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'The Passion' Musical Mastermind Adam Anders on the Dangers of Live TV: 'Anything Can Happen!'

Austin Hargrave
Adam Anders photographed on Feb. 29 at Immanuel Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles.

On Palm Sunday (March 20), Fox will broadcast The Passion, a live musical set in modern times, using modern pop songs, depicting the last mortal days of Jesus Christ. Starring the likes of Trisha Yearwood, Chris Daughtry, Seal and Prince Royce, and featuring a cross-carrying procession to run through the streets of New Orleans, the two-hour event is ambitious, to say the least. (Disclosure: Billboard is an affiliate company of one of The Passion's co-producers, Dick Clark Productions.) 

Executive producer and music arranger Adam Anders knows this, but his experience performing similar duties for TV shows like Glee and movies like Rock of Ages makes him uniquely qualified to pull it off. Billboard met with him to talk about translating ancient script for current eyes and ears, and dealing with the risks inherent to executing such a tricky endeavor.

 

 

Were you part of bringing The Passion to Fox from the Netherlands?

Yeah, I actually met Jacco [Doornbos], the creator, a couple years ago. I went over to the Netherlands and saw it in person and decided we needed to bring this to the U.S. somehow. It was so powerful to see all these people come together in this open-air arena in the middle of the city, telling a story most of us know in such a unique way. It's been a two-year journey for me and Jacco, and then we partnered with Dick Clark Productions. We pitched all the networks, and Fox was the perfect match.

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You have an amazing history in TV and music, but does this feel different?

It's scary, especially the first time. You're really out of your comfort zone, so every little step you take is a battle. I did Glee for all those years, and I've done movies and other TV shows, records... Now all of a sudden we're putting on a live show with all these different elements to it. From timing the procession's arrival to the live stage, to shooting the different scenes the disciples are doing, it all has to work perfectly. There have been a lot of sleepless nights for a while, but nothing good comes easy.

We've seen an uptick in live TV musicals. Is it important that Fox competes?

If anybody should be doing it, it's Fox. Music runs through the fabric of the company, from Glee to Empire to Idol. If anybody should be in the live musical space, it's Fox. And this one's a little different -- it's not like Grease, The Sound of Music or any of those because it has all these extra components. The Passion is kinda its own genre, which is exciting, because it borrows from all those things and also paves the way.

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This is sacred ground. What concerns did you have going into this?

Can I still go home to Mom after we're done? Am I going to offend her and all of her friends? It was important to me to treat the story with the utmost reverence while still setting it in modern times and not using religious songs. The question was: How do we fuse together the secular and the sacred? How do we bring both believers and nonbelievers along for the ride? But the script is just straight scripture translated into the modern tongue. The American Bible Society gave us a stamp of approval, so that made me sleep a little better at night. So stuff like that: To show the songs the respect they deserve and the story the respect it needs in order for this to succeed.

The roots of the Dutch production seem openly evangelical -- to get the word out to a nation that isn't very religious. How does that figure in to your show?

I don't think it's as simple as that, but the goal is obviously to tell this story to people that don't know it. If you were just going to preach to the choir, you wouldn't do it in this different [modern] way. I think Jacco found that only a small percentage of the country knew what the story was about. He was like, "Let me try to change that." It wasn't like, "Oh I want to convert everybody." There's an element of evangelism to it if that's what you call wanting people to know the story. It's up to everybody else whether they should believe or not. Do you think Easter's about Jesus? Or bunnies and eggs? It's good to know where it came from, but this is a very unifying event.

Did you consider locations other than New Orleans?

We did. Big cities like New York and Los Angeles came up. But New Orleans just felt so right -- I don't think any other city feels suffering the way New Orleans does, and also resurrection. That place has come back to life, over and over again, like no other in this country. Coupled with the rich history of music there and the spiritual nature of that city... All those things run very deep, and New Orleans embraced us from the beginning. I'm not saying we have to do it somewhere like that each year, but with a city as the backdrop, I think it's important that there's a connection to the story you are telling. I thought it'd add more weight. Also, the people that are gonna come out into the street, and who come see it live, are going to understand what this is about.

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So walk me through that. Are parts shot inside the Superdome?

No, the procession will start outside the stadium, so we'll get that image, and then it'll make its way to the main stage in Woldenberg Park by the Mississippi River. The biblical scenes of the Last Supper, the Denial, the Betrayal -- all those will play out in different locations around the city as the cross, with hundreds of people carrying it, makes its way from the Superdome to the stage, where the scenes culminate. Then Jesus arrives and gets arrested, so the Trial and all that stuff will happen there.

So you're incorporating a handful of locations from around the city?

Yeah, we wanted it to be iconic, so we have locations like Audobon Park -- with those beautiful trees and the Spanish moss -- the French Quarter, scenes along the river, by the bridges. You're gonna recognize all the locations for sure.

That walk is about 1.5 miles. How much does the cross weigh?

Nearly 300 pounds, so we have to have a bunch of people carrying it at all times, and they'll trade off. But they've done it for years in Holland and no one's passed out yet.

It's a bit risky doing this live, right?

Anything can happen! [Laughs] Yeah, that's the scary part. I'm probably going to just pass out when the show ends, literally keel over. You just don't know, and that's the beauty of live television, but it's also what makes it so scary. And it's also why people watch: "What's going to happen?" I don't know! So much has to go right, but there's charm when things go wrong. If a mic goes out or something doesn't work, you roll with it. But I'm a horrible perfectionist, so this is totally against my nature.

But what's to stop protesters or pranksters from crashing the procession?

Uh, that's a good question. You have to get through security to get into the arena, where the stage is, but [the procession is] open to the public. If people are going to try to disrupt, I don't know... There's security everywhere. We have to have tons of it, but there's nothing to be protesting. We want everybody to come. It's just a great story with great music, surrounding a holiday we celebrate. If any city is used to processions and parades, New Orleans is the town. From Jazz Fest to Mardi Gras, it's part of the foundation. They've embraced us so far, but we're ready for whatever.

Explain the idea behind taking a modern approach?

What spoke to me was, "Oh, this is what it was like for people seeing this happen 2,000 years ago." It's telling a good story in your own time period so it has relevance to you. It's got love, betrayal, forgiveness... all that stuff that's always in the greatest movies. Putting it in modern times makes it so people who aren't believers, or who haven't heard it before, can be like, "Oh, OK, now I understand the themes here."

What were your biggest casting concerns?

Well, number one, you don't want to do a live show where people can't sing. That's problematic. [Laughs] I wanted great singers, especially Mary, who has a lot of big songs to sing by herself. Trisha is one of the all-time greats. She just has that weight, being a mother herself. That transitions me to my next big thing: Is it believable? Whoever we cast as Jesus needs to deliver these lines that are just scripture, but in a way that they're believable, where you hear it and go, "That doesn't sound weird." I also wanted to show diversity, in part as an image of the city itself. But this message isn't for any one race or one type of person -- it's for everybody.

A lot of your audience will be meeting Jencarlos Canela for the first time. Why cast him as your star, as opposed to an obvious marquee name?

We went back and forth on that, and I was happy Fox allowed us the leeway to "discover" someone, if you will, which is crazy to say because he's so successful even if he's not a household name in all circles. But it's funny because he was on the road and we had a Skype session with him to audition. Technology failed miserably and it ended up being just me and him on FaceTime. We spoke a little bit, got to know each other. He sang for me. He'd had a long night and his voice was cracking, but his eyes were so kind. I went: "This is him. I believe him." And he is one of the kindest people you'll meet. It comes through in his performance, and that's what we needed. Great actors can portray that, but when you look in a person's eyes, it's cliché but, you see what they're about. He's such a kind man. I was like: "I love this guy. I'd follow him."

How did you choose the songs to include?

The cool thing about rock and pop is: Whatever the journey is that put an artist on this path to write music and pour their hearts out, there's a spirituality to music, and it comes out in lyrics. It's amazing when you sit down and go through the American Songbook how many have those undertones. When you put them in this context, it works. When you see Imagine Dragons' "Demons," you'll think it was written for the scene. Or "Love Can Move Mountains" by Diane Warren [recorded by Celine Dion]. That's a powerful message and it's the theme for the whole show. "Unconditionally" by Katy Perry -- I think MTV reviewed it and said it could have been written from the perspective of Jesus. So I was looking at the context of a scene and thinking, "What lyrics help tell this story and this emotion?" It was amazing what came to mind.

Did artists pass on having their music included?

Yeah, there were some. And I don't blame them. I think next year it will be easier. I had to call people -- it becomes relational at that point, where they trust what I've done in the past, how I've treated their songs before. We poured our hearts into every song in The Passion and it shows. Hopefully we've made the artists proud.

 

What's been the biggest challenge so far?

Everything has its challenges in a project like this: getting it to the U.S. in the first place; figuring out which songs would tell the story best; finding a new idea when one of those songs didn't clear and I was married to an idea. But challenges lead you to a better end. I think everybody involved would agree that things get better when you're pushed. I'm excited for people to see this. Then I'll make sure not to read any reviews -- you will not be able to reach me on Monday the 21st. I'm going dark.

Fox's The Passion airs Sunday, March 20 at 8 p.m. ET.