It's a decidedly strange sensation sitting in a theatre while the unruly, thoroughly jazzed-up rabble around you enthusiastically cheers the crucifixion, but that's the sort of fire-and-light show which director Des McAnuff has made of the classic Christ-and-shout show that opened March 22 at the Neil Simon Theatre.
Jesus Christ Superstar is marking its fourth Broadway appearance; His second coming this theatrical season, if you count Godspell a block away at the Circle in the Square, directly across the street from the Times Square Church, where He was first sighted on Broadway in 1971 when it was still the Mark Hellinger Theatre.
There was no shortage of lords in the house on opening night, and, while one was being affixed to his place on Calvary on a bulb-outlined cross, the other made his way discreetly up the aisle during the blinding bedazzlement and left the building.
To be sure, Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber of Sydmonton returned for the curtain call on stage to hug and kiss the cast and pose with his lyricist, Sir Tim Rice. The authors of that through-sung, youth-rallying pop-opera are now silver-haired facsimiles of their former selves, a pair of determined British rockers who began making music together in 1965 and altered musical-theatre history. A man of few words and many soaring notes, the Lloyd Webber took the microphone and, plainly pleased with the performance, delivered a salvo at producers who use pre-recorded music in shows, stomping his foot happily three times. "Every note — every single thing that we heard today — was live," he stressed blissfully, "and the band is live."
Rice then took the mike and was similarly succinct. "I have nothing to say — except that it was a wonderful performance and it's great to see the wonderful Ben Vereen in the audience." Vereen, dressed in a long-flowing Indian robe, was Broadway's first Judas Iscariot, one show removed from his Tony for Pippin.
He passed the microphone to McAnuff, who got it on the head of a pin: "Let's party!"
First-nighters then stampeded East three blocks to the third-floor Grand Ballroom of the Hilton New York Hotel — but not the Lord Lloyd Webber. It just happened to be his 64th birthday, and he opted for a quiet dinner with equestrian sportswoman Madeleine Astrid Gurdon — Baroness Lloyd Webber — "Gurtie" — his third wife. Apparently, nobody bothered to tell the Lord a fatted calf awaited him at the Hilton.
Jesus Christ Superstar Opens on Broadway; Arrivals, Curtain Call and Party
Loosened up a bit by the partying, Sir Tim grew more verbal and reflective. "I think Des McAnuff has done a most remarkable job," he opined. "I'm very grateful to him, and the piece still works. It's a bit naïve in places, but it works. I thought the music was terrific, and I thought most of the lyrics worked well. There are one or two things I wouldn't do now, but overall the show worked great. I'm very happy."
He well-remembered how hard it was for Jesus Christ Superstar to lift off, how they had to make a concept album just to get people to listen to the score — but he now views that turn of events as a totally good thing. "We did an album, and that's why it became the piece it was — because it was much more rock than theatre."
Jesus and Mary Magdalene made their fashionably late entrance after the press had had their way with their mostly youngish supporting cast, many of them repertory members in good standing with the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, making their Broadway debuts with this Canadian transfer.
Paul Nolan looked visibly relieved to be giving the title role a rest for a while, having checked it at the door of the Hilton. "He's carrying around a big weight," the actor said, referring to more than the cross he bore. "Just the karmic energy he's carrying around is huge — that's the hardest thing about doing this role.
"Physically, yes, it's very tough, but, vocally, it's not bad. What's hard is to keep your health. I have a little more trouble keeping on top of my health doing this show. I have no idea why, but it does drain me to the point of getting sick every once in a while. It's much harder to do this show sick than any other show I've ever done."
It hadn't quite settled on him that he is now, and forevermore, a Broadway actor. "It feels like many opening nights, except for this opening-night party part. You just usually go home after the opening night in Toronto and drink with yourself."
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In the throes of what she calls "the best theatre experience of my life so far," Chilina Kennedy beautifully executes the show's biggest hit, "I Don't Know How to Love Him," an odd admission for an old pro like Mary Magdalene — then again not, said Kennedy. "So many of us are in that situation in real life. I find it a very truthful, beautifully simple love song" — but not without its drawbacks, she allowed: "I think you can get a little bit of pressure if a song is too famous. When I get to that point in the show, I always think of it as a monologue — something very unique to what I'm experiencing in the moment. I try not to think of it as 'Omigosh, Yvonne Elliman made it so famous.' If any of those notions start to enter your head, you're kinda doomed so I try to keep how famous it is out of my psyche." True to the show-must-go-on, the Judas (Josh Young) went on, having missed the three previous performances (all of them, dammit, critics' performances) because of illness. To his credit, he didn't cough on stage until after his curtain call.
"Ah, you caught that!" he grinned. "It was a little difficult. I have a little respiratory infection that I've been battling for the last week, but it's gotten much better this morning — thank God! — and I'm just so happy to be back with the cast doing it again.
"It's so hard to be away from this cast because we're all like a family. We've been running for nine months in Stratford and La Jolla. This was the second time I've been sick. Out of our 170 shows, I've missed four or five so that's a pretty good track record. I hope to keep it that same number right now. I had to put my health first. The show is the most important thing to me so I did all that I could to get better. I stayed home and I got on a puffer and I steamed a lot and I drank a lot of water, and I said, 'Hell or high water, I'm going to make it on tonight.' And I was able to do it."
|Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
James the Lesser (Jeremy Kushnier) was elevated to Judas during Young's absence. The actor has already amassed some Broadway credits (Footloose and Rent) and done time on the road (Next to Normal, Aida and five companies of Jersey Boys) so it wasn't that big of a problem. Indeed, one critic was of the opinion his performance was the best thing about the show.
Kushnier, in the meantime, pooh-poohed his contribution as part of the service: "I didn't think about it. I thought about going in and doing my job. You know what I mean? My job is to be there when they need me. It's a great honor to have that kind of pressure put on. In fact, it's a huge honor to just be a part of this piece. Then, to help out however I can was really fun. This score is amazing. This is the kind of score I grew up listening to, and, when I think about the kind of theatre I want to do, it's this. It's rock 'n' roll. We really think about Andrew and Tim when they wrote this. They were kids who couldn't get the piece produced originally. Now, we're the kids." Tom Hewitt, who has done musicals of Dracula and Zhivago for McAnuff, makes a cool, collected, rather dignified Pontius Pilate. "I'm no fool: I let the purple suit do the work for me," he cracked. "I like where Pilate falls in the story. On this locomotive of a story, my car latches on toward the end and catapults the play to the end, and I love that dynamic. I love having that part of the storytelling."
The big razzle-dazzle, buck-and-wing novelty number ["Herod's Song"] gets proper hard-selling from Bruce Dow, who gladly puts up with loads of off-stage time just for that ditty. Backstage, he said, "I climb the walls. I do my nails. They're silver, black and sparkly — they're for the role, certainly not a personal expression at all. The show happens so fast. I'm in the opening sequence and at the end of Act One, then I do the number and we do the end of the show, and that's it. It goes so fast."
Mike Nadajewski enjoys the luxury of playing his favorite apostle: "Peter's got great heart — a big, big heart. He started the church, the bedrock of the church. I'm always trying to find one thing I can hook into to get me in the character. This came because Peter and Mary share moments like his denial of Christ.
"We're all thrilled to be here together. Of course, we're all a repertory company from Stratford. We've been doing this show for a year in rep with Camelot. I played Mordred. It was my season of betrayal. I'm just misunderstood, man!"
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
McAnuff is winding down his tenure as Stratford's artistic director with Henry V and a solo show he is developing with the newly Oscared Christopher Plummer called A Word or Two. When he returns to the states and "civilian life," he'll do a show with a member of a band called the Flaming Lips. "His name is Wayne Coyne, and he's from Oklahoma City, and we're doing a show called Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots. We put out a press release from La Jolla Playhouse in the last couple of weeks. We'll launch it in La Jolla."
Though born in Illinois, McAnuff claims Canada. "I was born of Canadian parents and raised in Canada so I'm very much a Canadian. I have dual citizenship, actually."
He recently got a note of appreciation from the Canadian who helmed the movie version of Jesus Christ Superstar: Norman Jewison "was very gracious and sent us a beautiful note after he saw the production. He really loved it."
It wasn't a difficult show to bring off, McAnuff declared, although it sure looks it. "I don't want to say it was effortless — nothing is effortless — but this really got traction early. I think we all bought into these ideas. First of all, I've been working with these actors for four years so we're very familiar with each other. That gave us a head-start. The most difficult thing was that we did this in repertory with The Grapes of Wrath and The Homecoming. That set had to get dismantled every day and rebuilt. Taking on a production this ambitious in rep is a challenge."
These days, McAnuff qualifies as The Mayor of 52nd Street. Directly across the street from the Neil Simon is his Tony-winning Jersey Boys at the August Wilson. Marshall Brickman, who co-wrote the latter, headed the big parade of first-nighters, along with Edie Falco, The New Group honcho Scott Elliott, Tony-winning book writer Thomas Meehan, Heather Randall, director Moises Kaufman (in the middle of casting his upcoming Roundabout revival, The Common Pursuit), Roberta Maxwell, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Alfred Uhry, NBC's gloriously gracious Meredith Vieira with husband Richard M. Cohen, and CBS's unflappably affable Charles Osgood with wife Jean and Douglas Carter Beane with his Lysistrata Jones Patti Murin.
|Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
A Follies gaggle, bound for L.A.'s Ahmanson April 24 — Jan Maxwell with son Will Lunney, Ron Raines with daughter Charlotte Vaughn Raines and Danny Burstein with wife Rebecca Luker — bopped by to check out their Tony competition for Best Revival of the Year.
Megan Hilty, with her Carnegie Mellon co-star in 2003's Two Gentlemen of Verona Alexander Cendese, and "Smash" colleague Jamie Cepero rode into the theatre on a wave of good news: their "Smash" series has been renewed. "We just wrapped on Tuesday," said Hilty, "so Gentlemen Prefer Blondes for Encores! will be my next focus." That should cinch her Marilyn Monroe image, all right.
Richard Kind ran out of luck with his "Luck" series for HBO, flagged down by three horse fatalities, but he snagged a spot for next season's Prince of Broadway, joining a splashy, starry cast fit for a Hal Prince.
In keeping with the clipped Brit accents was Tim Minchin, the songwriter of Matilda who just happens "to be in New York visiting all my friends who worked on Ghost as well as Matilda. Those shows share the same director in Matthew Warchus and the same musical supervisor in Chris Nightingale and the same designer in Rob Howell and a whole lot of the crew. We don't know when it'll be coming, hopefully next year. It's doing really well on the West End, and it has got a lot of good will." (He was being coy — producers announced in late February that Matilda will be in Broadway in early 2013.)
Another songwriter at the opening was Johnny Rogers, who's working on two new theatre pieces, I'll Be Seeing You: The Liberace Musical and Motherhood: The Musical. The latter will be directed and choreographed by Lisa Shriver, the choreographer of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Eddie Izzard, who had — and gave — a good time in David Mamet's Race recently, said it'll be a while before he returns to Broadway: "I've just signed up something in L.A., a TV series. Actually, it's a repositioning, a reboot of what was 'The Munsters.' I'm Grandpa, but I'm not going to that place — you know, like 'The Addams Family,' when they made a film, it wasn't like the series, and ours will not be like the original. Ours will go to some dark, hellish place."
Zaftig comedienne Lisa Lampanelli arrived at the theatre with all engines going: "I love this show. I love the producers. I love the director. I love it all. I'll sing for you if you want. That's how I roll. Do you know Adam Hetrick? He did a big story on me for Playbill, about my one-person show. It's hopefully going to open in the fall. We don't know where it'll open yet, but it will be on Broadway rather than off, honey. Look at me. I'm a big celebrity. I'm not sure what it's called yet, but I think it'll have 'Fat' in the title. That's the last curse word left on the planet."
View Playbill.com's highlights from Jesus Christ Superstar here: