More About Jesus Christ Superstar

by Trish Causey
in Feature

A moment from Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway
A moment from Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway
Director Des McAnuff, Choreographer Lisa Shriver and the three leads from the 2012 Broadway revival of Jesus Christ Superstar share about how the show got from Stratford Festival to Broadway.

Now that Jesus Christ Superstar is middle-aged, the audience encompasses a wide range of people—from 50-year-olds who saw the original production to 20-somethings who have grown up doing the show in high school or college. Rather than catering to a specific age group, the Des McAnuff trusted his gut instincts when it came to staging the show.

“I’m the sort of director that tries to please himself,” confesses McAnuff. “I don’t think I’m so strange that if I like something others are bound to like it, too. I don’t have such outlandish or rarified tastes that I’ll be completely out of step. I feel I have some sort of Geiger counter within me, so I don’t set out trying to work a particular demographic.”

Having worked with McAnuff before, choreographer Lisa Shriver knew the process he would take. “With Des, you always start with the story. I knew he was looking to tell the story from a secular aspect, that this was an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation, but also look at the relationships with that.”

“Addressing it as an artist in 2011,” she continues, “it was important to Des and myself to determine a language for the show that reflected our current expressions of dance and counterculture. And with that, I was employing an urban, hip-hop, edgy feel, but I wanted to offer a sense of timelessness to the show. My goal wasn’t to make it a hip-hop show because there is an inherent diversity to the score as well. It’s definitely a rock opera, but there’s also some classic musical theatre elements to the score. My goal was to create a cohesion of styles in the ultimate physical language of the show that reflected something more contemporary but also true to these other elements.”

Des McAnuff
Des McAnuff

After the Stratford run, the show transferred to La Jolla Playhouse in San Diego, Calif. The move was like coming home for McAnuff. “That was my old theatre. I was Artistic Director at La Jolla Playhouse for a number of years, and I presided over the rebirth of that theatre in the mid-80’s. We launched Jersey Boys, The Who’s Tommy, Matthew Broderick in How to Succeed in Business…, Big River, and Memphis.

“At the end of the Stratford season, La Jolla had a slot available, and this was a good way of keeping the company together. But we had a pretty good idea we were on our way to Broadway back when we were in Stratford. In fact, Andrew mentioned it to me immediately during intermission when he saw the production in Stratford — that this was something we should do on Broadway.”

That feeling did come with caveats.

“It’s important to resist the temptation to turn the show into a Busby Berkley spectacle. Trust the story. Most of our work is telling the story as vividly as possible. I like to think that when audiences see this production, the story that took place in 33 A.D. will seem somehow closer than before and more immediate.”

Audience impact is paramount to McAnuff’s directorial vision, regardless of theatre space. “We have made some technical changes. We’ve had to use other technologies to increase the theatrical impact of certain moments, to create a new kind of excitement.”

As a rock opera, Jesus Christ Superstar brings a different aesthetic to Broadway in a season that has already seen the exquisite “Golden Age” revival of Follies and the re-imagined Godspell.

“Jesus Christ Superstar is one of the true, quintessential, electric musicals,” declares McAnuff. “I did Tommy on Broadway, and in my opinion, they are the two electric musicals. I might put Hair in there, but I haven’t had a chance to do Hair.” These revivals of shows from decades’ past indicate Superstar will do well on Broadway. “Based on the success of Hair and Tommy, Superstar has a very good shot to connect with the audience,” McAnuff feels.

Going back in time to do research was definitely on Shriver’s to-do list as choreographer. “When I did the research on the show and went back to the 1974 film, the choreography was very reflective of the movement styles of the late ‘60’s and early ‘70’s, and the feel of the hippie culture, and the energy of the social revolution of the time. They are all very present in the choreography of the time.

McAnuff has implemented his vision while honoring the original. “The show is very similar. We’ve haven’t given it an overhaul. We’ve watched the audiences since we’ve been running this since April, and the surprise of Superstar is that the audience is actually very broad. The young people really go ballistic—I think they probably have encountered the score, and they seem to be real enthusiasts for this production. I have a 21-year-old daughter, and my daughter and her friends are usually a pretty good measure of the ‘hipness’ of the work I’m doing, so I’ve come to rely on her more and more.”

Paul Nolan as Jesus Christ and the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar
Paul Nolan as Jesus Christ and the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar

Character Research

With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient documents, the Gospel of Judas, the Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and other gospels shed a different light on the canonical gospels of the Bible. This gave actors Paul Nolan (Jesus), Chilina Kennedy (Mary Magdalene) and Josh Young (Judas) lots of alternative material than just the bible to work with when researching their roles. They worked with the bible, these texts, and their own personal experience when developing characters.

The touchy subject of prostitution is a common topic of conversation when discussing Jesus Christ Superstar. “That’s the bull’s-eye everyone always focuses on, especially with this show,” Kennedy admits as she talks about the historical context of women’s existence 2,000 years ago. “But the whole issue of prostitution can be seen through a very positive lens because there were not many ways for a woman to make money and have power at that time. That was a great way for women to have independence.”

When Jesus Christ Superstar first opened in 1971, American women were marching in the streets, still fighting for women’s rights and equal rights in the workplace. Now in 2012, Mary Magdalene still resonates with 21st century independent women.

Chilina Kennedy as Mary Magdalene
Chilina Kennedy as Mary Magdalene

“What I think is so beautiful about her is her undying love, not just for Jesus, but for the cause,” says Kennedy. “She was such a heart-felt follower, one of the few people who were at the crucifixion, and the first to see him after the resurrection. To go through what she goes through, to endure those losses in the show, inspires me everyday to be a stronger person. It is unimaginable to me to stand by and witness the person you love most going through that, and then to pick yourself up and move on after that is amazing to me.”

As Jesus, Nolan also trusted McAnuff’s interpretation of Webber and Rice’s material. “Des was really interested in emphasizing Jesus, Mary, and Judas. It’s been handled really well, and the audience of Jesus Christ Superstar does a lot of the work for you. Some people may want the show to be word for word what’s in the Bible, but that’s not why they wrote the show. They wrote it to pull it apart and look at it from a poetic point of view.”

Handling the Vocals

All of the singers were aware of the challenges ahead of them in singing this show.

“I think we’re trying to pay homage to the original album, and the singers at the time,” says Kennedy. “It was so well crafted and so well sung, you don’t want to fix what’s not broken. There’s a modern, contemporary style to the show of today, so we didn’t want to change too much. I think things are better when they’re informed by acting anyway.”

Having sung the lead in Superstar for 250 performances, Nolan is prepping for the rigors of a Broadway run. “From a technical point of view, singing the show is not a hard show to sing. There are harder shows technically, for me. The hard part is doing it within the theatrical element of the story and the heart of the character. You don’t use your voice the same way when you’re trying to mesh the acting and the singing. It is the quest, on a technical level, of how to marry those things, to be relaxed vocally while going through the emotions and actions.”

Kennedy reveals her New York nemesis: “It’s really dry. I know that sounds lame, but that’s one of the main things that gets in the way of good singing,” she laughs. “So I do steaming, moisture, lots of water, eating well, and proper sleep. One of the hard things about doing a show for the long run of eight shows per week is all the care you need to take outside of the actual show. So it’s not during the two hours you’re on stage, it’s everything in between—having to say ‘no’ to going out for drinks and living like a nun is the hardest thing.”

Though the tessitura of the role of Jesus may sit well in Nolan’s voice, the emotional singing takes its toll. “I do a lot of exercises that stretch out my tongue root because that is what seems to get tired. I do yoga to keep my ribs stretched out because they tend to get really tense.”

Josh Young as Judas and the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar
Josh Young as Judas and the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar

Young also protects his voice from overuse. “I’m pretty much on voice rest in between every show. I just don’t talk. I steam a lot. Whenever I’m not singing, I’m not talking because I’m saving it for the show.”

As for the vocal demands of doing a Broadway show eight performances per week, Kennedy is pragmatic. “I get a lot of the ballads in the show, and even though they’re belty, I don’t have eight ‘Gethsemane’s,’ so that’s nice.”

The story of Jesus, Mary Magdalene, and Judas has been in the spotlight numerous times in the last decade. Now with other religious-themed shows on Broadway, Jesus Christ Superstar offers mind candy for those wishing to test traditional notions of the threesome’s relationship dynamic.

“Fortunately, the critical and audience response to it has been overwhelmingly positive,” says McAnuff. “We hope that continues in New York. There are no guarantees in the theatre, of course, but I’m very optimistic.”