Neil Meron and Marc Platt – Resurrecting Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert
Updated: Mar 12, 2020
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR LIVE IN CONCERT — “Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert” Press Junket — Pictured: (l-r) Neil Meron, Executive Producer; Jason Ardizzone-West, Production Designer; Marc Platt, Executive Producer; Nigel Wright, Musical Director in New York on Tuesday, February 27, 2018 — (Photo by: Dia Dipasupil/NBC)
Neil Meron and Marc Platt
Resurrecting Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert
by Jay S. Jacobs
In 1970, a pair of fairly unknown composers named Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice released a concept album called Jesus Christ Superstar, a rock opera about the life of Christ looking through a (then-) modern prism. The record was a smash, spawning a classic Broadway show, hit singles (Murray Head’s “Superstar” and Yvonne Elliman’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him”) and a popular movie version. It also made the creators two of the biggest names in musical theater.
Nearly 50 years later, veteran Broadway producers Neil Meron, Craig Zadan and Marc Price – who along with long careers of hit musicals on the boards and on film have resurrected the idea of live performances on television with the annual likes of The Sound of Music Live, Peter Pan Live, The Wiz Live and Hairspray Live – were looking for their next project. It did not take long for them to decide to bring Jesus Christ Superstar back to life.
Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert features a diverse and fascinating cast, mixing professional musicians and theatrical stars. R&B favorite John Legend plays Jesus Christ. Pop star Sara Bareilles portrays Mary Magdalene. King Herod is played by 70s rock star Alice Cooper. The rest of the cast includes former Hamilton star Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas and British actor Ben Daniels as Pontius Pilate.
Unlike the previous live performances, the producers decided not to do a filmed version of the play, but instead to perform the songs in concert. The concert will be aired live from Brooklyn’s Marcy Avenue Armory on Easter Sunday (April 1) on NBC.
A few weeks before the concert is to be broadcast live, we were one of a small group of media outlets who got to speak with executive producers Neil Meron and Marc Platt about the production and the excitement of making live theater to be watched by millions of worldwide viewers.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR LIVE IN CONCERT — Season: 2018 — Pictured: (l-r) center: Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene, John Legend as Jesus Christ, Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas Iscariot, Jason Tam as Peter, front: Alice Cooper as King Herod, with ensemble cast — (Photo by: James Dimmock/NBC)
Alice Cooper is an unusual choice. Can you talk a little bit about how the thought came about to employ him and what he brings to the role?
Neil Meron: Alice Cooper actually has a history with the Jesus Christ Superstar. There was album, probably about ten years ago, and he recorded the role of King Herod. So, when we were going forward with this production Tim Rice said, “What about Alice?” He’s in the family. He’s terrific. He would lend that rock authenticity. He has that outrageous persona that seems to be very right for King Herod. We reached out and he was very interested. We were very happy about that.
What’s it been like working with him?
Neil Meron: He hadn’t started rehearsals yet, but we anticipate it being great. (laughs)
Marc Platt: It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s going to be a lot of fun. And listen, Jesus Christ Superstar itself is so iconic. Its music is so iconic. It in some ways [it] was very defining for a generation for narrative music, particularly ones that appear on the West End and subsequently on Broadway. To have an iconic rock star like Alice Cooper participate in it feels like it elevates the evening. [It] is organic but also makes it a real exciting, exciting enterprise. The thing about Superstar, it’s for all ages. Of course, there’s those of us who are older who remember it and its impact on us when we were much younger. But, it’s also something for those who might not know it to be rediscovered. Alice covers all the bases in that regard.
Neil Meron: Yes, and also Alice Cooper, because it is we’re doing it in concert style, the idea that we have an actual rock performer in this venue seems to make a great deal of sense.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR LIVE IN CONCERT — Season: 2018 — Pictured: John Legend as Jesus Christ — (Photo by: James Dimmock/NBC)
I wanted to go through the rest of the cast. We have John Legend as Jesus. We have Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene and you just announced three new cast members. Can you just go through them, what they bring to the role and why you feel they’re such a right fit for each of their roles?
Marc Platt: Why don’t we hand it off a little bit because I think Neil and I probably feel the same way. John Legend is not only one of the great pop stars and personalities of our time now, but he has the voice that is distinctive and singular. We all know it and we’re all familiar with it. To have the role of Jesus sung by that masterful vocalist, and of course actor. He appeared in La La Land, among other things. [It] will be a great joy and will do justice to the challenge of that score and that particular role.
The same thing can be said of course of Sara Bareilles, who we all know both from her vocal career, her pop star career, her now Broadway career both as a writer and appearing on stage. [Bareilles wrote the score to Waitress, and also appeared on Broadway in the lead role for a while.] So, to hear her voice sing those gorgeous melodies that we’re all so familiar with and have lasted through time is also joyous. It’s exciting and you really lean into it. Neil, why don’t you go through some of the others?
Neil Meron: Sure. Regarding Brandon Victor Dixon we spent an inordinately long time auditioning many, many actors to play Judas. Brandon came in very, very early and he was always the one to beat. But we did a lot of due diligence, because there were a lot of people that want to play that role. Brandon just has this incredible quality, not only vocally but he’s also a Tony-nominated actor. He’s coming off of Hamilton. It just seemed to make sense for this particular project.
Regarding Ben Daniels, he’s one of the finest actors in the English-speaking world, mostly stage and more well-known in the UK than here. We wanted a really complex actor, somebody that can take on the role of Pilate, because it is such a conflicted role. We reached out to Ben and he did a vocal audition for all of us. All of these people had to be approved by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. When we presented them our choices, we had to make sure that we as the creative team really endorsed [them] and knew that we were not going to be turned down, because we loved all these actors that we’ve chosen.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR LIVE IN CONCERT — Season: 2018 — Pictured: Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene — (Photo by: James Dimmock/NBC)
You’ve been involved with these live productions before. Does it ever get any easier? What are the particular challenges that you’ve been facing with this venue in Brooklyn? How has it been going?
Neil Meron: Me and Craig Zadan and Marc…, we’re the only producers that do these live musicals, which is kind of a very small club to be in. Marc actually shot a film at this venue that we’re shooting at in Brooklyn, which is the Marcy Avenue Amory. He knew the rawness of the space, which is what we were looking for, just in terms of the presentation of Jesus Christ Superstar. We wanted to bring it back. We wanted to strip it of a lot of theatricality and go to the essence of concert. Have some theatrical staging mixed in and just the rawness of that space and the idea that we can create this environment there just made sense to all of us.
Marc Platt: It’s a live event. We want to deliver both the story of Jesus Christ Superstar, but also the immersive experience of being at a concert, so that you the viewer at home watching on his or her TV or his or her screen feels like they are immersed in this live event concert. To find a space that has sort of a very urban raw feel that we can build a set that’s like a stage but is also a set. Surround it with a live audience so that you feel like you’re almost in a stadium as it were – [that] is what we’re going for. That excitement and that fervor that you feel when you’ve been in a concert is what we’re trying to deliver here during the telecast.
Following up with what you were just discussing, why did you decide that you wanted to do this performance as a concert rather than a straight staging of the show?
Neil Meron: The basis of Jesus Christ Superstar was this live concept album. It was a rock opera. Then when the album first came out unauthorized concert stagings of the piece started popping up all over the US. So, I think that was Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s original inclination: to have it done very, very concert-like. The Broadway production that was done in the early 70s deflected from that and gave it a lot more theatricality, which was very controversial at the time. But Andrew and Tim really wanted to go back to what the essence of the piece was, which was presentational, in front of a live audience and more concert-like.
Marc Platt: That is organic to what their intention was, and we are delivering a concert. But it does have – as many concerts do actually these days – the bells and whistles of wonderful visuals. Enough storytelling [for] you to sit down, so you feel the concert, you feel the musicians and the music being played live. It does have some of the eye-candy pyrotechnic fun and glory that you would expect at a concert, and that you would expect also of a story that is Jesus Christ Superstar.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR LIVE IN CONCERT — Season: 2018 — Pictured: Alice Cooper as King Herod — (Photo by: James Dimmock/NBC)
The show is originally very much about taking the life of Jesus and making it relevant to the present day, which at the time was the early 70s. How do you feel after 50 years the play’s importance and messages have changed or even strengthened for the new Millennium?
Neil Meron: I actually think it’s more relevant now, just in terms of somebody with the best of intentions. To heal. To do good. To spread a message of love. To spread a message of a life. [He] is snuffed out by opposing forces, because he’s misunderstood by the powers that be. I think that is incredibly timely.
Marc Platt: I also think that interestingly enough, not just from a nostalgic point of view, the music still is sensational. [It] still feels relevant and in its own way of the moment, which is why I’m excited for folks that don’t know it to rediscover it. I was just in rehearsal yesterday and listening to John and Brandon sing. Neil turned to me and said, “Listen to that music. It’s just great.” And it really is. It really feels fresh, as iconic as some of it is.
Your casting has a balance of musical theater performers and pop/rock stars. Did you plan it that way, or did that balance just happen organically?
Neil Meron: It was a little bit of both. We wanted the combination, because it isn’t just singing songs. These songs needed to be acted. When you examine the piece, you want people that can do both. Some of the roles you want a little bit more like the role of Pilate. Even Judas is incredibly complex in this particular telling of the story. We know that the people that can balance both and still have that incredible vocal ability can come from the theater. We wanted to populate it with some real authenticity just in terms of a rock sound, which is why we have Alice. Or a pop sound, which is why we have John Legend and Sara Bareilles, who can do both. It [was] really a happy turn of events that led us to this particular cast, but this is the type of cast we were looking for.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR LIVE IN CONCERT — Season: 2018 — Pictured: Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas Iscariot — (Photo by: James Dimmock/NBC)
It’s going to be a such a unique set of voices. Is there any chance that an album might come out of this?
Neil Meron: There is a chance.
Marc Platt: We’re trying.
Why did you guys select the British theater director David Leveaux to handle this production?
Marc Platt: A number of reasons. There were a number of directors interested, but David was very aggressive in pursuing it – both because of his personal love of the material and his passion for it. He’s a noted stage director. People probably know him best from the revival of Nine, I would think, starring Antonio Banderas. So, his work on stage is quite accomplished. He grew up with a particular love of Jesus Christ Superstar as a younger person, and now as an artist. As a director he has the passion for it. He wa