Sitting in the audience of 1,300 at NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert at Brooklyn’s Marcy Armory was as awesome as it looked and the live experience was a different one from that of television viewers at home. From the get-go, executive producer Marc Platt encouraged the live audience react in the moment. His pre-show speech at 7:50 PM gave audiences license to cheer, get up and dance, and “give your heart and soul in the more profound moments.”
Directed by David Leveaux, stars John Legend as Jesus, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene, Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas, and Alice Cooper as King Herod delivered indelible performances of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s rock opera.
Here are some of the behind-the-scenes secrets from the in-person audience perspective at Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert:
John Legend Superstar
Every time John Legend stepped onto the stage during a commercial, the in-house crowd erupted. (It wasn’t all just for the cameras.) A 28-time Grammy nominee and ten-time winner, the artist holds major clout; it’s part of why his casting worked so well.
Clean-Up Aisle Five
The NBC crew executed presets and clean-ups with speed and precision during commercial breaks. They swept the sand on the “stage right” staircase at each interval to keep the lines clean and the stage clear, but the most impressive clean-up came after “The Temple.” It took seven crew members, two full-size shovels, two dustbins, and four brooms to mop up all the silver glitter (or as much as they could) used in that scene. There were approximately 500 essential personnel on site in total.
Television director Alex Rudzinksi used 11 cameras and 2 POVs to capture Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, including two cameramen on foot by our count. In “Damned For All Time/Blood Money,” the rotation around Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas came compliments of a cameraman wearing his Steadicam on a jib and running in circles around the actors. Another on-foot camera man could be seen scaling the scaffold towers to get aerial shots and close-ups of musicians. In addition to the manual labor, there was one camera on a harness/swing that would release from the ceiling to capture moments at different heights, including “Judas’ Death.”
You can see at home, particularly in “Crucifixion” that production designer Jason Ardizzone-West’s set was big, but unless you were in the Armory, you may not understand the full scale. The total square footage of the stage measured 10,000 square feet. His inspired design mimicked a cross, with four main entrances (one behind the church wall, one on the opposite side at the end of an extended catwalk, one upstage, and one downstage). The crucifix in the final scene was 11 feet tall and hoisted Legend as Jesus 35 feet in the air.
Stationed at multiple levels and in separate towers of the scaffolding of Ardizzone-West’s stellar set, the cameras showed actor-musicians interactions but sitting in the audience, it was remarkable to glance over at conductor Nigel Wright or any member of the orchestra at any given moment. And unlike onstage where actors can feel their light, actors and musicians had to trust the cameras were on them when they started.
Make no mistake, the live musicians and the stars of this musical delivered, but the true heroes of this production were the ensemblists. Collectively, they were one of the most impressive aspects of this production, telling the story of Jesus’ following—his fervent supporters and later the jeering crowds hollering for his death. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s harmonies are no walk in the park and choreographer Camille A. Brown (Once On This Island) put the dancers to the test. If you heard an eruption of cheers from the audience, it often had to do with that chorus. They created an unmatched electricity that made it feel like the rock concert NBC wanted.
Just Before the Curtain Call…
After Jesus fades into the abyss and we got the “all clear,” the hugging and crying and jumping from the cast proved how much they love each other. Throughout the night, audience members called out to their ensemblist friends during commercial breaks to wave and cheer. But during the untelevised moment before bows, we learned just how much this cast of 44 and orchestra of 33 had bonded.
Go Inside Jesus Christ Superstar Live, Starring John Legend
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.