Director Des McAnuff and his trio of lead actors talk about the choices behind Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway
Mounting a Broadway show always comes with unique challenges, and a famous, hotly-anticipated revival increases the stakes even more. Throw in religious fervor and the hoopla surrounding 2012, now seems to be the right time for Jesus Christ Superstar to rise again on the Great White Way.
Tony Award-winning director Des McAnuff shares the beginnings of the Superstar revival from his position as the artist director of the Stafford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario. "We have a truly extraordinary ensemble of actors up there." The three actors he chose to headline Jesus Christ Superstar had proven their chops in previous standout performances. "Paul Nolan (Jesus) played Tony in West Side Story for us in Orlando. Chilina Kennedy (Mary Magdalene) was Maria in West Side Story and Eva Peron in Evita. And Josh Young (Judas) played Che in Evita last year. So I felt like I really had the talent to do this show properly."
Choreographer Lisa Shr'rver was brought into the project at Stratford but had never worked on or seen a live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar. When she got the call, she viewed her lack of exposure to the iconic musicalas "an advantage. Ididn't have preconceived ideas about the show. I heard later from people that Superstar isn't classically known as a dance show. It seemed to me that the music dictated movement, it's such an incredibly pulsing, electric show."
For McAnuff, the integral core of the story was the humanity of its three lead characters, Jesus, Mary Magdalene and Judas. "Jesus Christ Superstar, at its very essence, is a love triangle and a secular story. It doesn't commit to Jesus being the son of God, but it does commit him to being a remarkable social, religious and political leader. So it works better, in my opinion, when there's a certain amount of intimacy in the story.
"As a theatre piece, it was ahead of its time. We're able to use contemporary theatre technology so we can do it more like it's a play. The sound systems and lighting we use today achieve that intimacy in a way that was difficult 40 years ago."
The production evolved from its pre-Broadway runs, but not in a way the audience would recognize.
"I think it's a mistake to, pardon the expression, 'tart up a show' when it comes to New York It's important for a show to keep its artistic integrity. Our show has a lot of bells and whistles - LED technology, projections, a very elaborate lighting package, but there's also a fair bit of austerity because of the events leading up to Passover in Jerusalem in 33 A.D."
The lack of real estate backstage at the Neil Simon Theatre reversed set storage, which subsequently changed entrances, exits and onstage blocking, which in turn affected lighting and other technical issues. "The wing space is so limited stage right," Shriver explains. "Now the stage left side is where the bulk of our storage and off stage space is. So we've had to reverse the entrances and exits of stair units, and that's changed some of the blocking on stage, and the general choreography backstage. It's funny - choreography is never limited to stage steps. So much of it is logistics and to enable onstage entrances and exits to also help with off-stage chaos."
The Myth and the Man and the Woman
Playing three of the most well known figures in all of literature are Paul Nolan who plays Jesus, Chilina Kennedy as Mary Magdalene, and Josh Young who portrays Judas. With nearly 2,000 years of oral tradition and allegorical transliteration, the dramatic triangle of the three lead characters elicits as much controversy now as it might have then.
In preparing to play Jesus, Nolan recalls Judas' first line in Superstar. "Strip away the myths from the man." Nolan began his character study to play Jesus with the material Webber and Rice created. …