Passion plays, which depict the trial and death of Jesus, have a nasty history.
The Oberammergau Passion Play in Germany, for example, was famously propped up by the Nazis for its anti-Semitic caricatures of scheming priests. More recently, Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” renewed charges of deicide against the Jewish people. But the internet has recently alighted on a more puzzling take on the tradition: a late 1990s college production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” set during the Third Reich and featuring Lin-Manuel Miranda as the titular Jewish preacher.
In a now viral TikTok, a user with the handle @lives_in_a_society introduces a clip of a “hol0caust [sic] themed production of Jesus Christ Superstar” that the “Hamilton” creator appeared in during his time at Wesleyan.
holy shit pic.twitter.com/cAYmJ7jWlC— gillian (@emocanadian) July 28, 2020
Miranda is seen wearing a yellow star stitched to a white vest and singing “Gethsemane,” Jesus’ reckoning with God in the garden before his arrest. It’s — well it’s something. Miranda’s not quite up to the task of this power-belting number originated by Deep Purple singer Ian Gillan, but beyond that, what exactly is going on with the concept here?
There’s a clue in the YouTube channel where the clip comes from, named for Miranda’s “In the Heights” character Usnavi and claiming to be managed by him. The caption for the video says, “Why the white suit and Star of David? Our production was set in Pre-WW2 Prague. Did I mention I went to Wesleyan?”
OK. That’s certainly a take. It’s not the Holocaust then, but it still might cause offense. But maybe in that over-eager, oft-misguided, but ultimately well-meaning college kid way it’s trying to do some good.
Perhaps the director, identified as Dani Snyder, and the music director, Aaron Weiss, were trying to reclaim this troubling narrative for Jews, in much the same way Miranda would one day do for People of Color and the Founding Fathers with “Hamilton.” By positioning the Christ character as a Jew facing Nazi persecution, the show could potentially repurpose the Passion story that inspired so much Jewish suffering at the hands of non-Jews to serve as a parable about Jewish suffering at the hands of non-Jews.
There is precedent here! Marc Chagall, for one, used the imagery of of the crucifixion to dramatize the horror of European anti-Semitism in the 1930s by presenting Jesus as an explicitly Jewish martyr. You can see the painting at the Art Institute of Chicago.
Without having access to a full production, it’s hard to judge whether the concept stands up to scrutiny, though it’s certainly worth an eyebrow raise. What’s harder to overlook is the bad singing, but then, as the person claiming to be Miranda says in the caption, “I was not not yet done with puberty. Screaming ensues.”
I was ready to dunk on this, I must admit. But then, as Christ said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Reader: I am not without sin. Behold, my own regrettable “Jesus Christ Superstar” production circa 2008. I played the villainous priest Caiaphas. I insisted on not wearing a shirt.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture reporter. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.