Neil Meron and Marc Platt
Resurrecting Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert
by Jay S. Jacobs
In 1970, a pair of fairly unknown composers named Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice released a concept album called Jesus Christ Superstar, a rock opera about the life of Christ looking through a (then-) modern prism. The record was a smash, spawning a classic Broadway show, hit singles (Murray Head’s “Superstar” and Yvonne Elliman’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”) and a popular movie version. It also made the creators two of the biggest names in musical theater.
Nearly 50 years later, veteran Broadway producers Neil Meron, Craig Zadan and Marc Price – who along with long careers of hit musicals on the boards and on film have resurrected the idea of live performances on television with the annual likes of The Sound of Music Live, Peter Pan Live, The Wiz Live and Hairspray Live – were looking for their next project. It did not take long for them to decide to bring Jesus Christ Superstar back to life.
Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert features a diverse and fascinating cast, mixing professional musicians and theatrical stars. R&B favorite John Legend plays Jesus Christ. Pop star Sara Bareilles portrays Mary Magdalene. King Herod is played by 70s rock star Alice Cooper. The rest of the cast includes former Hamilton star Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas and British actor Ben Daniels as Pontius Pilate.
Unlike the previous live performances, the producers decided not to do a filmed version of the play, but instead to perform the songs in concert. The concert will be aired live from Brooklyn’s Marcy Avenue Armory on Easter Sunday (April 1) on NBC.
A few weeks before the concert is to be broadcast live, we were one of a small group of media outlets who got to speak with executive producers Neil Meron and Marc Platt about the production and the excitement of making live theater to be watched by millions of worldwide viewers.
Alice Cooper is an unusual choice. Can you talk a little bit about how the thought came about to employ him and what he brings to the role?
Neil Meron: Alice Cooper actually has a history with the Jesus Christ Superstar. There was album, probably about ten years ago, and he recorded the role of King Herod. So, when we were going forward with this production Tim Rice said, “What about Alice?” He’s in the family. He’s terrific. He would lend that rock authenticity. He has that outrageous persona that seems to be very right for King Herod. We reached out and he was very interested. We were very happy about that.
What’s it been like working with him?
Neil Meron: He hadn’t started rehearsals yet, but we anticipate it being great. (laughs)
Marc Platt: It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s going to be a lot of fun. And listen, Jesus Christ Superstar itself is so iconic. Its music is so iconic. It in some ways [it] was very defining for a generation for narrative music, particularly ones that appear on the West End and subsequently on Broadway. To have an iconic rock star like Alice Cooper participate in it feels like it elevates the evening. [It] is organic but also makes it a real exciting, exciting enterprise. The thing about Superstar, it’s for all ages. Of course, there’s those of us who are older who remember it and its impact on us when we were much younger. But, it’s also something for those who might not know it to be rediscovered. Alice covers all the bases in that regard.
Neil Meron: Yes, and also Alice Cooper, because it is we’re doing it in concert style, the idea that we have an actual rock performer in this venue seems to make a great deal of sense.
I wanted to go through the rest of the cast. We have John Legend as Jesus. We have Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene and you just announced three new cast members. Can you just go through them, what they bring to the role and why you feel they’re such a right fit for each of their roles?
Marc Platt: Why don’t we hand it off a little bit because I think Neil and I probably feel the same way. John Legend is not only one of the great pop stars and personalities of our time now, but he has the voice that is distinctive and singular. We all know it and we’re all familiar with it. To have the role of Jesus sung by that masterful vocalist, and of course actor. He appeared in La La Land, among other things. [It] will be a great joy and will do justice to the challenge of that score and that particular role.
The same thing can be said of course of Sara Bareilles, who we all know both from her vocal career, her pop star career, her now Broadway career both as a writer and appearing on stage. [Bareilles wrote the score to Waitress, and also appeared on Broadway in the lead role for a while.] So, to hear her voice sing those gorgeous melodies that we’re all so familiar with and have lasted through time is also joyous. It’s exciting and you really lean into it. Neil, why don’t you go through some of the others?
Neil Meron: Sure. Regarding Brandon Victor Dixon we spent an inordinately long time auditioning many, many actors to play Judas. Brandon came in very, very early and he was always the one to beat. But we did a lot of due diligence, because there were a lot of people that want to play that role. Brandon just has this incredible quality, not only vocally but he’s also a Tony-nominated actor. He’s coming off of Hamilton. It just seemed to make sense for this particular project.
Regarding Ben Daniels, he’s one of the finest actors in the English-speaking world, mostly stage and more well-known in the UK than here. We wanted a really complex actor, somebody that can take on the role of Pilate, because it is such a conflicted role. We reached out to Ben and he did a vocal audition for all of us. All of these people had to be approved by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. When we presented them our choices, we had to make sure that we as the creative team really endorsed [them] and knew that we were not going to be turned down, because we loved all these actors that we’ve chosen.
You’ve been involved with these live productions before. Does it ever get any easier? What are the particular challenges that you’ve been facing with this venue in Brooklyn? How has it been going?
Neil Meron: Me and Craig Zadan and Marc…, we’re the only producers that do these live musicals, which is kind of a very small club to be in. Marc actually shot a film at this venue that we’re shooting at in Brooklyn, which is the Marcy Avenue Amory. He knew the rawness of the space, which is what we were looking for, just in terms of the presentation of Jesus Christ Superstar. We wanted to bring it back. We wanted to strip it of a lot of theatricality and go to the essence of concert. Have some theatrical staging mixed in and just the rawness of that space and the idea that we can create this environment there just made sense to all of us.
Marc Platt: It’s a live event. We want to deliver both the story of Jesus Christ Superstar, but also the immersive experience of being at a concert, so that you the viewer at home watching on his or her TV or his or her screen feels like they are immersed in this live event concert. To find a space that has sort of a very urban raw feel that we can build a set that’s like a stage but is also a set. Surround it with a live audience so that you feel like you’re almost in a stadium as it were – [that] is what we’re going for. That excitement and that fervor that you feel when you’ve been in a concert is what we’re trying to deliver here during the telecast.
Following up with what you were just discussing, why did you decide that you wanted to do this performance as a concert rather than a straight staging of the show?
Neil Meron: The basis of Jesus Christ Superstar was this live concept album. It was a rock opera. Then when the album first came out unauthorized concert stagings of the piece started popping up all over the US. So, I think that was Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s original inclination: to have it done very, very concert-like. The Broadway production that was done in the early 70s deflected from that and gave it a lot more theatricality, which was very controversial at the time. But Andrew and Tim really wanted to go back to what the essence of the piece was, which was presentational, in front of a live audience and more concert-like.
Marc Platt: That is organic to what their intention was, and we are delivering a concert. But it does have – as many concerts do actually these days – the bells and whistles of wonderful visuals. Enough storytelling [for] you to sit down, so you feel the concert, you feel the musicians and the music being played live. It does have some of the eye-candy pyrotechnic fun and glory that you would expect at a concert, and that you would expect also of a story that is Jesus Christ Superstar.
The show is originally very much about taking the life of Jesus and making it relevant to the present day, which at the time was the early 70s. How do you feel after 50 years the play’s importance and messages have changed or even strengthened for the new Millennium?
Neil Meron: I actually think it’s more relevant now, just in terms of somebody with the best of intentions. To heal. To do good. To spread a message of love. To spread a message of a life. [He] is snuffed out by opposing forces, because he’s misunderstood by the powers that be. I think that is incredibly timely.
Marc Platt: I also think that interestingly enough, not just from a nostalgic point of view, the music still is sensational. [It] still feels relevant and in its own way of the moment, which is why I’m excited for folks that don’t know it to rediscover it. I was just in rehearsal yesterday and listening to John and Brandon sing. Neil turned to me and said, “Listen to that music. It’s just great.” And it really is. It really feels fresh, as iconic as some of it is.
Your casting has a balance of musical theater performers and pop/rock stars. Did you plan it that way, or did that balance just happen organically?
Neil Meron: It was a little bit of both. We wanted the combination, because it isn’t just singing songs. These songs needed to be acted. When you examine the piece, you want people that can do both. Some of the roles you want a little bit more like the role of Pilate. Even Judas is incredibly complex in this particular telling of the story. We know that the people that can balance both and still have that incredible vocal ability can come from the theater. We wanted to populate it with some real authenticity just in terms of a rock sound, which is why we have Alice. Or a pop sound, which is why we have John Legend and Sara Bareilles, who can do both. It [was] really a happy turn of events that led us to this particular cast, but this is the type of cast we were looking for.
It’s going to be a such a unique set of voices. Is there any chance that an album might come out of this?
Neil Meron: There is a chance.
Marc Platt: We’re trying.
Why did you guys select the British theater director David Leveaux to handle this production?
Marc Platt: A number of reasons. There were a number of directors interested, but David was very aggressive in pursuing it – both because of his personal love of the material and his passion for it. He’s a noted stage director. People probably know him best from the revival of Nine, I would think, starring Antonio Banderas. So, his work on stage is quite accomplished. He grew up with a particular love of Jesus Christ Superstar as a younger person, and now as an artist. As a director he has the passion for it. He was just utterly convincing to us, that he felt the music, he felt the characters. He loved the concept of the concerts. He’d worked with camera before, so that marriage of stage and camera felt organic. He won us over in that regard. Did I leave anything out, Neil?
Neil Meron: No, I don’t think so. Also, what struck us about his work in the past is that it’s incredibly visual. We wanted it to be a visual presentation as well.
You guys have got so many of these under your belts at this point. What’s the biggest lesson you learned over trying to do these type of productions live on television?
Neil Meron: One of the great things about doing them over and over again is that you are not daunted by the challenge. You know what the mechanics are that need to take place in order to fulfill a production live. Again, anything can happen, which is the exciting thing. But you become less fearful of it than we were when we started with Sound of Music. Marc, you may have a different response?
Marc Platt: No. I think you learn a lot about the things you can do in terms of tricks. Embracing what’s live about it, how to render that exciting and to deliver what is thrilling for an audience. Neil and Craig really reintroduced to the world the notion of live musicals. Many, many, many decades ago I guess [they] had been done on TV. [Until] they reinvent[ed] it with Sound of Music. Each iteration, each musical, there’s been more learned in terms of what can and can’t be done. How to embrace the fact that it’s its own genre, kind of. It’s both a stage event like in the theater, but there’s also a camera… or cameras, I should say.
Neil Meron: And Marc took it to the next level.
Marc Platt: Well, I think we all learned, and it evolved. It continues to evolve. I would say the thing we’ve learned the most however, is that it is live as Neil said, and anything can happen. The first time out it is such a daunting and scary thing. Then you realize, well wait a second, that is sort of the point. You embrace the things that might go wrong when it’s live. You learn to encourage others to just go with it. That’s part of why an audience tunes in. Of course, they want the music delivered magnificently. They want to see the tremendous visuals and exciting narrative and wonderful performance. But, it’s live and they want to feel that they are participants in it. So much of our lives today, there’s a little screen that we get everything off of. Here, it’s live. That’s what I learned the most is embrace the liveness. Not be fearful of it but just to lean into it.
What is the biggest challenge that you have had to face with Jesus Christ Superstar?
Neil Meron: The biggest challenge that we’ve all had to face was putting together the puzzle of the casting. Make sure that it felt right to us and to Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. That was the trickiest and hardest part of the process, so far. Right now it’s rehearsal, so everybody is finding their footing in terms of telling the story. But, before that I would say it would be the casting.
Marc Platt: I think Neil’s right. In addition to what Neil said earlier about wanting the great balance of both actors and folks from the pop world, many of these roles are actually really challenging as vocal roles. There’s certain more what we call “legitimate” voices for certain roles and more rock sounding voices for others. They’re hard to sing. We’ve come from all the years of recording to hear great recordings. So, the challenge was finding not just the balance, but really the performers who could really step in and sing the material. Do that great score justice. So, I agree with Neil there.
Are all the songs from the original stage production going to be in your production or are there going to be any new songs, or songs removed?
Neil Meron: Right now – and we expect it to stay this way – everything is intact from the way that Andrew and Tim wrote it.
With all of these productions, some of them have had exterior scenes and interior scenes. Is this production all interior or will there be exterior also?
Marc Platt: This is all on the concert stage as it were. The set that we design becomes our concert stage. So, it is like in a concert in one venue. It will feel like you’re at a concert.
Jesus Christ Superstar has been such a classic for so many years. Not as producers, but just as theater fans, what was your first experience with Jesus Christ Superstar?
Neil Meron: My first experience was getting the album and putting it on and just being knocked out by the sound. I was always a fan of musical theater. But, for some reason, I was a Jewish kid growing up in Brooklyn at the time, and just getting Jesus Christ Superstar just took me to another level. I listened to it over and over and over again. I knew who Murray Head was, and Barry Dennen, and Yvonne Elliman. These people became important to me. Then when it opened on Broadway, I saw it five times, so I loved it. Of course, it introduced the world to Ben Vereen at the time as Judas. So, it’s played a big part. I’ve seen a lot of iterations of it in the past.
Marc Platt: I never saw it on Broadway back in the day. I think “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” was released as a single in its day…
Neil Meron: Yes, it was a big hit.
Marc Platt: That’s what I remember first as a youngster hearing that song on the radio…
Neil Meron: By the way, you know who recorded it? It was Helen Reddy. She had the big hit.
Marc Platt: Wow, so there you go. I think that was my first. Hearing that song, which was a big hit. Hearing it over and over. That led me to go buy the album. I remember it had the brown album cover with like the gold embossed Jesus Christ Superstar on it. So, I can literally remember holding that album in my hand and then hearing the rest of the music and like Neil kind of being sort of gob smacked by it.
Did you consider bringing back any people from some of the past casts of the play? I know you mentioned that Alice had played Herod before. But do you want other past cast members to be involved the show, maybe in smaller roles, or in the chorus, or anything like that?
Neil Meron: No, I don’t think we’ve really talked about it. Doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but I don’t think we have had any serious considerations about some of these people. Barry Dennen unfortunately passed away. But Ted Neeley, who played Jesus in the film, is still touring somewhere as Jesus. And Yvonne Elliman is around too.
Marc Platt: That’s amazing. That’s amazing, incredible.
About the creative team, we talked a little bit about David Leveaux. We also have Alex Rudzinski, Harvey Mason Jr. and Nigel Wright and Paul Taswell who designed The Wiz Live costumes. Can you talk a little bit about putting your team together?
Marc Platt: We’ve all worked with Alex before. He’s brilliant TV director, and he marries so well to the stage director in taking his or her vision and then finding a way with the cameras to make it exciting and dazzling, but true to the narrative. Neil, you’ve worked with some of these folks before and I’m loving working with all of them but why don’t you speak to them?
Neil Meron: The people that we worked with before; Paul Taswell who is the Tony award-winning designer of Hamilton, who won an Emmy for designing The Wiz Live for us. There’s nobody better at costumes than Paul. We’re thrilled that he wanted to do this, and he was available to do this for us. Harvey Mason, Jr. is one of the best music producers out there. He’s produced the soundtrack recording to Dreamgirls. He did all three Pitch Perfect movies. He has worked with everybody from Beyoncé to John Legend. We’re very lucky to have him as our music producer.
In addition to Nigel Wright as our musical director, who has conducted and been musical director for many of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s productions. He’s in the family of the Andrew and Tim world, so that’s really great to have him involved. Our production designer is new to all of us. We had some meetings with various people that wanted to do the production design for their show. And our director, David Leveaux suggested this guy Jason Adrizzone West. He’s a newish designer. He came in and just knocked us out with his thoughts and ideas for the presentation of the piece. Our instincts as producers proved to be correct because what the designed is knockout worthy. It felt really, really terrific.
Do you want to just let us know how rehearsals are going? You’ve seen a bit of John. You’ve seen a bit of…
Marc Platt: We’re both very excited and very thrilled. There’s a lot of hard work ahead of us and there’s a lot of hard work to do. But, from the first week of rehearsal and what I’ve seen… like I said Neil looked at me yesterday and our eyes were wide like little kids. Hearing that incredible cast, seeing that music and watching the staging start to come to life as it is, we’re very excited. [We] can’t wait to watch it every day as it continues to evolve until what I know will be a memorable and exciting and thrilling event. How wonderful to have it on Easter Sunday. What a great experience for the whole family to get to enjoy on that day.
Neil Meron: Also, not to quote another musical, one that our new Judas has been involved with [Hamilton], it’s very exciting to be in “the room where it happened.” You are seeing it all come to life. You’re hearing these voices sing that score the way it should be sung and the way you wanted it, the way you hear it in your head. When you hear these great artists like John Legend and Sara Bareilles and Brandon do their thing, it’s pretty thrilling and it bodes us well for the future.
Copyright ©2018 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: March 31, 2018.
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