JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR • Midland Center for the Arts Celebrates 50th Anniversary of a Groundbreaking Musical

Performances Set for August 20-22 & 27-29

Posted In: Arts & Entertainment, ,   From Issue 917   By: Robert E Martin

05th August, 2021     0

Of the many modern theatrical musicals that have registered high levels of both critical acclaim and popular appeal by infusing serious thematic subjects with fresh perspectives and memorable musical scores, Jesus Christ Superstar truly 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 fusing 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 one of the first interpretations of the psychology between 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 Midland Center for the Arts  is busily putting the finishing touches on a series of performances of this famed musical that will run from Thursday through Sunday, August 20-22nd and August 27-29th.  

Directed by Emily Anderson and starring Ray’mond Fields in the role of Jesus a large part of the plot focuses upon 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 Anderson approach the translation of this modern classic for the regional stage; and what are some of the themes she is striving to emphasize?

“My Mom loved this show so much and because it came out as a concept album first, I grew up with listening to this since I could walk, she explains. “It’s always been one of my favorite Rice/Webber collaborations because of the unique viewpoint it presented. We all know the story of Jesus from hindsight, but with Jesus Christ Superstar we see the viewpoint of Jesus and his disciples as people, which is a device later musicals such as Hamilton also adopted.”

“Because we are presented the story of Jesus, but told through the eyes of Judas, we are given an opportunity to see the more human side of Jesus as a human being who had conflicts and issues that he was dealing with,” she continues. “And because he was a revolutionary figure without his zealous focus he would not have had the impact he did in the political climate that all of these characters were existing in.”

“I grew up Catholic and heard the Biblical side of this story, but it wasn’t until I was older that I learned what Jesus accomplished from a political viewpoint. This is the story of Jesus told from somebody without the benefit of hindsight, who feels he’s a pawn in the plan of God. A lot of people find this controversial, but I think we only find it so because we now have that benefit of hindsight.”

Ray’mond Fields concurs with this assessment when asked what he feels distinguishes this play and also engages him as an actor when approaching his portrayal of Jesus Christ.   “I am familiar with the gospel, but to prepare for this role I actually went back and read all of them because I wanted to bring more definition to the role,” he reflects. “After I read the gospel I had a better understanding historically of what was happening, so with that perspective I would look at Judas’ side to better flesh out how Jesus was perceived.”

“Through another human eye we see the human side of Jesus rather than the spiritual side,” he continues. “Judas views Jesus as becoming a superstar with actions contrary to what he is saying so becomes angry, yet from Jesus’ perspective it’s a question of belief and a lot of frustration because of this disbelief, while still retaining and having that spiritual side when dealing with the other disciples.  But this is how I got into the role - I started by reading the Gospel first.  I also look at how Jesus felt from a spiritual side and what his response would be from the human side.”

“I feel the core of the conflict between Jesus and Judas was basically Jesus being what he said he was, but Judas not seeing this because he was looking at Jesus through his human eye. Similar to today, we don’t see Jesus but can still feel him, whereas Judas was looking at Jesus flesh-to-flesh, viewing him as not doing what he was saying when in fact he actually was.”

Given this dynamic of character conflict and the sensationalism of Jesus becoming a ‘superstar’ that gives Judas a premonition of how this will all lead to his crucifixion, and with Mary Magdalen 100% on Jesus’ side, Emily Anderson says another pivotal goal she is striving to achieve with this production is to portray how Jesus, Mary, and all of his disciples were in essence very committed people with broad social and racial backgrounds who truly were a group of people who had been marginalized by society.

“I wanted to take a modern look at Jesus Christ Superstar not only to keep it fresher, but also do a translation that embraces marginalized groups, which feeds in well thematically,” she explains. “This is why I’ve also cast a female, Erica Tatum, in the role of Judas. Erica is playing this role as a punk-rock minimalist type who is at one with Jesus’ mission, but who feels he’s going to die going down this path, as any of us in that position would try to tell someone to cool down a little bit. Erica has a gorgeous voice and auditioned with Led Zeppelin’s Immigrant Song, and is an amazing joy to work with. Having a woman portray this character also gives it a little bit of oomph to the relationship between Jesus and Mary, presenting an interesting dichotomy between the two women.”

“Mainly, I feel that doing a translation that embraces marginalized groups feeds in well with the theme of this play and also mirrors the country over the past year. Moving forward I don’t think anybody wants to see the same production they saw back in 1970, so feel it’s important to make it relevant for current times,” she notes.

When asked the most difficult component involved with portraying Jesus, Ray’mond points to the fact this is the first time he’s ever been a principle character in a play. “I’ve been in many plays before, but usually in ensemble roles, he reflects. “This is my first lead role and It’s interesting and fun and I’m learning a lot. I’m trying to focus on how Jesus would approach various situations and constantly ask myself that every day. Would he put up his arm?  How would Jesus get angry?  How would he deal with this situation while also showing love and compassion?  There’s definitely a lot of emotion to blend.”

Emily is highly enthusiastic about being able to cast Ray’mond in this role. “He has a wonderful voice and grew up as a singer and only recently has done theatre, having taken a break for 10 years before going back to school for music and theatre,” she explains. “He brings a fresh air to the process and is a delightful human being and very hard worker. It’s nice in the sense he doesn’t have a ton of experience on stage, which gives him a fresh perspective. He’s not jaded and brings that element of fresh eyes to the role; plus, he is incredibly easy to direct. Anything I tell him to do he immediately does, so it’s rewarding for me to see him grow during the course of our rehearsal process.”

When asked what her biggest challenge as a director has been bringing Jesus Christ Superstar to the stage, Emily references both the dealing with the Pandemic and also the Midland floods of 2020. “Originally this was scheduled to run in May, but we had to postpone it until August because of covid,” she reflects. “There was a lot of damage done at the Center from the flooding, so while they’re still getting the building back up and running we are staging this production outdoors, which adds a few challenges  especially in terms of lighting effects that ambient light doesn’t allow, so we’re going for that outdoor rock-and-roll show feel in terms of the lighting.”

“We are also very lucky to have Dr. Brandon Wattles as our Musical Director,” notes Emily. “He teaches the choral program at Wayne State University and his father is a renowned Jazz and Gospel pianist from Detroit. He has brought so many skills to this production and understands what we’re trying to do with the show. He’s been great with tweaking the sound of the show so people from the 1970s recognize it, but he’s also translating the songs in such a way so it has a more modern feel to it. He’s a brilliant musician and will be leading a six-piece band.”

“We’re also fortunate to have Eric Bourne as our choreographer. He’s been on tour with Movin’ Out and danced on Broadway in Fiddler on the Roof and I have known him since I was a teenager. He came back to Midland during the Pandemic and I reached out to him and he gladly accepted, saying that he wanted to give back to the community that put him on his current career track. He loves the Center and his choreography is beautiful and we are fortunate to have him.”

Finally, when asked about the lexicon of contemporary American theatre and what she feels truly distinguishes Jesus Christ Superstar, Emily points to its stature in terms of breaking the molds of tradition. “Over the course of the decades there have been many innovative musicals such as Rent and Hamilton that change the course of theatre; but without Jesus Christ Superstar there would be neither of these productions because of the way it used contemporary music to tell a story.  It truly was groundbreaking in that way and because of that for me it resonates the most.”

Midland Center for the Arts production of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ will run from August 20-22 and 27-29th.  Tickets are available by going to Showtime is 8:00 PM and tickets are $32.50 for adults and $22.50 for students.


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