Don’t expect NBC’s staging of “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” on Easter Sunday to look much like the live musicals that NBC has presented since “The Sound of Music Live” proved a runaway hit in December 2013.
The show this time around will be presented largely as a rock concert in a amphitheater-like setting, originating from the cavernous New York State Armory in Brooklyn. Stage director David Leveaux said the presentation is designed to deliver a true rock opera.
“The entire thing is told emotionally through music,” Leveaux said Tuesday, during a press event in New York to promote the April 1 event.
The multi-level stage will prominently feature 32 musicians interacting with John Legend, who plays the title role of Jesus; Sara Bareilles (Mary Magdalene), Brandon Victor Dixon (Judas Iscariot), and Alice Cooper (King Herrod). And the movements of a live audience of more than 1,300 people — including a center “mosh pit” — will become a key part of the narrative.
“There is a two-foot difference between the mosh pit and the stage,” Leveaux said. “When you are standing there, you are really in the thick of it. It’s another (unpredictable) element which is why I use the word ‘reckless’ in a good sense.”
Telecast director Alex Rudzinski said his goal is to “blend the audience and primary performance area so the demarcation is slightly blurred.” Add Leveaux, “The act of making music itself will be a visceral aspect of our storytelling. There is a beautiful, disciplined madness in the whole creation.”
Leveaux said there would be “marshals” planted at various intervals to help guide the audience to the response Leveaux and Rudzinski want to present to viewers at home. Rudzinski predicted that “the kinetic energy from the audience and the focal point of the band being omnipresent — those two elements are what’s going to define us to a degree.”
“Jesus Christ Superstar” was a natural work to get the live TV event treatment, said “Superstar” exec producer Neil Meron. The 1970 concept album from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, which evolved into a stage play, was once controversial for its humanistic treatment of the last week of Jesus’ life. But “Superstar” has become a legit staple that has traveled the world. Norman Jewison directed the 1973 movie rendition starring Ted Neeley, Carl Anderson and Yvonne Elliman.
Meron and his longtime partner Craig Zadan have exec produced all of NBC’s live musical-theater productions. NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt has a long legit resume, and he has made live events a centerpiece of NBC’s big-tent programming strategy. The three landed on “Superstar” as they were hunting for new ideas after the December 2016 production of “Hairspray Live.”
“Bob called up, and said what about ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ on Easter Sunday?’ Done,” Meron said.
“Superstar” brought Zadan and Meron together with Marc Platt, a fellow multi-hyphenate producer who was behind Fox’s live take on “Grease” in January 2016. Platt had been developing a new movie rendition of “Superstar” for some time, but after his “Grease Live” experience, the film, TV and stage vet jumped at the chance for a one-night-only run on NBC. The entire production team is energized by the opportunity to deliver a semblance of a shared national experience — for music and theater buffs, at least — that is rare in such a fragmented TV market.
“The great power and relevance of network television is the ability to deliver an experience like this, in the moment. Only network television can deliver that,” Platt said.
As ever, the program is designed be family-friendly to encourage whole-house viewing. “It’s a story for everyone and it’s music for everyone,” Platt said.
Legend was recruited to the project by his longtime collaborator Harvey Mason Jr., who is music producer of “Superstar.” The R&B star has been branching out in many directions in recent years, from acting to film, TV and legit production. But the willingness to take on an iconic role and show on live TV marks a new level of performance for him. “He’s so talented and so dedicated to getting these songs right,” Mason said. “He brings something of his own to the songs and that combined with respect for the original performances makes for a cool combination. That’s something I enjoy working with.”
Bareilles wrote the music for the hit Broadway tuner “Waitress” and recently completed a stint in the title role. Meron promised that the singer-songwriter will be a “revelation” with a heartfelt rendition of her character’s signature tune, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”
The costumes will be given a modern twist on the usual sword-and-sandal togs look of Biblical times, under the direction of designer Paul Tazewell, a Tony winner for “Hamilton.” Choreographer Camille A. Brown promises to invoke everything from the Charleston to the steps of a New Orleans’ second line to a ’90s hip hop number.
Rehearsals, which began earlier this month in the basement of St. Paul the Apostle Church in Manhattan, will run virtually non-stop until the cameras are turned on. The stage set is under construction outside the city and will be trucked in pieces to the Armory in Williamsburg — a former military facility that is now used for film and TV shoots and as an event space.
“Ten days out the rehearsals for the live broadcast begin — and then suddenly we’ll have 500 (production) people embrace the craziness of the final days,” Rudzinski said. The telecast will air live in the East Coast and on tape delay in other time zones.
The formidable production team has enough combined experience to execute an elaborate stage event, but they don’t want the final product to be too perfect.
“You create ingredients that can combust because it’s live,” Platt said. “We welcome what is live and what is risky about it. That’s partially why millions of people will tune in.”
(Pictured: Top row: Harvey Mason Jr. and Paul Tazewell. Bottom row: Alex Rudzinski, Camille A. Brown, and David Leveaux)