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Interview conducted by Andrew J. Simpson.
A. I was traveling in Spain in 2004 and I was hiking. When I was able to check my email, you know, as easily as I could, I found out that a director I had worked with before was doing Jesus Christ Superstar. He wanted me to audition. First of all, I’d never heard the music, and I’d never seen the show before this email, but for some reason, I felt like, “I’m going to do that.” It felt really right. I know that may sound “oogly boogly,” but it felt right. So I got back to Canada and I listened to the [concept] album. I went to HMV and got it. This was before MP3s and iPods were so huge, you know, hitting the market and all that. I’m a little behind in technology. (Laughs) I still remember listening to a mini-disc player that my friend had brought on that trip to Spain. So, I went to HMV to listen to the music (iTunes did not exist yet). I just felt an immediate… understanding of the piece. I can’t explain why; it just felt true, if you will. And I went in and auditioned, and I got cast. So that’s a long way of telling you my first connection to the show and how I’d heard about it.
Q. On that note, what’s your favorite song from the score?
A. Oh… God! (Laughs) I love “Heaven on Their Minds.” I think it’s a great song. That opening riff! I read an article that was criticizing criticisms of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s music from other composers. The article stated that none of the composers would have been truthful if they didn’t admit that they wished they’d written the opening riff of Jesus Christ Superstar, you know, the “Heaven on Their Minds” riff. (Sings a couple of bars of the riff) It’s just so exciting! There’s nothing in the show that I don’t like. I love the show, but that song’s pretty awesome.
Q. Your thoughts on this — 40 years on, why is JCS still performed and relevant?
A. That’s what’s so amazing, isn’t it? I mean, the music is awesome. It’s not old or dated! It’s amazing to me that it’s survived! I know the young people that I talk to after shows find the music cool and hip. Part of it could be that music has spread so widely. It’s so diverse now. You have so many different genres bleeding over into others. Story wise, it is a story about love, humanness, and (to me) it’s a story about what it is to be a human being. That’s why I think it translates to here and now. It will always translate. It’s about a person struggling with understanding of his life. It’s also about people around him whom he is serving and serving him.
Q. What are your views of Jesus, first the real figure himself, and then the character you play?
A. When I’m given a part to act and a play to be in, I have a responsibility to what’s in front of me. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice have taken poetic license and interpretive license in how they want to tell the story of Jesus Christ. That is what we have to begin with. I look at that and try to fit in to that story they’re telling. Not “how do I tell the story of the Bible” or “how do I tell the story of such and such doctrine” you have on Jesus Christ. What I do is tell Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version of this story. So, you start with the material that’s there. You start with what, intuitively and intrinsically, they are doing. You get that through lyrics, you get it through the quality of music, the order in which they tell the story… you start with that. Sometimes you have to bring in a lot of your own imagination to help fill it up for you, emotionally or spiritually. Without getting into how much I feel about it… you can turn to the Bible and history and ask, “Where is that Temple theme coming from?” So you fill yourself up with the knowledge, with what the Bible says about the Temple scene and what other historians say about it. I think art is about imagination, so whatever can inspire your imagination and your emotional life the most is what’s important. Essentially, we cannot change the lines on the page and we can’t change the notes on the staff. We can only serve the director’s vision of the writer’s work. Personal agendas aside, we don’t have any power over the material, nor should we.
I don’t often feel like I know something, like theater or a piece of art, intuitively. Once in a while, there comes a play which I will see or read that I feel I understand, and this was one of those shows. And it was one of those parts that, for some reason, I felt I knew how to do it. I know it’s not an accurate way to say it, but there is no wrong way to play Jesus Christ. There’s no right way to act it or sing it. It has to be truthful to the actor and singer. The part could be interpreted by a different actor than how I’m portraying him. It’s like Hamlet. Brent Carver playing Hamlet is going to be far different than Paul Gross or Christopher Plummer playing the role. An actor is kind of the paint brush and the color that the director paints with. That’s what’s really interesting about theatre. The next time you see Jesus Christ Superstar, it’s going to be another incredible experience, because it’ll be different actors playing Judas, Jesus, Mary, and so on. But there is no right way to do it. This may be getting away from what you’re asking, but I use what’s on the page, and I bring my own experience, my passion, and heart to the piece that I can. That’s the only way I can serve it.
Q. It kind of did get away from what I was asking, so I’m going to skip ahead and see if I can get the answer with another question: What do you want the audience to “get” from your portrayal?
A. Well, I’m not sure I can say. I know exactly how I feel about the show. I believe that Rice and Lloyd Webber hit it in the first verse of the show: “If you strip away the myth from the man…” They were obviously, to me, exploring Jesus as a man, not as a god or demigod. They were exploring an enlightened person who, at that time or in this story, had a much closer relationship with God than anyone else on earth, but he was still a man, living life on earth as a man. That is very important to me as a person. I don’t see him as a god on earth who didn’t fear and didn’t doubt. I would be fighting the material if I played Jesus as a doubtless and a fearless person. Personally, I feel that’s the most wonderful thing about the story, that he’s a human being who loves humankind so much that even though he is in agony in the garden, afraid of the pain, and the threat of the hate against him, and his friends turning away from him, his friends denying him and betraying him, he fears all of that, and yet he does it anyway, not knowing for sure whether it will work. That, to me, is what they were going for. There are believers, I’m sure, out there who are uncomfortable with the show… not so much our show, but the show itself. There are those who believe that he did know. But I think I would be fighting the material. It’d be like me playing Tony in West Side Story as a closet homosexual. Maybe that’s… you know, but the story of West Side Story is about the passionate love between Tony and Maria. It’s right up in front of your face and it’s real. Essentially, Jesus’ humanness is what interests me.
Q. Were you inspired by anyone else who played the role of Jesus Christ?
A. Absolutely! With all due respect to every recording out there, and there are some great ones, I turn to the concept album. It has something that none of the other albums have, and something that we will never be able to capture — its naivete and its rawness, and I mean that in a positive sense. It’s just so true. It is not trying to be anything but what it is. You got a lot of really raw artists on that record. Gillan is magnificent! He hasn’t got a polished voice like Ted Neeley does; as raw as Neeley’s is, it’s a bit more polished, but that’s probably due to the way they recorded it, too. What I love about that album is how much it feels like the time period, then you go to the film recording and it’s a much more polished sound. It’s still great. I steal all kinds of things from Ted Neeley. Those two albums are the ones that influence me the most. When I’m prepping for it, to get other ideas, I will listen to others. When you’re doing the show as much as eight times a week, you can’t think that all singers sing the role like on those two albums, so you’re looking for alternatives that won’t rob the story of its impact, but will also be exciting to listen to, and what is true to the origin of the show as possible. I think Josh and I are singing the show like the recording, but you do need some other ideas in your back pocket if you’re tired. I love what Gillan did, the rawness of it, and I try to bring that to it as much as I can. My endeavor has been to make it sound like theatre and less like a rock album. If we were recording a rock album, it’d be much easier to do that, because we’d have take after take. It’s a different approach to singing and acting.
Q. What’s the hardest scene for you to play or watch, and why?
A. Oh God, it changes! Every show is a struggle, and that’s true of any show I’ve been a part of. I believe my job is to be alive onstage in front of an audience, to be in my body and in the experience of that character and the story of his actions in as truthful a way as possible. It is always a mirage that you are chasing, and that’s why being an actor is hard. We don’t just connect thoughts. We attempt to transcend into a spiritual place in front of you, the audience. We bring as much heart into it as possible. There are also the physical elements to being an actor and singer as well, but we are painting by numbers every time we step onto that deck. We try to find out more about ourselves and our characters in that story. That’s amazing, and it’s also very difficult. It’s tiring. What wouldn’t be tiring is if we stepped out, did our lines, and didn’t change, you know, if it didn’t cost us anything, it would be a much easier job. (Laughs) But it does cost, and it’s worth that cost. I have to say, though, every show is different. Going out for Act Two is very scary. That makes sense because, in the story of Jesus Christ, he’s about to go out… and leave! So it varies from night to night.
Q. Tell me about the Crucifixion/diving board sequence. Are we supposed to hear Jesus during the sermon?
A: That’s a good question, because some people thought the sound was going. You’re not supposed to hear or understand word-for-word what I’m saying. You’re only supposed to get the impression of a sermon. The first and foremost vocal should be Judas’, and maybe that’s why it’s mildly confusing. You hear Jesus, but you don’t hear him well enough to hear him. It is me preaching, but you’re not supposed to totally understand what I’m saying there. About the crucifixion… I don’t want to ruin it for anyone who hasn’t seen the show. All I can really say is, I’m standing on a very small platform, and yes, I’m safe.
Q. Are you quoting a sermon during that scene?
A. That’s my secret. (Laughs)
Q. Now, and this is a fact you alluded to in your answer to the first question, this is not your first production of JCS. What can you tell me about the other shows?
A. I’ve played the role of Jesus in JCS twice before. I did it once in Orillia, Ontario. It was kind of a magical experience. It was very low budget, so we didn’t have the bells and whistles that we have here in Stratford, we didn’t have the sound or lighting support that we have here, but we had plenty of heart in it, and that, to me, is what makes good theater: heart. I can tell you that the reception we got from the audience was great. People had an experience watching it back then, an experience that they didn’t expect at the Sunshine Festival. People still talk to me about that! I think it had to do with everything and everyone involved with that production. The second production was in Calgary, Alberta, at Stage West in 2006. It was great, because I didn’t think that I had finished exploring the show, so it gave me an opportunity to continue with the character. It was a longer run than the first time I did the show. It was a different theatre, much different production. Still, it was a satisfying experience.
Q. And of course, the obvious corollary: How does playing Jesus in this production compare to the other two productions of which you have been a part?
A. First of all, I’ve had more time to explore alternative possibilities of what I might do onstage, so I’ve had more time to practice, in a way. I try to push the limits on where he goes psychologically, emotionally, and physically. That’s the big difference. Ultimately, the show is a rock concert. You’re working with the best people in the world, not just the other actors onstage, but everyone involved: Brent Carver as Pilate, Josh Young as Judas, and Chilina as Mary, and so on. This is a magnificent company, not to speak of sound designers, costumes, lighting, I mean these people are the best in the world! I’ve got a cast of incredibly supportive people, and they’re supporting me, and I them. It’s all a recipe for a great show. Using The Grapes of Wrath as an example, I mean a character like Pete Hut, who has ten lines or less, that is the essence of repertory theater. Every single person on that deck is highly skilled, so even the smallest part is incredibly acted and incredibly detailed. That’s the difference between a company that’s good and one that’s great. I’m in the NHL of theater. I’m so, so lucky.
Q. And how did you come to be involved with this (apparently) magnificent Stratford company?
A. That’s a great question, and I wish you could ask Des. (Laughs) I honestly had a connection with Des on a stairwell where he asked me to do it. They hadn’t announced that they were doing the show yet, so I didn’t even know they were doing it. We ran into each other in a hallway, and he told me they were going to do JCS this year, and he’d like me to play Jesus. It was completely surprising, because I didn’t expect it. What I wondered was how he knew I could sing it. He talked to Rick Fox (musical director) and Rick said he thought that I could sing it, but I don’t even know how Rick knew that, because the part is very specific. It’s not Curley in Oklahoma!, or Tony in West Side Story. It is a very different style. Neither Des nor Rick had seen me in the two previous productions I’d done. They knew I’d done it twice. Physically, I think that there is a resemblance in the Renaissance paintings, you know, the way the body is in those paintings, so I think there’s a fit for my body in there. Obviously, I’m the wrong race, if you want to get into casting someone who is closer to the race of Jesus, but that isn’t as important as casting somebody who can actually sing it, you know, resemble the Christ that people are used to seeing.
Q. What’s it like to work with Des McAnuff?
A. It’s fascinating. Des knows things that none of us know! (Laughs) He sees differently and hears differently. It’s a no-brainer to say this, but Des has had a lot of success in his career. He takes risks in his work. Sometimes it pays off, and I’m sure sometimes it doesn’t, but I don’t think you can be great without taking great risks. He sees the stage so well and he understands how the audience needs to have a story told to them. It makes our job so much easier! I can speak specifically about JCS. He makes my job so easy, because he knows how to point focus. On top of that, he’s a lot of fun. He likes to have a good time. There was a dinner held recently in Toronto to honor Christopher Plummer. Plummer made a statement that night. He said that all of us should get down on our knees and thank him [McAnuff] for what he’s done for the Festival. He brought it back to an international spotlight. He’s taken huge risks! Everything he’s done here has been cutting edge. His productions here challenge actors and audiences alike. They stretch what “genre” can be. It’s so easy for me to speak well of him. He trusted my abilities when I didn’t. I owe Des a lot of my thanks.
Q. How did you feel when you heard the show was sold out for most of its run?
A. It was unexpected. It’s always nice to have a full theatre versus one that isn’t full. (Laughs) Not only does it create more energy for the audience watching the show, but it creates more energy for us onstage. It’s always nice to know that people are excited for the show. But it was unexpected, but very nice to hear.
Q. And among those who were excited for the show, two very important people showed up, of course. What’s it like to perform for Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice?
A. We didn’t know they were going to be there! Andrew Lloyd Webber came after we had opened, and stayed for a week and a day. I was extremely sick on opening night. I was so sick that I maybe had 20% of my voice, so it was a tough night. I had the entire next week off. I just had to rest my voice and recover. I happened to be back on the night that Andrew came back. Honestly, at intermission, I had a suspicion. I knew there was a V.I.P. there. I would never have guessed it was Andrew Lloyd Webber! But before the curtain went up for Act Two, there was applause in the audience! I thought, right at that moment, “Andrew Lloyd Webber’s here.” Who else are they going to give a huge round of applause to? I still wasn’t 100% physically, but I was so inside of myself that it didn’t matter. I trust my show and I trust myself in it, meaning, knowing he was there… wouldn’t have shaken me. I was just so into it and myself in the part. Performing in front of a V.I.P. can be scary, because you may do something that you may not like, but the best thing you can do is be present and let the material be the star. That material is the star. We are the vessels that it speaks through. So how can it be bad if we’re honest? It was a thrill! An absolute thrill! These are people you can actually worship. (Laughs) Tim Rice’s work in Chess, Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar alone is genius. The man’s a genius. And Andrew Lloyd Webber? Genius! I worship this show.
Q. Did either of them offer any notes on your performance or the production?
A. We met them briefly. No, there wasn’t time for any of that. Andrew Lloyd Webber gave me a hug. What do you say to him? It was an honor to meet him and Tim Rice.
Q. What was it like when the La Jolla transfer was announced?
A. It was great. It’s going to be different, because we’ll be doing the show eight times a week, instead of four or five shows a week here in Stratford and the other days we’re doing another show. But this time, in San Diego, we’ll be focused on just the one show.
Q. Is the entire company going?
A. The entire cast has been invited, yes. I know that two members have opted out of it to stay here and do other things. That’s fine.
Q. And then the rumors began circulating about a Chicago or Broadway transfer. Any comment on that? (NOTE: The interview was conducted a week or so before the actual transfer announcement was made public.)
A. I think they’re still trying to get us to New York, yes.
Q. That about wraps it up. Thank you for talking to us!
A. It was nice visiting with you! Thank you kindly. Looking forward to seeing you again!