When Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice first wrote Jesus Christ Superstar, it wasn’t intended as a Broadway musical. The 1970 concept album was a rock opera depicting the last week of Jesus of Nazareth’s life. But when the album from the British songwriting team topped the U.S. Billboard Pop Album charts, unauthorized concerts materialized across America. Lloyd Webber and Rice had to mount their own version to hold on to the license for the performance material, and Broadway came knocking. But on April 1, Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert returns to its rock roots.
“[Andrew and Tim] knew our concept was to go back to that stripped down rawness that they had in the concept album,” says Marc Platt, one of the executive producers of NBC’s live musical event.
Raw. Visceral. Edgy. These words guided this production team back to the Superstar Rice and Lloyd Webber always envisioned—back to a rock concert. “This is going to be reckless TV,” says director David Leveaux. “Organized reckless TV. There is a useful, disciplined madness in the whole creation and our job is to send that entire voltage through a television screen.”
“There is an innate cultural energy with this show,” says Brandon Victor Dixon, who plays Judas.
Leveaux’s live audience of 1,500 will no doubt amp up and embody that energy. “Having an audience makes it more alive,” says Platt. The concert audience—some in an actual mosh pit—play a character in the show, interacting with the actors, becoming the crowd of Jesus’ followers.
“Being a concert performer, the audience is why you showed up,” says Sara Bareilles, Superstar’s Mary Magdalene. “It will be nice to actually help distract from the idea that there are cameras at all—just play to the crowd and hopefully that will transcend.”
Performers like Bareilles, Legend, Dixon, and Alice Cooper as King Herod, all bring their own personas and sounds to the role. Music supervisor and longtime collaborator of Lloyd Webber Nigel Wright acknowledges the malleability of Jesus Christ Superstar that helps these performers feel comfortable, as well. “With Andrew’s stuff, normally it’s written the way Andrew writes it and you don’t change it. This show is written so you can interpret it and, depending on the musicians and singers, there’s flexibility,” he says.
Still, there are signs when that plasticity has been stretched too far. “There are certain things [like] in ‘Gesthemane’ where the vocal matches the orchestra exactly, and the actual joy of it is hearing somebody sing those notes with the orchestra with them,” says Wright. “If they don’t [match] they’ve gone too far [in interpreting].”
The score Wright has been charged with protecting is Leveaux’s foundation. “The entire thing is emotionally told through [the] music that Andrew created and Tim Rice’s incredible wit,” Leveaux continues. “The whole thing is a musical enterprise and so our musicians become players.”
Superstar is the first of the live musicals to incorporate live musicians into the broadcast—32 of them to be exact. Television director Alex Rudzinski wants the band to become the “beating heart of the show.” (Expect an epic opening close-up of the iconic electric guitar and interactions between actors and musicians.) Choreographer Camille A. Brown draws on dances, like the Charleston and New Orleans’ Second Line tradition, to weave a movement language for actors and musicians among Jason Ardizzone-West’s playground set.
“We came to the design part architecture, part scenery, part live event, part concert stage,” says Ardizzone-West, who leans into the grit of rock n roll. “I think of an opera set structure that normalizes this broken, decrepit, formerly sacred chapel—ruined by time, and war, and human destruction—and Brooklyn 2018 pieced together for one night only.”
Every ingredient harkens back to Lloyd Webber and Rice’s intent, while pushing this new medium of musical theatre forward and hitting all the right notes. As Dixon says, “I think it’s going to translate better than any of the ones they’ve done before.”
Ruthie Fierberg is the Senior Features Editor of Playbill covering all things theatre and co-hosting the Opening Night Red Carpet livestreams on Playbill's Facebook. Follow her on Twitter @RuthiesATrain, on Instagram @ruthiefierceberg, or via her website.