The Knockturnal caught up with Jesus Christ himself, John Legend. Starring in the titular role for NBC’s 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.
The Knockturnal: What do you feel like is the importance of having a Black Jesus right now?
John Legend: Well, I think it’s cool. I think we’ve seen a version of Jesus most of the time that was kind of ahistorical; kinda looking like he was from Oslo or Berlin, when you know, he was from a region of the world where his skin probably looked a lot more like mine then he looked like a lot of other people that played Jesus over the years. But I think part of what NBC decided to do from the beginning was to explicitly make the show multi-racial; multi-cultural in a way that didn’t have to align with what people thought, you know, people may have looked like in that era. But just be a reflection of how beautiful and diverse America is. And that’s what we’ve done with these casting decisions and I’m excited to play Jesus.
The Knockturnal: How you gonna handle your [Twitter] mentions? Because you know the trolls are gonna be there.
John Legend: Oh, they’ll be there. I’m not gonna look during the show because I’ll be working. And you know, the thing about social media is – it’s just people. It’s people talking aside from the Russian bots. Aside from them, it’s just people talking. And it’s kind of amplified by the fact that it’s on social media, but it’s just people talking and our job is to put on the best show we can so that most of that reaction is positive.
The Knockturnal: Do you take anything away from Jesus Christ Superstar yourself, given Jesus is depicted as a celebrity as you are?
John Legend: Well I think a lot of them are explicitly written into the character and into the music because the idea of fame and of having feel like you do something that’s supposed to inspire people. And that’s supposed to be leading them in the right direction, but a lot of times the fame kinda pulls at you and it’s kind of taxing and it’s a lot of responsibility. And add to that, with Jesus, the responsibility of actually giving up his life. [That’s] a lot of the emotional arc of the character is thinking about what does it mean to be willing to give up your life for anything. And what the show does is explores the human side of someone a lot of people look at as a deity. Like, the doubt, the fear you might feel knowing you have to go into that situation – knowing that you’re gonna be tortured in a way he was tortured. Because people, you know, they didn’t just lethal inject you back then. They made it as difficult as possible before you died and the fact that he knew that was coming and ended up facing that – that is a lot of what the emotional climax of the character is for this show and for me, is thinking about that.
The Knockturnal: Did you watch any of the previous versions of Jesus Christ Superstar as a child?
John Legend: I didn’t, as a kid. I sang in musical theatre show choir when I was in high school and we performed some of these songs, in an Andrew Lloyd Webber medley. That was my first exposure to his work and to this particular show, but I hadn’t seen the show when I was a kid.
Q: Andrew Lloyd Webber is an executive producer. You’ve had a couple chats with him. Have you had any advice from him?
John Legend: Well, he talked a lot about his motivation was in writing this character the way he wrote it, and thinking about him [Jesus] as a real human being with real human emotions. I think our goal is to connect to his emotion – his sense of love; his sense of fear; his sense of doubt; his sense of friendship with Judas and Mary and his disciples and, you know, think about him as a human in a lot of ways. He’s a very special human; thinking about him as a human in those ways.
The Knockturnal: How did you get to the point where you could say “okay, I can handle this vocally”?
John Legend: I had to listen to all of them, like, “can I?” I had to assess. I wasn’t scared, I was just like, “I gotta assess this; can I do it?” and I decided I was up for the challenge and I’m still going to put my own stylings on it to some degree, but you have to interpret the music as it was written. And so, that means kind of bowing to the original author’s intent, to some extent, but also taking your own creative liberties as well. So it’ll be a blend of that.
The Knockturnal: Are you going to be infusing any Gospel into the music?
John Legend: My voice is infused with Gospel, I don’t have a choice about it. That’s who I am. That’s what I grew up singing. And this music in the show is very emotional; very spiritual. And there’s no way I won’t have some Gospel styling in it. It’s just who I am.
The Knockturnal: With the background, you come from, do you think that there will be an actual spiritual connection on the day when it’s live?
John Legend: I felt it in rehearsal already. And I think we’ll feel it live, especially with 1200 people there. I’m going to allow myself to be free in that moment and just really, you know, give everything. Because there’s a lot of emotion in the show. You have to connect with that emotion and also I think with the audience there too.
The Knockturnal: What was your favorite moment in rehearsal?
John Legend: Well I think Gethsemane is that moment for me. But every character has signature moments. Like Brandon with Judas; he has some great songs as well. There’s so many great songs in it, and every character has their own moment. But for Jesus, it’s definitely Gethsemane. But that’s the crux of it for him. He’s like: “My God, Do I have to really do this? Dad, do I have to really do this?” And he’s like: “Are you sure?”. He’s feeling every emotion of fear, of doubt, of rebellion to some extent. And he’s feeling all of that. He’s about to take on the most awesome responsibility you could ever take on.
The Knockturnal: Has that made you reevaluate your own fatherhood in any way?
John Legend: Well, I’m not going to ask my daughter to die for me [laughter].
The Knockturnal: When you decided to say yes to this, what did you take on as far as the responsibility of playing Jesus, and how did you tell your parents you were going to play Jesus Christ?
John Legend: Oh, they were excited, they really are. My entire family is excited to watch it. Some of them want to come out to New York and see it live. And I feel like if I was gonna do something like this, this is the way to do it. If I was gonna do one of these televised musicals, what other role would I want to do than this? So, I could think of some other roles, but this is so iconic, to say that I was the one who played Black Jesus on Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s like, I had to do it.
The Knockturnal: More Broadway plans?
John Legend: There’s no plans. We have a show called Jitney that won a Tony for best revival. And we’re gonna produce some other stuff for the stage as well. But as far as me actually starring, I don’t have any immediate plans.
Jesus Christ Superstar Live premieres on NBC on April 1st. The special will air from 8-10: 15 pm ET/PT.