Bay City Players Stage a Groundbreaking Rock Opera

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, Theatre,   From Issue 830   By: Robert E Martin

21st July, 2016     0

Of the modern theatrical musicals that have registered high levels of both critical acclaim and popularity by infusing serious thematic subjects with deeper perspectives and memorable musical scores, the musical Jesus Christ Superstar broke fresh ground when it first appeared on Broadway in 1971.

Originally conceived back in 1970 as a rock opera by Tim Rice & Andrew Lloyd Webber, it began as a concept album before its Broadway debut; and featured no spoken dialogue. Along with The Who’s Tommy, it pioneered the ‘Rock Opera’ genre through the fusing of its narrative with memorable song cycles; and while it was nominated for five Tony Awards, including Best Score, it didn’t win any; although Webber did secure a Drama Desk Award as ‘Most Promising Composer’. 

Part of the reason it was shut out at the Tony’s is because of the controversy surrounding it at the time. With a story line loosely based on the Gospels’ accounts of the last week of Jesus’s life, beginning with the preparation of the arrival of Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem and ending with the crucifixion, the work highlights both the political & interpersonal struggles between Judas Iscariot and Jesus that are not present in biblical narratives; and also offers a free interpretation of the psychology of Jesus and other characters, which at the time created an uproar among many religious groups.

Possessing an engaging and deftly contoured and crafted musical libretto, Jesus Christ Superstar was one of the first works from the Rice/Webber creative partnership; and now Bay City Players is busily preparing for a series of performances of this famed musical that will run from July 28-31st.

Directed by Michael Wisniewski, a large part of the plot focuses on the character of Judas, who is depicted as a tragic figure dissatisfied with the direction in which Jesus steers his disciples. Contemporary attitudes and sensibilities, as well as slang, pervade the lyrics; and ironic allusions to modern life are scattered throughout the depiction of political events, designed in a manner to more deeply engage audiences into the timeless relevancy of Jesus’s many sacrifices.

Given the controversial context surrounding it combined with the groundbreaking territory that it explored, how is Wisniewski approaching Bay City Players translation of this modern classic for the regional stage?

“This was one of Rice & Webber’s first productions and contains no dialogue,” notes Wisniewski. “It’s interesting because when the materials arrived they came with no script. There’s a conductor’s score and vocal score and that’s it – no blocking, no stage directions – nothing at all, so you pretty much have to really know this show in order to stage it.  I’ve seen the production at Stratford and also remember when it came out I was in grade school, but in high school when I started getting into theatre I remember buying the vinyl recording and had no idea what was going on. I was raised Catholic and knew it was loosely based on the Bible, but I was listening to the album thinking to myself, what’s happening at this time?”

“It’s interesting when you bring up the conflict between Judas & Jesus,” he continues, “because from the perspective of Judas what he sees happening is that Jesus is becoming a Superstar and because of the sensationalism surrounding that process, he has a premonition of where it will lead.  On one end of the spectrum you have Judas and on the other you have Mary Magdalene, who is 100 percent on Jesus’ side and always with him.”

“There’s a point in the story where Jesus begins to sense what is coming, and to help guide our translation I have a good assistant who’s a Baptist preacher that tells me if we’re going too far; but my idea is to keep this production edgy and not so much down the Biblical path.  In many ways the biggest thing about Jesus Christ Superstar is there is no resurrection. Jesus dies on the cross and the show ends with this big ‘Superstar’ production number before the crucifixion takes place. But when you listen to the words they are very poignant, as are the dynamics. It’s been challenging, but my assistance Lee Austin has been very helpful because of possessing a very precise eye,” notes Mike. “and it’s important to have a second set of eyes with this production.”

“We’re looking to stage this so it has little glitz and glamour in it,” continues Mike. “The costuming is very modern. We’re combining costuming through the ages. When I first saw this production at Stratford it really blew me away and all of a sudden everything made sense. Once I established that connection I had the framework. You could stage this production with 40 actors and we’re only using 19, so we have many ensemble numbers where some of the actors will play specific parts of disciples in one scene and soldiers in another. This has been a good challenge because I’m directing Act One later in the season and that play has 51 speaking parts and a cast of 16, so this production has allowed me to cut my teeth as it were on this process of doubling various roles with actors.”

Wisniewski says casting went extremely well and that he had “the perfect amount of people with the talent that we needed audition for each role” in the production, which will feature Rachel Atiemo-Obeng in the role of Mary Magdalene; Tony Serra as Jesus of Nazareth; Dan Taylor as Judas Iscariot; Ben Beauvais as King Herod; and is rounded out by actors Andy Harrington, Andrew Fergerson, Bill Stokes, Danessa Hellus, Sandy Graves, Rachel Creed, Gezelle Myers, Keara Dixon, Lauren Klett, Jessica McFarland, Ryan Sequin, Emily Sweeney, Elise Williams and Julia Wilson.  The 10-piece musical ensemble backing the actors is being assembled by Loren Kranz and is under the direction of Jan Sutherland, along with Sara Taylor providing vocal direction.

In terms of his biggest challenge, Michael points to knowing exactly what needs to happen with each scene. “We have to be careful about not crossing the line too far,” he reflects, “because we don’t want to push things so far that it becomes offensive, but we do want it stimulating. When I came out of the first act at the Stratford production my head was reeling. After hearing this production for so many years and then suddenly visualizing it in front of your eyes, it all made sense. Especially in the second act leading up to the crucifixion and scripture of John, I was bawling, as was everyone else. They did that scene so beautifully because all of a sudden there was a sharp blackout for what seemed like 15-minutes. All you heard was the audience sniffling, which demonstrates how powerful this production can be, which is what it should be.”

“There’s a lot of depth to the show and meaning and it should touch some chords in the audience,” continues Michael. “It’s an emotional show and weaving all these elements in and out so things flow properly is also challenging. The ensemble is busy in this production and I want the audience to feel all Christ’s energy being sucked out of him by all the people he ministers to and the demands they make. When Jesus says, ‘Heal thyself!’ it signifies that he is drained and can’t do it anymore, so it’s very interesting tracking the dynamics in this work and how everything flows.”

Given that Jesus Christ Superstar broke a mold from the traditional Broadway productions of its time and defined a new line and musical sensibility, 45-years down the line since it was first staged, would Michael classify it as a great American Broadway musical?

“I truly believe it is a modern classical musical because it was so groundbreaking when it came out,” he concludes. “It was controversial because it didn’t strictly follow the traditional text and liberties are taken throughout, but I also think that the use of slang helps open the meaning of the story to newer generations, so you really understand the message of Christ.”

Bay City Players production of Jesus Christ Superstar runs with three evening performances from July 28 -30th at 8:00 PM; and a matinee performance at 3 pm on Sunday, July 31st. Tickets are $20 for adults and $10 for students and can be purchased by phoning 989-893-5555 or visiting Bay City Players at  The Theatre is located at 1214 Columbus in Bay City.


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