HE IS RISEN
How John Legend Became the Black Jesus We Need in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert’
We go behind the scenes with the Grammy winner as he rehearses for NBC’s already provocative live Easter Sunday staging of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar.’
It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon at church, and Jesus has a cold.
Mass is in observance at St. Paul the Apostle Church, a 150-year-old house of worship nested incongruously among the glass towers spiking into the sky near Manhattan’s Columbus Circle. In its basement, pacing around a football-field-sized rehearsal space you might think doesn’t exist in New York City, John Legend is attempting a miracle that rivals turning water into wine: squeaking out Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber’s punishing high notes despite sinus congestion more suited to croaking than crooning.
The Grammy-winning recording star is double-fisting green juice and some hot tea, banking on holy healing powers to get him through a chaotic rehearsal scheduled for Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, NBC’s rock concert staging of the classic musical in which he will, in a bit of groundbreaking casting, portray Jesus. The show will broadcast live from the cavernous Marcy Armory, a 60,000-square-foot military facility in Brooklyn, on April 1, Easter Sunday.
At the moment, Legend is blocking a scene in which Jesus is condemned to crucifixion, a fate the savior accepts with no protest. The singer is similarly at peace with his own sentence: rehearsing a live televised production of a Broadway musical in between a two-and-a-half-week tour of Asia, for which he leaves in mere days, returning with scant time to polish his one-night-only run as… Jesus.
“I’m just doing it,” Legend demurs when we ask how he’ll juggle it all, and while sick, to boot. In fact, the entire production seems rather giddy over the rock-and-roll chaos of it all. In addition to Legend’s hectic schedule, Sara Bareilles, who will play Mary Magdalene, was starring in her Broadway production of Waitress until just two weeks ago, rehearsing for Superstar simultaneously. And Alice Cooper, who will revive the role of King Herrod he voiced for a 1996 recording of the show, has toured with his band throughout the entire process.
“I knew it was going to be rock and roll from the beginning, getting this thing up,” stage director David Leveaux laughs. “And it proves to be.”
Not that any of this has tampered their ambition. Everyone involved in Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert is adamant that, unlike NBC’s annual holiday airings like Hairspray Live! or The Sound of Music Live!, this is a rock concert, first and foremost. A live band of 32, which Sir Andrew himself has instructed to sound “raw,” will accompany the actors, along with a string quartet of women who will meander through the scaffolding set as the show progresses.
That set, which we see rendered as a 3D model, evokes an industrial Roman chic aesthetic that Leveaux dares us to envision as grandly as it will appear when the production moves into the Armory. “Imagine taking a large hammer to the Sistine Chapel and then recovering three distinct fragments of it and taking to them to the Armory, suspending them there in the scaffolding, and then cascading a live band and orchestra through a gap in these frescos,” he says.
On the floor of the Armory will be more than 1,300 audience members, including a center “mosh pit.” Smiling rather smugly, Leveaux makes a decisive proclamation: “It is, in my mind, one of the most fabulously, romantically organized pieces of reckless television. And that is the point. That is the point of Jesus Christ Superstar.”
While inarguably technically daring, the production is also setting out to push some cultural buttons in its staging, too. And that begins with the title role: We have a black Jesus.
The creative team is bracing for conservative religious backlash, but expecting audiences to applaud the audacity of casting a black performer as Jesus. Legend himself sheepishly delivers what will become a canned answer to the question when I first ask him about the significance of the role.
“Well, we’ve often seen Jesus look like he’s probably from Oslo or something,” he says. “The chances of Jesus being born and raised in the Middle East and looking like he’s from Oslo are pretty slim. I think I probably look closer to him that a lot of people who have played him in the past.”
He’s quick to point out, too, that the casting across the board is “freely diverse,” from his role to the ensemble to Judas, who will be played by Hamilton alum Brandon Victor Dixon. “I think allowing ourselves to be free and not force a racial identity and just look like America is cool.”
When asked about the casting during a Paley Center panel promoting the show a few days later, NBC chairman Bob Greenblatt credited Hamilton with paving the way to a place where a black actor could feasibly be cast as Jesus in a broadcast TV production.
“In some regard, it doesn’t matter that Jesus is white or black,” he said. But in many ways, it couldn’t matter more. “I got so many emails from people in our company, African American people, the day we announced the casting just saying thank you for doing this,” he continued. “It’s radical, but hopefully it will come from the place that it’s just the world that we live in.”
But it’s not just Jesus who is being positioned to reflect the world we live in now. Bareilles is keenly aware that she is playing Mary Magdalene amid a cultural conversation about how women are portrayed in entertainment.
“First of all, what I’ve learned about her in my little bit of research is that pretty much everything we know about Mary Magdalene is incorrect,” she said, pausing for a dramatic mischievous grin: “Not to just call out the patriarchy again, but…”
“This is a very powerful woman who basically bankrolled Jesus’ campaign,” she continued. “And was a really strong, impassioned figure. Absolutely a disciple. Most likely had a very deep relationship with Jesus. I feel that this is a great honor to get to tell her story.”
Then there’s the material itself. When Jesus Christ Superstar premiered in 1970, calling its rock-opera retelling of the crucifixion “provocative” would have been an understatement. (“Blasphemous” and “sacrilegious” were also bandied about.) The work delves into the psychology of Judas, depicted as a tragic figure concerned about Jesus’s growing fame, while Mary Magdalene, who is falling in love with Jesus, eggs him on. In 1979, Tim Rice, who wrote the musical’s lyrics, was even quoted describing the interpretation thusly: “It happens that we don't see Christ as God but simply the right man at the right time at the right place.”
The decades since have seen the musical evolve to be, while less controversial, increasingly culturally resonant.
The concert will air on Easter Sunday in undeniably turbulent times, and the creative team is banking on audiences watching it through that lens.
Leveaux says his staging will resist “easy analogies” like giving the Romans riot shields, but he can’t ignore the fact that he’s staging Superstar in an “unbelievably divisive and violent period in history.” Even stripping away the show’s religion, its message takes on immediacy.
“If we confer a single individual to our desire to be saved, we end up not only destroying that individual but ourselves,” he says. “But it’s also about the nature of revolution. You’re watching a character who wishes to change the world through love. And yet ends up being destroyed by that world.”
Off in a corner of the rehearsal space, Legend is huddled with his binder of the score, making notes and marking his way through a particular high section of “Trial By Pilate.” There’s something adorably theatre nerd about it, the drill-and-kill, with Legend trilling his way up his vocal range in order to get the notes out in high falsetto. Leveaux mentions that Legend’s casting works because he projects a “fundamental decency” that makes his Jesus affecting, which we certainly feel at that moment.
“Decency” is almost a trigger word these days, the concept seems so foreign. To wit, Easter Sunday’s telecast, which hopes to be the rare event to unite the family around the TV to watch an entertainment event live, comes one short week after the last event to pull off the feat: a 60 Minutes interview in which a porn star recounted the time she spanked the president of the United States with a magazine bearing his image.
“I think it will hopefully be a good moment for us to come together and have something in common,” Legend says. “I don’t think it will heal all our divisions, but at least give a break from them. The show is about in some ways conflict, about a revolutionary, about someone who was trying to change the system, who ultimately gave his life to change the system. That’s important now.”