Six weeks of rehearsals. An iconic mash-up of musical theater and rock concert. And a mother lode of expectations. Sara Bareilles gives Billboard the inside scoop on NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, from behind the curtain to the after party.
“It felt like champagne in the room,” Bareilles, whose portrayal of Mary Magdalene was a cornerstone of the show, recalls of the vibe in the Brooklyn theater as show time approached. “It was just buoyant and there was so much joy in the room, from every member of the creative team to the ensemble. Everyone’s energy was through the roof.”
“Everyone” included John Legend as Jesus Christ, Tony nominee Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas, and Alice Cooper as King Herod.
“It felt like you were preparing for the Super Bowl halftime show of musical theater,” she says. “There’s this feeling you’re doing something that’s wholly unique, only a handful of people have had this experience, and every single show that’s been broadcast live is different from the next.”
The televised live musical genre has been gaining ground since NBC aired The Sound of Music in 2013. Still, this particular show, at this particular time, carried a particular weight all its own, Bareilles says.
“In terms of its subject matter, the fact that it was a rock opera and being aired on Easter… there were a lot of layers to this project,” she says.
Layers that understandably might have led to jitters among the cast. “I have to give David Leveaux, our director, so much credit. He was a soldier of love in the room,” Bareilles says. “His famous quote that we would joke about with him by the end, was, ‘When in doubt… love, love and more love.’ That was a beautiful sentiment, and all of our motivations on stage were born out of love. We were bringing humanity to these people who have become so mythologized. It was really beautiful to go on that journey with everyone.”
Bareilles is no stranger to musical theater, having starred in Broadway’s Waitress. Nevertheless, she gleaned some tactical, and life, lessons from her cast mates.
Legend, she says, “has an incredible calmness about him that makes everything seem easy. He knows who he is and seems like he can’t ever be rattled. I found that really inspiring. And he is so generous and kind to everyone around him.”
Dixon is “equally loving in the room and also has this fire that I felt as I watched him work through the material,” she says. “He was always calculating, in the corner going over lines and how he would gesture. He has a real craftsmanship about it and you can see his being so meticulous really pays off.”
Reviews of the production have been largely positive, frequently glowing, and occasionally critical. Bareilles takes the naysayers in stride.
“You do the best you can and of course there’s going to be people who are going to hate it. There always are,” she says. “We were so proud to be at that moment. Once the countdown happens and we go live, it’s really about giving a good show.”
Helping energize the cast was the presence of a live audience the cast could play to. “We could really ground our connection to them, and to giving them a good show from 10 feet away,” she says.
While the TV audience got to glimpse backstage thanks to an embedded screen in the bottom right corner during the many commercials, it was quite another thing, to borrow parlance from another musical, to be in the room where it happens.
“It felt like we were all on a team together. Everyone, from costumes to makeup to lighting to the cameramen, everyone was huddled around the monitors backstage, arms linked, cheering for every number and congratulating people when they came off stage,” Bareilles says. “It was this wild rush of energy. It was really fun and supportive.”
It didn’t hurt that the modernized version had the blessing of Jesus Christ Superstar composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, who stopped by a few rehearsals, were in the audience for the show, and came to the after-party.
“Celebratory” is the word Bareilles uses to describe the duo. “This is a show they wrote when they were in their early twenties, and to still be celebrating it almost 50 years in is just a wild and amazing success story.”
Webber and Rice even gave the team a pep talk. “They both gave a speech beforehand, and encouraged us to remember the passion of this play and that the storytelling really comes alive when it’s passionate,” she recalls. “They loved that it was a little bit raw and the production wasn’t too overcooked, at least it felt that way in the room. It’s a partial set, it’s all scaffolding, we were running into audience. It’s not like you’re walking into a room that’s totally created for you; your imagination absolutely has to be a part of the play itself.”
Live theater is a haven for the spontaneous. Were there any unexpected moments with Jesus Christ Superstar? “We had things that had gone wrong during dress rehearsal. We had a set piece that wasn’t in place when we started the show, a tabletop that collapsed. All the things that went wrong happened the night before,” Bareilles says, then pauses. “Maybe the gods were smiling on us.”