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Interview conducted by Andrew J. Simpson. Special thanks to Maggi Wunschl, Eric’s webmaster, for setting up this interview!
(NOTE: Simpson was lucky enough to befriend Barry Dennen, and privileged to meet Dennen, Danny Zolli (filling in for Carl Anderson), and Kunze in person backstage when the McCoy/Rigby tour of JCS passed through Ontario in 2003. This interview was conducted in early May 2012, following a performance of Do You Hear the People Sing, a celebration of the music of Boublil and Schonberg consisting largely of selections from Les Mis and Miss Saigon, featuring Kunze, Lea Salonga and Terrence Mann. Reference is made to the 2012 Broadway revival of JCS; at the time, its Tony Awards appearance and closure had not yet occurred.)
A. I first heard of it… I can’t remember how old I was but I was a young boy. My family used to watch the movie around Easter time. So, I grew up with Ted Neeley singing it in my head. We weren’t a theatrical family. We didn’t go to a lot of shows. I grew up on the beach — being from San Diego. But that music was in our living room quite a bit. So, that was my introduction to musical theater.
Q. And since then you’ve played the role of Jesus so many times all over the country, both regionally and on tour. Does it ever get boring for you?
A. No. Not at all. I think I credit that to the material. I love it. It’s challenging, but not overwhelmingly taxing on you. It’s challenging, but when you hear the first chord of the show, you just go, you know? No matter how tired or sick you might be on any night, you just go out and do it.
Q. While we’re on the subject, what’s the most challenging part of playing Jesus of Nazareth?
A. That’s a very hard question! I don’t really know what the answer is. I mean it’s… Jesus, you know? It can be a very taxing role vocally, if you’re under the weather. But if you’re healthy and ready to go, it’s probably the most fun show you can do. It’s just so fun to do.
Q. What’s your favorite song from the show?
A. (Pauses in thought, then starts to sing) “I think you’ve made your point now…” “Could We Start Again, Please” is my favorite. It’s a great song. It’s underrated. It’s sort of the alternative to “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.”
Q. Your thoughts on this — why do you think JCS is still relevant and presented today?
A. I think it’s because it’s the greatest story ever told. I think that’s it, really. It’s the story, then the music and the lyrics. You know, even if there’s a bad production of it, you can still get some good out of it. (Laughs) It’s sort of like pizza in a way.
Q. Have you been influenced by the performances of previous actors, or do you generally try more to make the role your own?
A. Oh, I stole a lot of things from Ted Neeley. (Laughs) And I told him that when I met him on tour when we were in Nashville, I think it was. He came to see us for a day or two. Wonderful man, as everyone who has met him knows. When you hear something like that when you’re young and impressionable, you tend to imitate that or borrow things. The first time I did the role, I think I was 25 and in St. Louis. I was worried about the short rehearsal process. So, learning the music, I just imitated what I remembered hearing. Eventually, I would make things my own. It has since grown and evolved. But that was my base. I think I still use some phrasing and inflections based on him. Why not?
Q. Wonderful that you brought up the St. Louis production. As Barry Dennen told us in a previous interview, he actually directed you in that production. What was it like working with him as a director?
A. As a director, he had a very special perspective. (Laughs) Not just as a director or just a director, but the history he has with the piece, not to mention the great stories he would share with you. So, we had the benefit of a director with a personal history with the piece, rather than a director who had to go and research everything. I remember one thing: We were rehearsing in these outdoor pavilions. And we were rehearsing, and I’m doing this song, and a thunderstorm started up! And leaves were blowing everywhere, and I thought that was cool. But he’s a wonderful man to work with. Later on, as you know, I got to actually share the stage with him. Now, he didn’t play Pilate to my Jesus. Of course, he had played that part on stage, but that’s another story.
Q. Of course, you also starred in a national tour of the show from 2003-05 that is very familiar to JCS fans all over the U.S. and Canada. You must have been very surprised to get called in to replace the name draw on the revival tour. Were you informed of any of the circumstances, and if so, can you share what you heard with us here?
A. Yeah. I had a history with those producers. I had actually gone and auditioned for it, so they knew me and I was very lucky. I was also a temporary replacement until they got another “name” person in the role. Eventually, it turned into me keeping the role. They liked what I was doing. About the circumstances… no, I didn’t know a lot about what was going on. Things happened so fast. I think I had only a few days to get packed and ready to go. I had four days of rehearsal. I flew into Baltimore for a few days of rehearsal, then I opened in Boston. You know, I know the show so well that it was just a matter of learning the blocking, and a lot of it is — with Jesus — you just stand around, and the apostles are around you, and they just kind of move you around. (Laughs)
Q. How structured was the tour? Some reports have it that Really Useful was very strict about how the show should be performed.
A. I learned it the original way, I guess, so I really didn’t stray too much from that. That show had a few different things that were specifically written for that — you know, the ending of “Gethsemane” is different; there are a few other things that were, quote, “updated,” but those were done when the New York show went out. The whole thing where it drops down in “Gethsemane,” that was a change our musical director made in the tour, you know, the part where Jesus goes: (Sings, in Balsamo style) “Alright…! I’ll die…!” The little drop out was made on that tour.
Q. You worked with a line of extremely talented people on that tour. Can you give us some of your impressions of your fellow cast members, with special attention, of course, paid to Carl Anderson, Barry Dennen, and Danny Zolli?
A. Danny and I worked together a couple of times before that. We’d done Superstar twice before this one, so we were so excited to see each other again. I was excited to hear him sing Judas again. That was cool! And, of course, Carl — going eye-to-eye with him… it still doesn’t seem real to me. Looking into his eyes every night was a big thrill. You know, being a fan of the movie, it was like, “Did I really do that?” (Laughs) He was just a wonderful man and actor. He really raised the bar on the show. Also, Lawrence Clayton was great when he came in. We’d also done the show together before. We had a nickname — a sort of inside thing — for the tour. We called it the Love Tour. It was one of those things with that group of people… especially on the road, so much drama can happen. But here it was a very loving group of people. It was a very special time.
Q. Now you had the advantage of working with three very different men as Judas. Playing against Danny, Lawrence, or Carl, did your approach to the role of Jesus ever change?
A. The way the show is written, the roles of Judas, Mary, and Jesus are pretty well set, but all three were very different in how they played the role. That’s the great thing about acting is that you get to work off of what gets thrown at you and that’s fun. Natalie Toro was Mary throughout the tour. Carl was very… fatherly to us, I suppose you could say. He was like our “papa” on the tour, you know? And there was the little spitfire, Danny Zolli. So yeah, it definitely was an effective group of people to work with.
Q. Of course, the tour had its dark days as well. Do you remember where you were when you got the news that Carl had passed away?
A. Yeah, we were in Seattle. I believe he was doing less and less shows each week. It was a tough loss. We were his last cast. He was very proud of that show. I’m sure he was that way in the others he did, but he was open arms with us, and well-being, and wonderful.
Q. At the risk of asking a very loaded question, which productions did you enjoy more — regional or the tour? Did you feel you had more freedom in one than in the other?
A. Wow! That is a loaded question. I think the last one I did — the Love Tour — would be my favorite. That group of people! Amazing.
Q. Speaking of tours, on an off-topic note, you worked on the U.S. tour of Whistle Down the Wind. One of our moderators wants to know, did Jim Steinman ever show up? If so, did you meet him and can you tell us what that was like?
A. Oh yes. Yes. He came to Hartford and let us know he was out there, so that was exciting. He also came backstage. I had no idea what to expect. He looked like your typical artist slash rock star. Very eccentric and cool. He said that he enjoyed the show, you know, the whole “good job” stuff.
Q. Well, that about wraps it up. Thank you for talking to us.
A. Thank you, Andy. It was my pleasure. It was good to see you again! Thanks for coming to the show last night, and I look forward to talking to you again. I look forward to seeing this on the website, too. I have to say, honestly, I haven’t thought about the show for years now, so this is kind of a cool trip back. I hope to do it again at some point. As you know, the rights are tied up with Broadway.
Q. Have you seen the Broadway revival?
A. No. I was in New York recently, but I went to see Porgy and Bess. If it’s there throughout the summer, I’ll definitely go and see it.
Q. You know, it’s funny you mention the rights being tied up. I recently came very close to directing a concert version of JCS in my hometown with the Mississippi MUDDS [a local theater troupe], but I couldn’t find a producer, so I had to pull the plug.
A. Well Andy, there’s still lots of time in your life. You’ll do it.
Q. Well, when I do, I’ll be sure to invite some of the wonderful people whom I’ve met through the show to come and see my production of it — you know, as a “thank you.”
A. Yes, that would be cool. Keep me posted!