Religious tensions in Russia are on the rise again after prosecutors began an inquiry into whether the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” is an attack on devout Christians.
A theater where the St. Petersburg Rock Opera Theatre group was planning to present the production in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don has stopped selling tickets to the show.
Pressure from local religious community members led to prosecutors investigating the musical, which was scheduled to be performed Oct. 18, according to the Agence France Presse via Google News.
“A probe is under way, and subsequently the appropriate decision will be taken,” a representative of the Rostov prosecutors told the Interfax news agency, AFP reported.
A group of 18 local residents wrote to prosecutors and the theater that the “image of Christ presented in the opera is false from the point of view of Christianity,” according to Sky News. “As it stands, the work is a profanity.”
The Russian Orthodox Church reportedly has no involvement in trying to ban the performance.
"The so-called Orthodox activists are expressing only their own opinion which is not shared by the church," Igor Petrovsky, a church representative in the Rostov region, told local media. Petrovsky also said that, during the offical atheistic age of the former Soviet Union, performances of “Jesus Christ Superstar” provided Russian audience a valuable opportunities to “hear something nice and beautiful about Christ.”
The cancellation appears to have shocked the performing company and fans of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which has been popular in Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union. The rock opera, created by the hugely successful musical team of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, is loosely based on biblical accounts of the last days of Jesus’ life. It made its debut on Broadway in 1971, and it has since been performed around the world. It also has been adapted for two films, with a third movie in the works.
“We are shocked that someone has demanded that the musical be canceled,” an employee of the philharmonic hall where the production was set to be performed told the local media. “We will be told on Monday whether it will be going ahead.”
There is speculation that this sudden about-face stems from the tension around the Pussy Riot convictions. After members of the feminist punk collective demonstrated against Russian leader Vladimir Putin in a Moscow church, they were arrested and charged with premeditated hooliganism. They were convicted and sentenced to a two-year prison term, although the Guardian reported a court will hear their appeal.
During an interview with TodayOnline.com, actor, comedian, and musician Tim Minchin -- who has appeared in productions of “Jesus Christ Superstar” -- praised the musical’s success over the decades, but recognized that some people could have a problem with how religion is presented.
“I think people might find it controversial in a way that didn’t’ happen originally,” Minchin said. “The musical does not treat religion as sacred but subject matter, so some conservative fundamentalist could decide to make a thing out if it. On the other hand, people who are fans of this show could object to this particular manifestation of it. Who knows?”