What are you doing this Easter Sunday? I’ve got a suggestion: Check out one of the most iconic musicals ever, Jesus Christ Superstar, live on your TV screens on NBC. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s powerful rock opera, which chronicles the final week of Jesus’ life, is being resurrected as Jesus Christ Superstar Live! with John Legend as Jesus, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene, Alice Cooper as King Herod and Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas.
Being groundbreaking isn’t easy. It’s especially true when reimagining a musical like Jesus Christ Superstar, which has been done and redone in myriad ways throughout its 48-year history (including a production with an all-black cast). So the producers of Jesus Christ Superstar Live! really had to go big or go home. One of the best moves they made was casting John Legend as Jesus. “John Legend is luminous and knows exactly how to hold hands with the past,” says the live show’s director, David Leveaux.
“We were fortunate to get John Legend. Nobody sings like John Legend. It’s a very hard role to sing,” says Executive Producer Craig Zadan.
Jesus Christ Superstar Live! will feel like a rock concert, with a 1,500-person audience providing a visceral and vibrant feel to the staging. Leveaux says that the live show is a love letter to music itself, and his hope is that it will be “organized yet reckless television.” With NBC boldly delivering a live crucifixion (no spoilers), Superstar Live! is sure to be as reckless as Leveaux hopes it will be.
I got the chance to check out the rehearsal space and talk to cast members as well as the show’s executive producers and director. We discussed several topics, including the importance of a black Jesus and the impact of Broadway on diversity and representation in entertainment.
The Root: Yasss, black Jesus! Can you tell me what it means to have a black Jesus for this show?
John Legend: Well, I think it’s cool. I think we’ve seen a version of Jesus most of the time that was kind of ahistorical or he was from Oslo or Berlin, when he [actually] was from a region of the world where his skin probably was a lot more like mine than a lot of [the] other people who played Jesus over the years.
But I think part of what NBC decided to do, from the beginning, was to explicitly make the show multiracial/multicultural in a way that didn’t have to align with what people thought people may have looked like in that era, but just be a reflection of how beautiful and diverse America is, and that’s what we’ve done with these casting decisions, and I’m excited to play Jesus.
Craig Zadan, executive producer: We want to reflect the world we live in. The piece is intended, from its origins, to reflect the world in the time it was in. That’s what makes it timeless. So to have it feel relatable to people in 2018—you want to see yourself up there. You want to see it reflect your world.
Neil Meron, executive producer: The other side of that—it’s great to have a black Jesus. Are you kidding? I think it is today. Why not?
TR: Broadway has lately been leading the charge in diversity and representation. What do you think accounts for the rest of the entertainment business’s deficit in mirroring that—in front of and behind the camera?
NM: That’s a great question. That’s the question. I think up until recently, it’s kind of been a closed door. And I think because people are hearing these voices more and more, that the doors are opening wider. I think that there is more inclusion in the behind-the-scenes hiring of people of color and people that normally have not had those opportunities, and I want to hope that it goes further, that this is [not] just a moment in time, that this is the way it should be. But this kind of goes back to your original question about a black Jesus. We should get to a point where it doesn’t matter; rather, it just is and that’s the way it is. Unfortunately, it still matters. But that’s part of keeping that door open and opening it wider.
CZ: I don’t think there’s one answer to it. I think it’s about making sure that there are opportunities created for people who wouldn’t otherwise have those opportunities to learn the craft initially. It’s not just offer a gig; you have to have some experience, so you have to also back up in the evolution of somebody’s career and say, “Are we providing educational opportunities, the experiential opportunities for people of color, for people different socio-economic backgrounds, to tell their stories?” I think we need to examine all of that and we all have an obligation from the inception to the actual job to create those opportunities.
TR: There’s a lot of vocal acrobatics in this show. Can we expect you to hit those famous high notes?
JL: I had to listen to all of them, like, can I? [Laughs.] I had to assess. I wasn’t scared. And I decided that I was up for the challenge, and I’m still going to put my own stylings on it to some degree. But you have to interpret the music as it was written, and so that means kind of bowing to the original author’s intent to some extent but also taking your own creative liberties as well. It will be a blend of that. I’m excited.
TR: With the spiritual connection in the show, what happens when John Legend catches the spirit?
JL: [Laughs.] I want that to happen! The biggest song in the show [for me] is “Gethsemane.” There’s so much power and emotion in it, and I’m just going to try to give everything I can possibly get for it. But that’s the crux of it for him, he’s like, ‘Oh my God, do I have to really do that? Dad, do I really have to do this?’ [Laughs.] He’s feeling every emotion—fear, doubt, rebellion to some extent. And he’s about to take on the most awesome responsibility he can ever take on.
TR: Can we talk about Judas being a fuccboi?
Brandon Victor Dixon: We can! People be slandering his name on the regular! I think we have these very broad labels of who these figures were. I think this show digs in so we can look at the humanities, because for me, Judas loved Jesus. He was one of his greatest disciples. As the message started to become distorted, Judas was simply saying: “Whoa! This is not what we were talking about! This is not what you were talking about, and we have to retain the message.” The second you make the message about the man, you’ve lost because then it’s just about “What would Jesus do?” Don’t nobody care what Jesus would do—what are you going to do?
TR: Sara, how do you put your own spin on the role of Mary Magdelene when Yvonne Elliman perfected it?
SB: I listened through all of those recordings, and hers is the one I come back to the most often. I love that she had such a unique take on it. Her interpretation is the iconic one. What I love is that people love this song [“I Don’t Know How to Love Him”], so there’s lots of covers of the song out there in the world. And I think that ultimately, I just want to do it honestly and sort of simply. It’s just a beautiful, simple song that is meant to be emotional.
TR: When you decided to take on the role of Jesus, how did you tell your God-fearing, black parents that you’d be playing the Messiah?
JL: Oh, they are excited! My entire family is excited. They’re excited to watch this. Some of them are going to come out to New York and see it live. I felt like if I was going to do something like this, this was the way to do it. If I were to do any other televised musical, what other role would I want to do? This is so iconic, and to say I was the one who played black Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar—I had to do it.
Watch Jesus Christ Superstar Live! on NBC Easter Sunday, 8 p.m. ET.