Stephen Lehew

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Interview conducted by Andrew J. Simpson.

Q. How did you hear about JCS? What were your initial reactions to the work?
A. Of course, the album, which came out in 1970, I believe. I played it until there were no grooves left on the record. (Laughs) This is what it was called back then. The first time I saw it live was a concert version with the Dallas Symphony in either ’71 or ’72. It was amazing to hear the score with that size orchestra. I can’t remember who the singers were. It was a thrilling experience, though. My first reaction to the record was just a visceral one. Even to this day, the music is good. It has great raw quality. I’m not sure whether it’s the story, but when I hear the music alone, I still get caught up in the emotion. I still feel it’s one of the best collaborations between Lloyd Webber and Rice.

Q. When was your first JCS production and what role did you play?
A. My first Superstar production was in 1988. Quite honestly, I never thought I’d be in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar because vocally I never saw myself doing that. It was a production for the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey, which is a well-known regional theater, and I was hired to play Jesus. However, I was only hired to do the matinee performances; the director of the production, Robert Johanson, was directing and playing Jesus himself, so even though he was staging and playing the title role, I got all of the rehearsals, so it wasn’t like being shot out of a cannon. (Chuckles) Well, it sort of was! It was also choreographed by a now well-known Broadway director named Susan Stroman (The ProducersContact).

As far as I’m concerned, it was a thrilling production. Visually stunning. We had a great set. It’s often thought of as Judas’ show, but in this production, Jesus was front and center with Judas. It wasn’t as if things were just happening to him. He was aware of and a part of everything, rather than being just a figure that events were happening around. That’s the way I played it. I certainly evolved [the character] over the four or five productions that I did, but that was one thing I took with me. My “Jesus” was not pale, blond, and passive. Even though there is a center and calmness to the character, there is still a very present, active side or nature.

Q. Does your approach to the character change with each performance/production?
A. In every interview I did for the 1990 tour, without fail, the first question I would get was “What’s it like playing God?” Now, fortunately, the first answer that popped into my head was the right answer, the true answer for me, and it’s the one I kept using: you can’t play God, you can only be God. But you can play a man. Even though I don’t know the creators of the work, they seemed to be focusing on the humanity of the character rather than the divinity, which, in the beginning, was what all the hoopla over it was about anyway. 

Having said that, being raised Catholic, but not practicing since I was 16, I have become more interested in the spiritual nature of human beings, metaphysically speaking. I looked at the libretto for JCS, and some things always bothered me from the beginning, and I thought, “How do you play this?” If Jesus was a man of peace, had this mission, knew what he was, and was spiritually evolved at that level, then why would he (vocally) rant and rave with Judas? Particularly in “The Last Supper” — where it lays, it [the score] sounds so angry, almost out of control.

So I found a little trick for myself, certainly for all the other productions that I did. The way I looked at it was as if we were taking the last week in the life of Christ and, dramatically, taking all the experiences in his life and condensing them into this week’s time frame. He couldn’t have gone through the Crucifixion with all that baggage! So for me, each scene was like a release, releasing something to get to that point where he could fully submit to the will of God, and that leads to the moment — or the idea — of the Resurrection, so it doesn’t just end with the death of Jesus, which is where “Gethsemane” comes in. “Gethsemane” was the biggest moment for me, because that’s the point where he gets the answer by fully releasing the ego — however, not without plenty of blood, sweat, and tears.

Q. In your performance of “Gethsemane,” you don’t sing the high G. Why?
A. Oh, I didn’t have a high G. I did have a high C, but it was a full-throated high C! Most of the people who do JCS have that natural pop/rock voice. Mine is not. I am classically trained, so my thing was to “rough up” my voice and sing it wide-open, or “full-throated.” That’s very hard on the voice, particularly if you don’t live in that range, but I found a way. I had done three productions of JCS, where “Gethsemane” never really satisfied me. It always worked, because it works, but I was never really pleased with it. It wasn’t until the fourth production that it clicked for me. And when it clicked, I felt more confident about the whole show in general. When I did the final tour, I was like a locomotive! (Laughs) 

Now, it did change. Every performance was slightly different. People who heard it on any given night may not have noticed, but I did. I was doing something different every night. You have to. When you’re in the moment, and you’re as open and as vulnerable as you need to be at that moment, it’s got to be different. But there are certain things that I would cling to as a “safety” in every performance. I remember at one point, possibly on the high C’s — once again, they were full-throated — I pressed my hands against my temples as if I was trying to get the Voice of God, “the answer,” out of… into my head. That physical gesture alone made those notes more consistent and much easier to sing, so I realized that if I let myself get to that moment [emotionally], it would be there, consistently. “Gethsemane” was a real evolution for me. The first time I did it I was, not to be too profane here, but I was scared shitless! I did it, got great applause, then I walked off the stage and thought, “What happened?” By the time I got to the tour, I knew what I was doing pretty much at all times, but leaving enough room for something new to happen. I had worked through it organically: I knew what I was singing, why I was singing, and what was happening in my head, heart, and mind.

It was a confrontation, in my mind. Jesus is saying he needed to know why. It was a real confrontation and I wasn’t afraid to do it. You asked me earlier if there were any worries about offending people and their beliefs, and perhaps certain people were offended. But at that point, I couldn’t have cared less. When the real Jesus went through his “Gethsemane,” did he have some doubts? Scripture says he asked that “this cup be taken away”… whether he would have doubted God at that point, I don’t think so. My feeling is that he didn’t doubt God, but he undoubtedly questioned God.

“Gethsemane” was very physical for me. I broke a different toe in two different productions during the number! Not once, twice! In three productions, I did the role barefoot. I didn’t do the tour barefoot because, knowing we’re in a different theater every week, it was probably best for my feet! In the 1990 tour, I also didn’t do the high E in the leper scene. By that time I learned that my full-voiced high B-flat was more exciting than my fake high E-flat. In the first production, we were rehearsing the leper scene. Now I don’t know where my voice went, but one of the guys came up to me on a break and said, “Do you know what note you just hit?” I told him high E-flat. He said, “No, it was a high G.” Now I’m thinking that’s impossible because I don’t even have a high G in my voice, but for one time, I guess that I did! (Laughs)

Q. Tell us more about the 1990 tour. How long did it run?
A. We started rehearsals in June and ran until October if I’m not mistaken. We had two split weeks in the tour, so a week in each city with two weeks split. We did about 16 cities, I think.

Q. Is it true you never missed a performance?
A. I never missed a performance. I was never sick. I take pride in that. I lived like a hermit. You can talk to anybody from that tour and they’ll tell you that I was a hermit. I had to be to do my job and do it well.

Q. Danny Zolli was your understudy. Have you seen him as Judas or Jesus?
A. No, I never saw him do it. He certainly had the chops for it. Danny was Annas for that production, and I have a feeling that he would have sung his Jesus much differently than his Annas. His characterization of Annas is something I admire him for.

Q. Have you seen JCS onstage? When?
A. I have only seen one other production of JCS and that was the Broadway revival in 2000/01. Ray Walker (he’s a friend of mine) played Annas in that production. He also had the chops. I was impressed with Ray. He also did Judas at a certain point, so he also had a history with the show. The thing that disappointed me about the revival was that I never saw strong relationships onstage. That’s the key thing. You have to see the relationships. I’m not sure if we established that on the ’90 tour. I tried for it [as Jesus], but I’m not sure if we ever got it. In other productions I have done, the cast would sit down and discuss who they were, where they came from, etc. Our director, Tony Stevens, spent quality time with me discussing these things, for which I am grateful, but as a cast, we didn’t. Maybe we were pressed for time on the tour, but I did my best to establish relationships on stage.

Q. Any plans to do JCS again? Act? Direct?
A. No, my Superstar days are long gone. I thought about it, but is it a possibility? No. I might be able to do Pilate. That’d probably be the only role I could do at this point in my life. But to be honest, I’m not sure if I could do that. I think my Superstar days are over. I had a great few years with it. I enjoyed it. I made a lot of money, got a lot of applause, and came out a better singer than I was when I went into it, quite honestly. A stronger singer, certainly. I made a bunch of friends and a couple of enemies. (Chuckles) That’s the way things go.

Q. Have you seen the films?
A. I’ve not seen the 2000 version. My recollection of the ’73 version was that it was very provocative. You had Neeley and Anderson just singing like nobody’s business. It was really exciting.

Q. Barry Dennen knows you. Have you done JCS with him?
A. Yes, that was my third production. I feel very fortunate. Every Pilate I worked with was very good. Even though there’s that frustration, confusion, rage, and anger that goes on with Pilate, Barry had a center that I could always trust. Why wouldn’t I trust him? I mean, he was the original! He knew exactly what he was doing! All I had to do was get into my “groove” and he was there. I got to know Barry personally and I enjoy him immensely.

Q. Did you ever see or work with Carl Anderson and Ted Neeley live?
A. I never saw them aside from the film version. I don’t think I’ve ever been within 1,000 miles of either of them. I certainly respect them. And Ted Neeley’s still doing it! That’s just amazing! Ted is one of those guys that have that rock/pop voice that sounds today just like it did yesterday. They never lose it! I haven’t lost my voice. I still sing — just not as high as I used to, because, with age, my voice has dropped a little bit. Maybe it was all those high C’s in Superstar(Laughs) No, that’s not true. Like I said earlier, I came out of that show singing better than ever.

Q. What are you up to now?
A. Over the past fifteen years, I’ve had a pretty steady gig. I’m the vocalist for award-winning composer Marvin Hamlisch (A Chorus LineThe Way We Were). I’ve performed with almost every major symphony pops orchestra in the country and every important venue, including Carnegie Hall, several times. I’ve sung for heads of state and royalty. It’s been a great gig. I kind of left the theater behind when the concerts took over. It was too hard to balance. Musical theater has changed. What they write now is not what I sing. I could, I suppose. I’m 57 now; although I look a bit younger and I still sing well, just deeper, darker, no one’s going to cast me as a 57-year-old and no one’s going to cast me as a 30-year-old, and they have people for those roles, anyway. I have no regrets. It’s just that I’m focusing more on the concerts and just singing.

Q. Do you have any advice for people wanting to be in JCS or theater?
A. Look at where you are. If there are any theaters in your area, start there before you move to New York or Los Angeles. I used to speak at universities and colleges about performing. I never painted a nice, beautiful picture of New York. I went and gave them the cold, hard facts. Someone once asked me if I was discouraging the students and I said, “No because the people that get discouraged won’t want to do it anyway. The ones who want to do it will do it no matter what.” They need to know that. If there’s professional, semi-professional, or even community theatre, that’s where to start and see if you get in.

To me, school was always important. I learned things about myself. I certainly learned how to work. I was very fortunate to get my first professional job at the age of 17. It was with a company that taught me how to work, and be professional. They taught me how to “suit up and show up” on time and give 100%. That’s one of the reasons why I never missed a show with JCS. Of course, at that point, I knew what it took for me to be able to do that. What it took was I had to be quiet for part of the day. I couldn’t go out and party, although I did occasionally, but not for very long. I did that not just because I take pride in what I do, but also because I was working for people. I was getting paid, I had my name above the title, so there was a responsibility there. We had a lot of young people in that cast (1990) and I saw them burn the candle at both ends and get out onstage and not do the work that they were required to do. That’s why I said earlier I made a few enemies on that tour — not real enemies, but some people didn’t like me. I didn’t care whether they liked me or not. I was there to work. We were there to present this piece and present it in the most heartfelt way that we could do it. If guys weren’t pulling their weight, I went through channels and made sure that they knew it. The same would have been done to me had I been that age. Do I sound like a hardass? (Laughs) 

That tour was not my favorite, but there were a lot of things I liked about it. Bob Frisch, who played Caiaphas, you could always depend on him. Bertilla Baker’s voice was amazing. Of course, Milton Craig Nealy was great. I remember meeting his family and I said that he should be playing Jesus because he has that spirit in him. When Patrick Jude came in, who better to do it? He took over for Milton at one point and I was thrilled, having worked with him before.

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