The Knockturnal sat down with Director David Leveaux to discuss “Jesus Christ Superstar Live.”
Set during the final week of Jesus’ life, the story is told from the perspective of infamous betrayer Judas Iscariot. As more and more followers flock to Jesus, Judas grows concerned that Jesus is becoming arrogant and losing sight of his principles. So when Jesus attacks the money changers in a temple, Judas finally turns on his teacher, setting both on a path to tragedy. Originally conceived as a concept album that hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, the show eventually made its way to the stage in 1971 and garnered five Tony nominations in addition to winning a Drama Desk Award for Andrew Lloyd Webber. Now this globally celebrated classic comes to NBC in 2018 for a one-of-a-kind live staging on Easter Sunday that’s sure to amaze with jaw-dropping spectacle and an all-star cast of beloved recording artists.
Q: What happens when you get the cast of your dreams?
A: One of the things I really was very keen that we should do is be clear that, this story, with all of it’s emotional narrative and drama – and it is a brilliant musical drama, no doubt about it – is also a love letter to music itself. And different kinds of music in many ways. So having John and Sara and Brandon do this sort of sends that signal in a particular way then if it were to put it as a more orthodox, Broadway casting of the show – you wouldn’t be telling that part of the story. To use a pompous word, the metatheatre thing of saying it’s a sort of rock opera, and here’s a bit of pure mischief – Alice Cooper popping up to play Herod. It’s exactly that kind of mischief that’s written into the piece. And so, when John joined up — he’s so luminous. You just look at him and he’s luminous and I was like, “Yeah, that’s what we need in Jesus.” And you gotta be able to sing it. And there’s so many things that told “Yeah, that’s it. That’s Jesus.”
Q: What personal creative liberties did you take with this iteration of Superstar?
A: It’s a good question. My way of thinking about this is that everytime you take a piece like this, particularly one that’s endured, is that, you’re in some sense renewing the contract to the piece and audience. And so, in many ways I think it’s what an audience brings to bear that actually changes the way we see it. And one of the things about this version is our audience would be very present, very visual and kind of right – as it were – on the lip of the stage. I think there’s no doubt that from the get-go, I just thought: “Hmm, I want to see those instruments in the space”. I want to see whether we had the shot in it or not; whether I wanted to see this camera kind of start off the rails of this thing, tracking down this old fresco past a couple of angels and then arrive at an electric guitar. And then you hear those iconic opening notes and there’s the guitar. So there are – as I mentioned, the all-women string quartet kind of building into it with Jesus throughout — so, featuring those instruments in a direct, dramatic visual sense, is not something I’ve actually seen done.
So that’s probably a liberty; the one or so that requires care. Because sometimes you don’t want them to be the distraction, unless you absolutely do. But one of the things that came out of it – and Nigel Wright, our musical director, alluded to that’s very interesting – is that by having these thoughts about musical instruments, it really reveals something in Andrew’s brilliant orchestration of the piece, which is that Judas is very often associated with electric guitar; its with that sound, it’s like the Judas sound. But it’s rarely that you actually see the two working in concert, in tandem together. It’s interesting that when you hear strings, they’re almost invariably to do with Jesus. It’s one of those things that’s not sort of obvious. But as it turns out, I’d be going “Woah, I don’t think we’d need strings on in that intersection” when it turns out there aren’t any. And so, I found that really interesting. So I suppose that aspect with it’s a celebration of music in itself.
And apart from that, it’s just this attempt to occasionally hold hands with the past. I don’t mean in the ‘70s, I mean quite literally every now and again just have an ambush where you’re “Oh, we’re connected.” You know, we’re connected. Around 2000 years; look at that. I mean, some of that’s in the detail, like playing with this gesture – because I like these simple gestures that can be used in different ways. But, you know, we’re just playing with some white scarves at the moment. And, okay – you get to the Last Supper. And just for a millisecond, those white scarves go over the forearm and you got the Da Vinci Last Supper. It’s a millisecond, and it’s gone, like an ambush and you’re back to the present day. Those things are really interesting to me. I call them ambushes because as I said, we never wanted aesthetically or visually to create a kind of faux-biblical language. And sometimes the show’s done like that, with Christ and flowing robes and the whole business. But that’s not our way into that story.
Q: As director, what was it like working with Alice [Cooper] and John [Legend] that are known more for music, as opposed to Brandon [Dixon] and Sara [Bareilles] who are known for Broadway?
A: I mean, it’s interesting because there’s sort of more forms that an actor shares then they don’t share. But it is a different thing; particularly John, usually performs his own music, so therefore he knows what’s coming. When you play a character like Jesus, you don’t know what’s coming. I mean, you sometimes know what’s coming. The series of phrases and thoughts that make up a song, you know, you’d sing it differently if you were just doing that song and watching the form. So usually it’s sort of asking them to be alert to an outside stimulus that causes them to actually make a shift, so I see the shift occur. But equally, to me, it’s with a piece like this – it’s not like I’m saying to John “I want to give you the armor of this character. You gotta haul yourself on the stage to play this, because you’re John Legend.” So the really interesting thing is to find the meeting point between John and that character Jesus, where they meet. Because that’s where the energy is. Because he’s John Legend. So it’s John Legend coming through the space – the fresco wall – as much as it’s Jesus for tonight, you know what I’m saying? That’s a really interesting thing.
So it’s not like I’m trying to turn them into actors which become something different, I’m saying: “Okay, let’s get simpler and simpler and simpler.” So you don’t feel you do this massive acting job all night, because that’s when the string’ll start vibrating. It’s really interesting. And luckily, in the case of John, Sara – Alice was one of the founders of theatricalization of rock and roll anyways, so he’s off the way of the fairies anyway. He’s brilliant in sense of theater, and he’s wicked in all that stuff that he does and that character that he created. And John is a sort of more complex, very kind of nuanced guy. There’s a gentleness about him that’s really affecting. And now I just want that. You’ve got to put that down before you come on. And I don’t want you to put John Legend down before you come on, you’re here because you’re here. And then it’s gorgeous because Jesus is a special character in that way. Judas is a very proactive dramatic character in a different way. And in terms of causes, Brandon has an acting background but could also sing it because what’s the point in playing Judas if you don’t sing it. But equally Judas carries quite a lot of dramatic baggage, which you do want an actor and singer to do. Whereas Jesus is a character upon whom many people impose an identity. And there’s something about John’s openness that is perfect for that. It’s very interesting.
Jesus Christ Superstar Live premieres on NBC on April 1st. The special will air from 8-10:15pm ET/PT.