July 8, 2008

J.C. Superstar

By Jascoll, John

Jesus Christ Superstar has been a theatrical phenomenon for almost 40 years, with constant revivals all over the world. Surprisingly, the original show had a slow birth. During the summer of 1969, composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, both in their early 20s, wrote the title song to what they hoped would be a new album. They called it Superstar. If the single proved to be a hit, they would work on the rest of the tracks. It was, indeed, an international megahit, and the great modern rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar was born.

The album took one of the greatest stories of all time - Christ's final six days and the attendant themes of love, betrayal, suffering and death - and gave it a contemporary feel with a sensational rock music score and an equally sensational libretto full of intelligent imagery and lines taken directly from the Gospels.

But there was no official stage show until pirated theatrical versions started popping up in the United States, and the composers realized they had struck gold. Webber and Rice contracted with impresario Robert Stigwood to produce the album onstage. It premiered on Broadway in 1971 and was brought to London the following year.

Ephrata Performing Arts Center artistic director Ed Fernandez, assisted by Sean Young, will raise the curtain on a production of Jesus Christ Superstar this week. A veteran actor who's starred in more than a dozen EPAC shows, Young is making his directorial debut. Both he and Fernandez say they've had a lifelong obsession with Superstar and are determined to pass it along to their audience.

I love the primal nature of the music. It's very visceral, coming from the gut, Young said. You can intellectualize about it all you want, but at the end of the day, this show's about how the music gets into your bones and into your soul.

Fernandez thinks it's the best thing Webber ever wrote. Musically, you can't beat Superstar.' It's the pinnacle. As you listen to the flow of song after song, you realize, My God, it's perfect.'^

The directors recall the early controversy surrounding Superstar, when it was greeted with protest signs and banners. But today, Young said, it's become standard church-school fare. It may be controversial by nature, but people aren't threatened by it anymore.

Fernandez is determined not to produce a Sunday school picture book. He wants to take the audience into the heart of the passion play, which he feels is about power, rebellion and human sacrifice for the greater good of a sick society. He said there's a universality about Superstar that speaks to Christian and non- Christian alike. It's epic theater, not domestic drama.

As for costumes, Fernandez regards the story as timeless. I don't want to do sword-and-sandal and the Biblical-roles-with-long-hair. He's looking instead for a mix of classical and modern that would have relevance for all ages.

From a director's viewpoint, Young said he wants to convey that Jesus lived in a dangerous environment, without making it campy. To get that across, he feels it's important to portray the characters as real people rather than archetypes of good and evil.

Fernandez agrees and said Superstar is as much about acting as it is about singing, particularly with the three pivotal roles of Judas, Jesus and Mary Magdalene. We have to know what they're feeling and the nature of their relationship.

Each role has its own challenge. Judas is key because the show revolves around him and his questions about where Jesus is leading his disciples. Fernandez challenges the traditionally held view of Judas as the Biblical bad guy. Is Judas really the villain? He has no freedom of choice; his actions in betraying Jesus are predetermined; so why does he get damned for all time?'^

Both directors perceive Jesus to be a subversive troublemaker with a purpose. They're looking to portray an ordinary man with all the human attributes of fear, self-doubt and terror, rather than some stained-glass deity. Jesus might have been the son of God, but the Bible says He was made man, so they feel He should act like one.

As for Mary Magdalene, Fernandez said it was important to select a woman who could accurately depict what Mary was: a prostitute. We didn't want a prom queen or ing nue.

Young said the other challenge for a director is keeping control of the show's enormous cast of 50, moving them around the stage to the constant stream of music. As with the 1972 show in London, the 12-piece band will be incorporated into the set to give it a raw rock feel.

Fernandez said Superstar is a dark story he's enjoyed all his life, about pain and power with the most wonderful music. It's almost like a friend I grew up with, so I want to make sure that we do this great piece justice with the kids in the cast, by getting them inspired as we share it with the public.

Jesus Christ Superstar opens Thursday, July 10, at Ephrata Performing Arts Center in Tom Grater Memorial Park and runs through July 26. For tickets and showtimes, call 733-7966.

Credit: John Jascoll, Correspondent

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