Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert got one big thing right long before televisions across the East Coast flickered at 8 PM April 1: The executive producers (including genre pioneers Neil Meron, Cragi Zadan, and Marc Platt) chose to stage the fifth in the series of live television musical events as a rock concert.
Not only did this resurrect Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s initial vision, the concert staging focused the scope of the production; it brought it back to its roots—making it more theatrical and less like a live movie. On top of that, the Jesus Christ Superstar team cast incomparable talent from the mainstream music world (i.e. John Legend, Sara Bareilles, Alice Cooper) and from the Broadway world (i.e. Brandon Victor Dixon, Norm Lewis, Jason Tam, Jin Ha). Big names and big talent led to a cast that could handle the demands of the roles and the necessities of the marketing department (though the ratings have yet to come in).
Director David Leveaux and live television director Alex Rudzinkski delivered a broadcast to remember. And while there are many things to love about the television musical (just ask Twitter), here are the seven standout achievements from Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert:
1. The Live Orchestra
In the history of modern live TV musicals, Grease: Live was the first to give us a live audience, but Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert elevated to the next level by being the first to perform with a live orchestra, conducted by Nigel Wright. Canned orchestrations are simply no match for live players, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s electrifying orchestrations to Jesus Christ Superstar provided fantastic evidence of that. School of Rock fans may have recognized young Brandon Niederauer, the show’s original Zack, front and center with several prominent solos on electric guitar, notably the opening of the overture.
In “The Temple,” Jesus arrives at the Temple in Jerusalem and is horrified to find it taken over by money-hungry merchants. For Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, the money in question was represented with literal buckets of glitter. If you fall into the camp of “there can never be too much glitter in musical theatre,” you were undoubtedly pleased with this scene.
3. Sara Bareilles Singing “Could We Start Again, Please?”
With her folksy singer-songwriter musical stylings, songwriter and actor Sara Bareilles was ideally suited to the role of Mary Magdelene. The character’s most iconic song is “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” and Bareilles sang it wonderfully, but it was arguably her “Could We Start Again, Please?” that was Bareilles’ shining moment.
4. Brandon Victor Dixon’s “Jesus Christ Superstar”
Speaking of shining moments, Brandon Victor Dixon wowed in a spectacularly sparkly and sexy Paul Tazewell-designed silver costume singing the show’s title number late in the broadcast. In a score of rock songs and a cast of legendary vocalists—including rocker Alice Cooper—it was this Broadway star of Hamilton and Shuffle Along who arguably delivered the broadcast’s most exciting rock vocals. If anyone watching didn’t know who Brandon Victor Dixon was when they tuned in, they certainly do now.
5. Camille A. Brown’s Choreography
This is how you encompass a space! Brown’s choreography used that set like a jungle gym—with ensemblists bounding from scaffold to scaffold, using banquet tables like ramps in a skate park, and joining in dance with the string players. The energy inherent in her movement exploded from the bodies of the full cast. Whether popping in “What’s the Buzz?,” transitioning into the mellow “Last Supper,” or slinking into the ’20s bent of King Herod’s ladies, Brown conceived a vocabulary for each number that spoke one language for the show. The fact that she managed to meld individual movements within her big picture for a cast this size with such mastery, grace, and and wild abandon speaks to her command of choreography.
6. Jesus’ Ascension
Production designer Jason Ardizzone-West—who outdid himself with the massive decrepit-chapel-meets-industrial-warehouse set—together with lighting designer Al Gurdon (and, of course, with the vision of Leveaux and Rudzinksi), devised an epic final image for Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert. John Legend as Jesus on the cross was lifted into the sky as the wall behind him separated to form a giant cross out of negative space. As golden lights swelled from behind, Jesus disappeared. Together with Lloyd Webber’s score for the scene, it made for an emotional and powerful ending to the broadcast.
7. The Live Audience
The impact of this live audience in augmenting the rock concert feel and the home-viewing experience cannot be overstated. Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert isn’t the first live TV musical to include an on-set audience, but it is the first to give that audience permission to react and respond throughout the performance. Stars received entrance applause and moments of vocal brilliance were met with mid-song cheering, all of which made for an experience that felt perhaps the most alive of any of the live TV musicals so far.