NBC’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar Live’ Blends the Crafts

If NBC were looking for a higher-stakes musical to broadcast live on TV, it’s hard to imagine the Peacock landing a bigger fish than “Jesus Christ Superstar.” The rock opera musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice has been revered and reviled over the course of its 47-year history, and the network’s faith in being able to pull off a one-time-only performance at the Brooklyn Armory on April 1 is tantamount to suggesting it can turn water into wine.

Fortunately, “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” is riding on more than faith. Producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan (“Hairspray Live,” “The Sound of Music Live,” three Oscar telecasts) are in charge of their fifth such Broadway-to-TV production, and by bringing on board below-the-line artisans with both stage and screen expertise, what could have been a tricky gamble is likely to pay off big.

“I don’t get nervous too much anymore,” says Meron backstage during rehearsals in the basement of the Church of St. Paul the Apostle in New York City. (Though the “Superstar” airdate of Easter Sunday is intentional, the rehearsal space was not chosen for its religious significance; the church also rents out space to the Rockettes.)

“To combine the best of Broadway with this hybrid of television presentation is thrilling,” he adds. “You have to be prepared for anything. You have to expect the unexpected.”

Making the show work isn’t about having everyone well-practiced and in place, then flipping the “on” switch. “Superstar” will have a 44-person cast, plus an onstage orchestra of 32, some of whom will interact in the performance space. That’s a lot of moving parts for a production that will only take breaks for commercials, and therefore has to be deeply rehearsed and simultaneously flexible enough to create the kind of kinetic surge that grabs couch-bound TV audiences.

“The job is to send many thousands of volts of surprising energy through a TV screen,” says director David Leveaux, who has been “joined at the hip” to camera director Alex Rudzinski. Their goal has been to create a stage performance that feels organic yet is planned out enough to be captured by as many as 12 cameras.

The two directors worked closely with choreographer Camille A. Brown to create the loose, intentionally chaotic moves of the dances, which include elements of New Orleans second line and social dances of the 20th century from the ’20s to the ’90s. “This is a living, breathing, moving thing,” says Brown. “You have to be interesting, tell the story and still have everyone where the directors need them to be.”

Audiences expecting glittery primary colors (à la “Hairspray”) will be in for a shock; “Superstar” is stark, stripped down and serious, a concept all of the artisans have taken into account with their designs.

“You have to be prepared for anything. You have to expect the unexpected.”
Neil Meron

For the sets, production designer Jason Ardizzone-West created “ancient, damaged fragments of a chapel” held up by scaffolding. All scenes take place in a common gathering place at the center of the stage, and props are few — just raw wood table pieces that can be assembled and disassembled as the chorus or players may need them. “The challenge of designing this space is you have to come up with something that works for live concerts and opera,” says Ardizzone-West, “but also has elements that work for an intimate narrative scene.”

Costume designer Paul Tazewell, who won a 2016 Emmy for “The Wiz! Live,” has also eschewed an over-the-top look, embracing contemporary urban clothing and suits for the cast and chorus (though Herod will have showgirls as part of his entourage).

“Everything you could see on a New York subway or on the street in Los Angeles are clothing elements you’re going to find on everybody,” says Tazewell, who is also issuing directives to approximately 1,300 extras — the audience. Cast members are set to interact with the crowd from time to time, which means attendees have to match the color palette.

“The overall challenge is having the costumes look contemporary, modern and still somewhat universal,” he says. “And of course working toward a deadline is stressful; we’re making sure everyone fits well, but it all has to air when it has to air, and you need lots of focus and stamina to make it happen.”

In the end, “Superstar Live” is a new experience, even for those who’ve done live telecasts before, says Leveaux.

“They may have the experience of what it’s like to get going for one night only in front of TV cameras,” he says. “But there are so many raw live elements of this show, it’s quite new. They may not admit it, but some people are quite nervous because you can’t control everything. That’s what makes it exciting. And if it fails, we’re hoping to fail forward.”

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