For live ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ NBC turns to a Legend
NEW YORK (AP) — Most Easter Sundays, you can find John Legend at home, helping cook a big dinner for family and friends. Except this Easter. He’ll be a little busy — being Jesus Christ in front of millions.
Legend leads a cast that includes Sara Bareilles and Alice Cooper in a live NBC version of the rock opera “Jesus Christ Superstar” by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice.
It will be the latest addition to the prime-time lineup of live TV musical remakes that kicked off five years ago with “The Sound of Music” and includes “Peter Pan,” ″Grease,” ″The Wiz” and “Hairspray.” While the shows often air at Christmas, this time it made sense for an Easter broadcast of the 47-year-old musical.
“It’s an iconic show. It’s meant a lot to a lot of people for a long time,” Legend said. “You want people who are fans of it already to be excited by our rendition. But then also we want to attract new people to the show, too.”
The musical explores the caustic intersection of politics and showbiz, using a pulsating guitar- and organ-driven score that includes “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” ″Everything’s Alright” and “Superstar.”
Live TV musicals have become progressively more complex, with the use of cars and multiple locations, sometimes outdoors. But “Jesus Christ Superstar” will be more stripped down, an attempt to capture a concert vibe. It will be staged inside an armory in Brooklyn with about 12 cameras.
The actors will be augmented by a 32-piece band — including a mobile, all-woman string quartet — and 1,500 people will be in the audience, surrounding the action and interacting sometimes with the performers. The stage will be just 2 feet above a mosh pit.
“I’m so excited that we have a live audience to work with and to feel the energy of in the room because I think, as someone who’s a concert performer and now in the theater, that’s the missing link so much of the time,” said Bareilles, who plays Mary Magdalene.
Director David Leveaux is promising this version of the musical to be “very unpackaged, not neat, quite raw.” The rest of the cast includes Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas, Cooper as King Herod and Norm Lewis as Caiaphas.
Costume designer Paul Tazewell, who dressed the “Hamilton” cast, has picked flowing tunics and modern, sexy silhouettes. Choreographer Camille A. Brown will mix traditional social dances with hip-hop, New Orleans-style second-line dancing and The Charleston.
Leveaux, who in a 2013 Broadway revival of “Romeo and Juliet” put Orlando Bloom on a motorcycle with a set that spit fire, will use real flames and pyrotechnics for “Superstar.” He’ll also employ some low-tech tricks, like a white scarf that can have multiple uses.
“This is live. So you create ingredients that can combust because it’s live,” said Marc Platt, an executive producer. “In this instance, we have a live audience and an interactive concert, and live musicians — never done before. So we’re not daunted by it. We welcome what’s live and what’s risky about it because that’s what’s exciting.”
Legend, who has won a Grammy, Tony and Oscar, knows he is just an Emmy away from winning the coveted EGOT, but he isn’t planning that his portrayal of Jesus will add to his trophy haul. He made his acting debut in 2016′s “La La Land.”
“I have no presumptions about the idea that I’ll be considered an award-winning actor in my second role as an actor,” he said, laughing. “But I’m aware of the gap in my EGOT.”
The annual live broadcasts have gradually dipped in viewership, with the lowest being “A Christmas Story Live” last Christmas that attracted 4.5 million viewers — but they’ve become popular fodder for hate-tweeting.
“It’s part of it. You just kind of do the best you can,” said executive producer Neil Meron, who helped start the live TV trend with “The Sound of Music” broadcast in 2013. “They’ll rip it apart, they’ll praise it.”
Leveaux has even coined a new term for the potential online hating this time, one that combines Twitter with crucifixion. He calls it death by “twitterfixon.”
Mark Kennedy is at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits