secular music. (I’m a Christian; I wasn’t.) Those watching only for the jukebox karaoke were surely delighted… provided they were fans of ‘90s alt rock and new century adult contemporary. They could turn it up for Jencarlos Canela as Jesus singing Creed’s “Arms Wide Open” or Chris Daughtry as Judas singing Evanescence’s “Bring Me To Life” or Prince Royce as Peter singing Phillip Phillips’ “Home”; they could turn it down whenever Perry was talking about the Jesus stuff.
The center of the action was a dove white, multi-tiered stage in Woldenberg Park, but it wasn’t all live theater. While Tricia Yearwood sang several songs expressing the perspective of Mary, the mother of Jesus, from the stage, the story of Christ’s final hours was told mostly through pre-recorded scenes (a move blasted by some as a bait and switch), using actors in modern dress and sets like coffee houses, city parks, abandoned warehouses, and a cemetery. At one point, we saw Jesus buy bread and fish – food for his last supper – from Carla Hall in a food truck. It was one of the evening’s few attempts at humor. Almost every choice was designed to remind us that The Passion was more theatrical ritual than history lesson. The actors in the filmed scenes wore headset wireless microphones even though they weren’t necessary. Perhaps the show was trying to sell the illusion of live theater. (Aiding and abetting: a live band and a choir on the Woldenberg stage that accompanied the scene.) For me, the distraction of the mics focused my attention on the music, not the actor and his performance, and I wonder if that might have been part of point. We’re supposed to be worshipping Jesus here, not the pop idols. Or I could be overthinking things.
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The production might have been quite engrossing for the hundreds, maybe thousands in New Orleans gathered around the Woldenberg stage, but it made for bad television. A typical sequence would move in and out of the pre-recorded scene, cutting to establishing shots of the Woldenberg stage, where the scene was shown on a screen, or close-ups of the choir or the band or members of the live audience watching what we should be watching. Instead of engaging me, the direction kept distancing me from it with constant reminders that I wasn’t part of it.
The songs didn’t just hurt for hipness, they also didn’t always succeed in the more important areas of theology and psychology. Train’s “Calling All Angels” gave affecting voice to Jesus’ Garden of the Gethsemane turmoil, but Imagine Dragons’ “Demons” offered only pat, unsatisfying explanation for Judas’ betrayal. The cast suggested more about their characters when they had lyrics to sings. When they didn’t, Jesus and the disciples had less depth than Jem and the Holograms. They were a bromantic lot with boy band video camaraderie, whether it was walking down the street laughing and joshing and singing, or moping in shadow sad and confused and singing, always fashionably casual and exquisitely stubbled. The acting wasn’t acting, just poses of earnestly generated emotion. Canela and Royce were often a pucker away from being “Blue Steel” Zoolander pouts. Jesus was pained. Judas was tortured. Peter was guilty. As for Perry, he narrated the drama in the relaxed, folksy way that The Today Show crew narrates a Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade (Tyler Perry = the incarnate Lauer-Guthrie-Roker trinity), and he emceed the spectacle like a more subdued Ryan Seacrest counting down the minutes to New Year’s. He shared his faith and frequently interjected with awestruck asides (“All I can say to that is ‘Wow!’”), but he worked hard to avoid preachiness. The script written for him tried to present the story in general thematic terms that anyone could relate to, often in the most cliché of ways. Repetitive, too. After the second time Perry told us that Mary is all about the mother love, I contemplated a drinking game.
Still, The Passion was fundamentally and unapologetically an advertisement for the transformative properties of Christian belief. There was an ongoing subplot involving a procession of New Orleans natives carrying an illuminated cross through the city and to the Woldenberg stage. They essentially were played the part of the scourged and burdened Jesus marching to Golgotha, and more. “I have never seen anything like that!” gushed Perry, getting a kick out of the subversive spectacle of that white-as-snow cross moving down Bourbon Street in the night, ground zero for Mardis Gras bacchanal. It was this passion play’s well-coded “harrowing of hell” moment. Entertainment Tonight’s Nichelle Turner conducted interviews with the cross bearers, eliciting from them — and often coaching them through — personal stories about how their Christian faith has helped them shoulder the burden of catastrophe and affliction. A man spoke of surviving Katrina. A woman spoke of the son she lost to gun violence. Poignant stories, for sure, but the shaky technical execution didn’t flatter these beats, and Turner’s cheeriness and get-to-the-point hurriedness bent them all toward the rah-rah product endorsements. They felt like infomercial testimonials, not spiritual testimonials.
The most interesting and resonant choices in The Passion came during the most sensitive and potentially offensive part of any passion play. The iconography wasn’t ancient Middle Eastern but all contemporary American. The representatives of the Jewish social and religious authority that arrested Jesus: police officers in riot gear, a prickly American archetype at the moment, especially when they’re shown sending a counterculture rebel to his death and physically clashing with his protesting disciples. The Passion’s best single sequence was its most “live” dramatic moment, the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate, governor of an oppressed people, played by Seal in a slick business suit, a president/CEO. Perry introduced this passage by confessing that he didn’t think he could have an honest conversation with himself about his character flaws. He added that he could relate to Pilate and his shameful blame shifting. Then Perry shut up and let Seal and Canela — and the people of New Orleans — take over. Seal as Pilate asked the audience if they wanted him to honor a Passover tradition of exonerating a condemned prisoner by releasing Barabbas, a convicted murderer, or Jesus. The audience voted for Barabbas. Seal sealed the deal by singing Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” an inspired song selection that used to indict the audience’s rejection of Christ. Canela wept. Hard. Seal then kinda-sorta broke character to launched into a soaring rendition of Tears for Fears’ “Mad World,” used here to lament a fallen world and argue the need for divine intervention. The theological framing here: All of sinful humanity throughout all of human history — including the people of New Orleans — is responsible for the death of Jesus, not a single group.
The Passion avoided human ugliness of all sorts. Like Pilate, it didn’t want any blood on its hands. There was no simulated scourging of Jesus, no simulated of crucifixion. We were asked to meditate on the sight of the illuminated cross and let our imagination do the rest. But the show’s treatment of resurrection summed up the failure of The Passion as drama and as a credible advertisement for Christian hope. The show decided to dress Canela in a white robe and put him on top of a building far away from Woldenberg Park. The idea, I think, was to create the illusion of Christ’s ascension and position him in Heaven, reigning over creation. Anyway, from the rooftop, Jesus serenaded New Orleans with a love song: “Unconditionally” by Katy Perry. I have many quibbles with the choice, but if the theology here is that Christians should respond to the gift of God’s amazing grace by loving their neighbor without condition of any sort, I’m on board with that. But the visual storytelling backfires on The Passion. A more effective final image would have been to place Jesus on the ground and moving among in his people as he did after his resurrection and as the Holy Spirit did on Pentecost. Instead, by setting Jesus apart from the audience, The Passion created a metaphor for how so many people experience God – far away; hard to see – and a metaphor for a TV spectacle full of simplistic passion but failed as engaging play.