When Jesus Christ Superstar debuted on Broadway in 1971, the musical’s take on the intersection of religion, fame and politics ruffled its share of conservative feathers. Now, 47 years later, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s “rock opera” dramatization of the last days of Jesus Christ is seen as a theatrical benchmark, with its fully-sung-through format paving the way for Evita, Phantom of the Opera and Les Misérables, among other shows.
On Sunday, Superstar will become the latest musical to get the live NBC treatment. This time, the network will take the show back to its roots, presenting it as a concert with an all-star cast – including John Legend as Jesus Christ, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene and Hamilton’s Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas Iscariot – performing before a live audience inside Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s Marcy Avenue Armory. Bareilles and Dixon recently took a break from rehearsals to speak to Billboard about the show’s continued relevance, the advice they’ve received from Lloyd Webber and their hopes for a modern interpretation of the show.
As an artist, what speaks to you most about Jesus Christ Superstar?
Sara Bareilles: The subject matter is personal for so many people. The score is undeniable – it’s something I was introduced to as a young girl. Mary Magdalene is a powerful and important historical figure and I love how she’s portrayed in the show. She’s a feminist icon. Getting to sing these songs – which happen to be some of my favorite musical theater songs – is a privilege.
Brandon Victor Dixon: People have ideas of who these figures are and what they mean in the context of their mythology, but this piece really allows us to investigate their human traits and interactions. We get to expose their emotional colors.
In the canon of musical theater, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music is notoriously challenging. How are you approaching the score?
Bareilles: One of the things that they did so beautifully with the score is that each song is personal to each character. Mary’s songs have a beautiful simplicity and a soulful, folk essence. They’re well suited for my voice. The original keys feel really good, so I’m just having a lot of fun singing them, and of course trying to tackle the acting, which is the newest part for me.
Dixon: So far, I’ve been trying to focus less on the vocals and more on the words. The words expressed in this story are very specific and shape the vocals. I’m excited because it’s rock music. I knew it would have me up on my higher notes, but I’m not intimidated.
Has Andrew Lloyd Webber given you any advice?
Bareilles: He’s been wonderful. He was at one of our rehearsals, and he just gave nothing but encouragement.
Dixon: He’s been around. After all this time, he’s still very engaged with the music and with the piece. He’s conscious of how it sounds, how it’s shaped, the tempos … He talks about those sorts of things. It’s cool to watch him do that.
Compared to a concert or a Broadway show, do you feel any specific pressure to get this single live performance right?
Bareilles: We’re treating it like any other live performance, so it’s about connecting with the people you share the stage with and the audience. I’m glad they’ve made the decision to have a live audience, so we can feel the immediacy of people interacting with the material. Yes, there’s pressure, but I’m going to do my best, cross my fingers and jump. That’s all I can do.
Dixon: Because of the cameras, your blocking, where you look, the things you do… are more specific than they are in the theater. I’m notorious for doing different things all the time! (laughs) So that’s the one thing I’ve been conscious of – letting the material flow within me but making sure that my physicality remains fixed.
Do you think the message of Superstar has shifted or improved over time?
Bareilles: The show is about love, betrayal, friendship and sacrifice. All of that, I think, is timeless. It feels like a relevant time to return to some of these themes in the context of the world at large. I love that our casting is bold and that we’re sort of reimagining the world. It’s reflective of what our world looks like today.
Dixon: We, as a society, have become very fixed in our ideas of how things were, how they are, and how they should be. I’m hoping that us breaking open the mythology that’s so embedded in our cultural fabric will help people to re-examine how we ingest these stories and how we allow them to shape our cultures, communities and lives.
You have the opportunity to introduce the musical to a new generation. What do you hope Sunday’s audience takes away from your performance?
Dixon: My interpretation of Aaron Burr in Hamilton allowed people to see the sensitivity of him, and I’m doing the same thing here with Judas. The music has carried the show’s legacy. I’m hoping they can embrace the words.
Bareilles: Authenticity and honesty. I’ve had so many people come to see Waitress [the Tony-nominated Broadway musical for which Bareilles wrote music and lyrics] who have never been to a musical before, and they feel like they’ve been introduced to a whole new world. I hope people will get to discover the incredible canon of musical theater.