People were fawning over John Legend, but in a different way than usual. The singer was preparing for Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, which airs April 1 (i.e., Easter Sunday) on NBC. Naturally, hes playing Jesus.
The jaunty licks and triumphant themes of Andrew Lloyd Webbers score echoed through a spacious New York City rehearsal hall located, appropriately, in a church near Lincoln Center. On the night of the show, there will be a 32-piece live band, complete with a roaming electric-guitar player. For now, just a couple of musicians played to a backing track as Legend greeted his followers, chorus members decked out in athleisure wear. The only hint of costuming was a knee-length coat Legend put on to help him transform.
Even in unfinished form, its apparent that this was shaping up to be very different than NBCs live renditions of The Sound of Music or Hairspray—fitting, since this is a very different kind of musical.
For one, theres no dialogue in Superstar, just a series of songs with a distinctly 70s groove. The project began nearly 50 years ago as something of an experiment: a concept album charting the final days of Christs life, specifically honing in on the perspective of Judas, presented as a tragically flawed figure rather than an outright villain. In modern theater-nerd parlance, he is to Jesus as Aaron Burr is to Alexander Hamilton; appropriately, a former Burr, Brandon Victor Dixon, is playing Judas for NBC.
The flashy 1971 Broadway debut was a disappointment—one that still haunts Webber. But the show lived on in revivals, high-school productions, and even as an arena tour. Executive producer Neil Meron explained that his team sold Webber and lyricist Tim Rice on the idea of a live production because they wanted to present the work in its most elemental form. “They knew that our concept was to go back to that kind of stripped-down rawness that they had in the concept album,” Meron said during a roundtable discussion in the church before the rehearsal. “So its great to bring that back and focus in on that music and that visceral, rock concerty-type presentation.”
The set that will be on display Sunday is intentionally “decrepit,” according to production designer Jason Ardizzone-West; the stagecraft, at least in rehearsal, feels refreshingly D.I.Y., with the dancers constructing set pieces as they go, hopping on chairs, and taking apart a table. About 1,500 people will be in attendance during the filming; some will line two sides of the stage, forming a kind of mosh pit. The network incorporated an audience into its Hairspray in 2016, after Fox did so earlier that year in a live presentation of Grease produced by Marc Platt, who has joined the NBC crew this time around. The change proved crucial to alleviating the awkward silence after a number. During rehearsals, Legend mimicked how hed interact with the crowds.
“[It] makes it more alive, and feel like you at home are experiencing something live,” Platt said. “In this instance, its actually character.”
Stunt casting is by now a staple of these events, stemming back to when Carrie Underwood put on a habit for The Sound of Music—but it feels all the more natural here, given that the show frames its protagonist as, well, a superstar. Legend is a relative newcomer to the world of musical theater, barring some small roles in school plays, but hes only an “E” away from an EGOT. (The Tony was for producing.)
Even at rehearsal, he was already putting his stamp on Jesuss vocals, and not just because the part was written for a tenor. (Legend is admittedly more of a baritone.) Legend added a few subtle runs, launching into a haunting falsetto when necessary. True to his style, his Jesus is more of a crooner than a wailing rock god. He had to slotting rehearsals wherever they fit into his schedule, as did his busy co-stars; on the afternoon I observed, Sara Bareilles, the productions Mary Magdalene, was otherwise occupied finishing up her run on Broadway in Waitress, which she also composed. When she performs on Sunday, Meron thinks shes going to be a “revelation.”
Despite its subject matter, Superstar has always generated a secular fandom. In the 70s, Jewish and Christian groups alike found reasons to be angry with its characterizations, even as it became a massive hit. Still, while NBC usually slots its musicals in early December, the network planned this one as an Easter event—convenient for marketing and for highlighting its religious themes. “What Im trying not to do is treat any of it with kid gloves,” Bareilles said. “I think really what the piece is asking for is an honest interpretation, just bringing the humanity of Christs life to life. I think we do our jobs by making these Biblical figures very human. Because thats the truth of it.”
The Tony-nominated Dixon is probably the biggest unknown among the principals. When he jumped into rehearsal, his first notes on Judass opening song, “Heaven on Their Minds,” ripped through the room. He said hes still fleshing out his performance, but he and Bareilles have similar goals. “I want people to connect with and be moved by Judas,” he explained before being called back into a scene. “I want people to understand. People dont seem to really actually understand that Judas loved Christ, and Judas was working to maintain the integrity of Christs message.”
Love has been a running theme during the process, Legend told a small group of gathered reporters earlier in the day. “We talk about love every day,” he said. “We talk about what Jesuss message of love meant, and what it means even through conflict with Judas, and even through doubt, and through fear that he had of fulfilling his mission.”
Its worth noting, for those unfamiliar, that Superstar isnt especially preachy. But it is infectious, thanks to Webbers knack for memorable hooks. During his downtime, Legend quietly hummed the tune to “Everythings Alright,” which Mary sings to console Jesus. Soon enough, he was being lifted aloft again.
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