When Tyler Perry heard that Fox was creating an Easter TV special — The Passion, a live musical depicting Jesus Christ’s last mortal days airing 8 p.m. ET on March 20, Palm Sunday — he knew, without question, what he had to do. “There’s so much negativity on TV and film,” says the entertainment mogul, 46, who will host and narrate the show. “So much weighing us down when we watch the news. I thought, ‘If somebody’s going to use this broadcast system to encourage and uplift, I have to be a part of it.’ And I don’t think there’s a better story for that.”
Fox is banking on viewers to have that same enthusiasm for The Passion, its newest entry in the growing field of real-time TV musicals. January’s Grease: Live pulled in 12.2 million viewers (according to Nielsen), scoring Fox’s highest ratings since Empire‘s second-season premiere (16.2 million), and handily besting NBC’s The Wiz Live! (11.5 million). So far, so good for The Passion: New Orleans is opening its streets to the two-hour event, which includes a huge public procession, and the cast comprises a roster of music luminaries. Country star Trisha Yearwood plays Mary, Seal is Pontius Pilate, American Idol alum Chris Daughtry takes on Judas, bachata/pop heartthrob Prince Royce does Peter, and Latin music/telenovela star Jencarlos Canela portrays Christ. Gospel great Yolanda Adams will perform the opening song.
Plus, The Passion already has been proved on a smaller platform: It’s an import from the Netherlands, where its popularity has grown for five years straight. The show had a 46 percent market share there in 2015, according to Dutch analytics firm SKO — despite the fact that a 2014 study from research company Ipsos found only 17 percent of the Dutch believe in a deity. Part of the appeal is that the musical is set in the present day and features contemporary pop hits. “The Netherlands is not a very religious country, but the show is just so powerful to watch,” says Passion executive producer and music arranger Adam Anders, 40, who also headed up the music for Fox smash Glee and has produced songs for Demi Lovato and Miley Cyrus. (Disclosure: Billboard is an affiliate company of one of The Passion‘s co-producers, Dick Clark Productions.) “I didn’t understand a single word, and I was still moved. I was like, ‘If we can do this in the States, which is obviously a lot more religious, I can’t imagine how big it could be.’ ”
In short: massive. History’s The Bible miniseries averaged 12.7 million pairs of eyes per episode, and that was on cable, where ratings usually top out in the single digits. Still, most of the songs chosen and reworked by Anders and co-producer Peer Astrom eschew explicit spirituality for universal themes — chart hits ranging from Imagine Dragons‘ “Demons” and Tina Turner‘s “We Don’t Need Another Hero” to Hoobastank‘s “The Reason” and Celine Dion‘s “Love Can Move Mountains.”
As Daughtry — whose chart-topping rock albums have often featured subtle religious themes — points out: “Most Christians don’t even listen to straight-up Christian music. These songs you’ve heard so many times are, at their core, moving songs.” (A soundtrack arrives March 18 on Anders’ Deep Well imprint, which signed a deal with Virgin in 2015.)
Still, Anders admits that some musicians passed on having their work included in The Passion: “Until they’ve seen it, it’s hard to explain to people: ‘Hey, I want Jesus to sing your song.’ It’s like, ‘What?‘ “
Another initial nonbeliever: the guy playing Judas. “When I first was approached, I wasn’t interested,” says Daughtry, 36. Was it the role? “No. I don’t know if Anders thought I look like an asshole who would betray his best friend, but it’s exciting to play a bad guy — that was a selling point. I just wasn’t into doing a religious project. I didn’t want to be in a robe or in an overly preachy situation. Let’s just say there are a lot of examples out there that give this kind of thing a really bad name.”
Royce says he had “mixed feelings” too, but he and Daughtry were sold on the production’s blend of ancient and modern, sacred and secular. Aside from the contemporary music, there will be cellphones and cop cars, and Christ is given an orange jumpsuit before the crucifixion. The script, by High School Musical screenwriter Peter Barsocchini, translates old scripture into 21st-century speech with the blessing of the American Bible Society. “Replace the robes and sandals with Jordans and jeans, and you have a visual people can relate to,” says Perry, who was born in New Orleans. He also stresses the link between Christ’s resurrection and his hometown post-Katrina: “The city was buried in water, and it rose again.”
Of course, updating a literally sacred story is risky business. There’s potential to offend non-Christians, sure, but also believers. But Anders insists their interpretation will be reverent: “I’m a pastor’s kid, and I have a cheese alarm that goes off easily. I knew I couldn’t have the disciples breakdancing.”
His cast also is aware of the high stakes. “It’s a responsibility,” says Royce, 26, a Bronx-born bachatero with Broadway ambitions who’s a perennial force on Billboard‘s Latin charts. “I’m not playing the normal Prince Royce who takes his shirt off and gets the girls screaming. This is a much more serious role. My mom is flying out. I grew up going to church every Sunday, and she’s always worried about the entertainment industry and, oh my God, drugs! I think this makes her feel better.”
Of course, when part of the show involves potentially hundreds of people helping carry a glowing 20-foot cross a mile-and-a-half through New Orleans streets, from the Superdome to Woldenberg Park, during a live telecast, all kinds of additional concerns arise: weather, emergencies, technical malfunctions, protestors. Is there anything about The Passion that Anders finds particularly intimidating? “Yeah — all of it,” he says with a laugh.
But Canela, who co-stars with Eva Longoria on NBC’s Telenovela and recently wrapped an Americas-spanning tour for his 2014 album Jen, says the positive energy on this set is like nothing he has experienced before. “Chris became like a brother to me,” recalls the 27-year-old Miami native. “One day we were like, ‘Let’s go to Bourbon Street and get to know this city.’ We’re at a restaurant when a crew guy walks in with one of the producers, and they’re like, ‘Who would’ve thought? Jesus and Judas just chilling together, after everything.’ “
Key for Canela in taking on such a monumental role is bringing it back down to earth. “My generation pictures this Jesus that’s so judgmental — we forget he was flesh and bone,” says Canela, whose “gentle eyes” clinched the role for him, according to Anders. “Jesus knew what it was to work his butt off,” continues Canela. “He felt anger; he felt the deepest fear anyone could feel. I want to portray him as more human than we’ve ever seen.”
Still, a little miracle-working couldn’t hurt from where Anders is sitting. “The dream is to come back next year and do it again,” he says. “Jesus needs to get good ratings.”
?This story originally appeared in the March 19 issue of Billboard.