HEAVEN ON HIS MIND
American actor Josh Young, whose first major gig was playing the role of Marius in the third national tour of Les Misérables, began his relationship with Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival two seasons ago when director Gary Griffin was on the search for a Che to fill out his production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Evita. A few Stratford credits later, Young would take on yet another monumental role — villainous apostle Judas Iscariot — in the Ontario company's 2011 revival of the Lloyd Webber-Rice rock classic Jesus Christ Superstar (playing alongside his earlier Eva Peron, Chilina Kennedy, as Mary Magdalene).
In the weeks leading up to the acclaimed production's March 22 Broadway opening night, we spoke with the rocking tenor about putting a fresh spin on Judas, a character that he sees as "heroic." (A throat ailment sidelined Young and he missed shows March 20-21, but he's expected back for opening night at the Neil Simon Theatre.)
You have such a rich sound quality in your lower register, yet you're hitting these rock countertenor notes with your head voice. Where do you fit? Do you consider yourself a baritenor?
Josh Young: Honestly, I really don't like to put a label on voices. I will sing whatever I'm given to sing. Growing up I would sing anything that I was given. If the choir needed a first tenor, I would sing first tenor. If they needed a bass, I would sing bass. Throughout my life, I just figured out ways to hit notes I needed to hit. I kind of like not being labeled. That's why I love this role because I use every part of my voice possible. If you're coming into it looking at other performers who have performed the role [of Judas], I don't think that I would be a likely choice. I think you need a visionary director like Des [McAnuff] who can think outside the box and see [Jesus Christ Superstar] with a fresh pair of eyes. Luckily, he did. Vocally, I'm much different, and my demeanor is much different than other guys I've known who have played it. I try to make Judas a very sympathetic character and even a hero in the story.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Tell me about that first night on Broadway. What was that experience like for you?
JY: Oh, I just couldn't breathe! I couldn't believe I was on Broadway. When I was shaving before the show, I was like, "Oh, my God. Are these Broadway sideburns? Do they need to be higher?" Every note was also like, "Is this good enough for Broadway?" It was ridiculous that I was like that, but I just couldn't believe… ! As I was performing, I was realizing that my dream was coming true. The first couple of shows were like that. I was like, "Stop thinking about it!" That was a hard thing to shake off, but, like I said, our fourth show in, I totally left that behind.
How did you approach the role of Judas?
JY: Two years ago I was doing Che [in Evita at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival], and we approached the role of Che — Gary Griffin and I — as Che Guevara. And, there is a wealth of information about Che — who he was, and I was able to use that. For Judas, I also did all the background research I could. I read every Gospel, every lost Gospel there's ever been, anything that's ever been written about Judas, but I came to find that nothing was written about him before he met Jesus. It's like he just appeared. Obviously, that can't be true. People don't just appear at the age of 30, so I created my own back-story for him. I thought about what would [create] the most drama, and that's the back-story that I'm using.
I think Judas was a very devout religious Jewish person. He realizes that Jews had been persecuted and enslaved for thousands of years, and he wants to keep his people from going through that anymore. That is his driving force in this show. I don't think it has anything to do with the money. And, mixed up in there is that he loves Jesus, and he loves what Jesus stands for — aside from the whole "I'm-the-son-of-God" thing. [Laughs.] I think he loves all the beautiful sentiments that Jesus says to his people. It's just this one thing that he's doing that Judas is worried might offset the balance. [Jesus' following] might make the Romans come down upon our people, so I want to save that from happening. I'll do whatever I can do to save my people. Also, we have Mary thrown in there, and I think Judas might be a little jealous of the affection that Jesus is getting [from Mary] and vice versa.
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
You said earlier that you see Judas as a hero.
JY: He doesn't see himself as a hero, but what he's doing is heroic. He's trying to save the people. He's even trying to save Jesus. I honestly don't think that Judas knows that by handing over Jesus to Caiaphas it will result in [Jesus'] crucifixion. There was no precedent set that if a man claims to be the Son of God the punishment is crucifixion. He may have gone to jail, and there may have been other punishment, but it was not death. He doesn't know that Jesus is going to die for this; he just wants him out of the picture so that no more trouble comes to his people. He wants to do right by God, first, and then by his people, and then by Jesus and Mary.
He's torn because he wants to please everyone.
JY: Absolutely. He's completely torn, and that eventually leads to what happens at the end of the show. He's absolutely torn apart inside.
Did your religious background play a part in how you approached the role? You're Jewish?
JY: I was raised Jewish. I didn't know anything about Christianity. Of course I knew the fundamentals, but I didn't know the story. I had never read a Gospel. However, I think being raised Jewish and going to a Jewish day-school when I was very young — and then I had Wednesday and Sunday school at my synagogue — I learned a lot about the Old Testament, and that's really all that these people know. Our characters don't know the New Testament, so going in there with a good knowledge of the Old Testament really, I think, serves better than even knowing the New Testament. That is what Judas what have followed — the Old Testament.
Aside from Jesus Christ Superstar and other shows, you've also released two solo albums?
JY: I had an album in 2005 that I co-produced with Brian Lowdermilk. I don't know if you know who he is — he's an up-and-coming composer.
Of the songwriting team Kerrigan-Lowdermilk? I love their music!
JY: Yeah, Kerrigan and Lowdermilk… [Kait Kerrigan, Brian Lowdermilk and I] were very close friends, and we grew up together. We went to middle school and high school together — we did Little Shop of Horrors. Brian was Seymour, Kait was Audrey, and I played the Dentist, so we've been friends since then. He produced that [first album], and I just did another album. While I was rehearsing JCS, I was recording an album, which was a huge mistake! [Laughs.] But we did it! It's called "Still Dreaming of Paradise," and it's got "Heaven on Their Minds" from Jesus Christ Superstar on it. It was produced in Toronto. Brian did all the orchestrations in New York City. We recorded the vocals in Toronto while I was rehearsing at Stratford. There's rock, pop, Broadway and cabaret on it. It's very eclectic.
KING OF THE JEWS
Although Jesus Christ Superstar marks Paul Nolan's first Broadway credit, it's not the first time that he has taken on the title role in the iconic rock opera. Following a few consecutive seasons at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, the Superstar creative team approached the Canadian actor with the opportunity to revisit the role of Jesus Christ. He quickly jumped at the chance to work again with director Des McAnuff, who previously directed him in Stratford's As You Like It, to bring humanity to the famed biblical character.
Following Superstar's engagements at both Stratford and the La Jolla Playhouse in California, and previews on Broadway, Nolan talked about how he maintains his stamina for the vocally and physically demanding title role.
How does it feel to make your Broadway debut? Jesus is an iconic role.
Paul Nolan: Luckily, I have to say that I'm old enough now and have enough career experience and life experience that I think my feet are solidly underneath me. If this had been five years ago, it would have been a lot more unnerving. No matter where you play this part, there's a lot of energy around him and a lot of thoughts and expectations of him that have nothing to do with me. No matter where you play it, those exist, but to get to come to New York is pretty great. It probably hasn't even dawned on me yet. No matter what city I'm in or what theatre, I'm an artist first. The role doesn't change for me just because it's New York City or Stratford, Ontario. I still have to fulfill my job as an artist and get into his heart.
How did you first get involved with the production at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival?
PN: Playing Jesus in Stratford was my fifth season at the company. I started out in that company in the ensembles of Oklahoma! and King Lear. My second season I played Bobby in Cabaret, and my third season was a big bump in responsibility — I played Tony in West Side Story and Valvert in Cyrano de Bergerac. [Artistic director] Des [McAnuff] asked me to play Orlando in As You Like It my fourth season there, which was the start of my working relationship with Des. I don't know the background to them choosing Jesus Christ Superstar and asking me to do it. Des didn't even audition me, he just asked me to do it. I guess he and Rick Fox, the music director, had conversations about whether I was the right voice for it. Rick felt I could sing it, and Des felt I was the right guy, so I was tremendously grateful. I played the part twice before in wonderful productions, but productions that had limited budgets [and] limited ability to really bring the rock 'n' roll sound — the bells and whistles — that really make a big difference in a show like this. The moment I got to Stratford in my first season, I remember thinking, "Gosh, I'd love to play Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar in this theatre." [Laughs.] Five years later, I was doing it — what a privilege and how lucky.
|Photo by Joan Marcus|
Can you tell me how you approached Jesus for Stratford?
PN: Well, that's a hard question to answer because this is a very different approach, in some ways, than [approaching] other shows. Orlando in As You Like It — very different writing, very different approach. It's very intuitive. [When approaching Jesus], some of it I don't really know, consciously. I think it's a very good thing that I don't understand why it is what it is. And, some of it is very conscious. You look at the words that are in the libretto, and it seems to me their agenda — [lyricist] Tim Rice and [composer] Andrew Lloyd Weber — was to bring humanity to Jesus Christ. One of Judas' first lines in the show is, "Strip away the myth from the man," and that jumped out at me even the first time I did the show… [The role of Jesus] shifts on me. He's very different now than he was in the first three months in Stratford. He's very different from the last month in Stratford to La Jolla and now to Broadway.
How has he changed from the very first time you took on the material — before the Stratford production?
PN: Essentially, the seed where he comes from in me is the same, but from the first time [I played Jesus] it's been six-to-seven years. I think growth happens in being able to explore it longer. Also, I'm a different actor now and a different person.
Jesus is a very vocally-challenging role.
PN: You know, if I were sitting around recording the show, I could sing this part all day long and not really be that tired. There's something about stepping into his sandals and playing him in the show and within the theatre setting that makes the vocals trickier. That makes sense because I approach all of my roles, whether they're musical or not, as an actor first and foremost. You're not always going to be inside your vocal technique if you're really fulfilling your actions. If you're screaming at everyone in "The Temple," you're not using your voice as healthily as you probably should. Certainly, it's an extreme vocal part — as well as Judas. It takes great care to make sure we could do it eight times a week.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
Watching the show, it seems to be very physically demanding as well.
PN: It's funny — it is a very physically demanding show for me, although I'm extremely still for much of it. Comparing it to Tony in West Side: The way we did it in Stratford when Gary Griffin directed us, it was an extremely physical show. I danced the ballet. I was a 17-year-old kid. I was running around the stage and in love and explosive. I would climb the balcony, and it was extraordinarily athletic, but I would say that [Jesus Christ Superstar] is equally tiring, physically. I'm sleeping ten hours a night right now.
In taking on the show, did you draw from a religious background?
PN: No, I didn't, and I'm kind of happy about that. I have done my own exploration, spiritually, through my life. I honestly think that it's one of my strengths for this show — I didn't come in with an agenda. It was easy for me to come in and take the material and figure out what it is trying to do. Of course I went to the Bible and was interested in researching where certain scenes were pulled from. I [used that] to fill in and add color between the lines. But no, I don't have a religious background in my family. Exploring him and exploring Christianity because of this show has been really amazing for me. I think some of the teachings were just so beautiful, and I feel that a lot of spiritual leaders in history have said the same thing, but with different language. It's been a wonderful exploration.
Besides performing the show, what was your first experience with the material? Did you grow up with the cast recording?
PN: No, I didn't. My first experience with the material was… Actually, I was walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, and I called home when we finished walking the trail — it's an ancient pilgrimage, and we walked about 800 kilometers of it. When I called home at the end of the pilgrimage, I got a message saying that a director I've worked with before wanted me to audition for Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar… I hadn't been acting for about a year — I decided to take time away from the business... I don't know why, but I immediately wanted to do it. I'd never heard the music other than the real "hits," so when I got home —at that point I was living in Toronto — I went to HMV, a music store in Canada, and listened to the album at one of their listening stations. I just felt like I knew the show, and I never feel like that about anything I start doing. I'm always really lost for a long time, trying to figure out what a piece is, but I really felt sure about this. It's a confidence that I don't often have.
(Michael Gioia's work frequently appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Write to him at email@example.com.)
Watch highlights from the production: