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How Do You Direct the End of “Jesus Christ Superstar?”

Des McAnuff’s tackles the Broadway revival

Any director who revives Jesus Christ Superstar, the Passion-flavored rock musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, has to contend with the show’s final number, “John 19:41.” An orchestral piece that follows Jesus’ crucifixion, it’s a blank slate that demands imagination.

“If you look at the libretto, there are no suggestions for what to do there,” say Des McAnuff, who’s directing the current Broadway revival at the Neil Simon Theatre. “He dies, and you have two and a half minutes, and you have to decide what to do with those two and a half minutes. I generally love these challenges, but when the ideas aren’t coming, they can be kind of terrifying.”

McAnuff began grappling with the finale last year at Ontario’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where this production ran for several months before transferring to La Jolla Playhouse in California. (McAnuff’s in his final season as Stratford’s Artistic Director, and he previously led La Jolla, where he directed future Broadway hits like Big River and Jersey Boys.)

To shore up his concept, McAnuff began rehearsals like he usually does—by gathering his team for research and conversation. “We obviously studied the history of Jesus Christ Superstar itself, but then we also studied the Gospels and looked at secular historians and the history of Jerusalem,” he says. “We studied all of this quite carefully with the company over three days, which is twenty or twenty-one hours of class time. It was the equivalent of a graduate school class, I suppose, before we ever got on our feet.”

The director calls this an “invaluable” process: “Not only is it a chance to go over the material in great detail, but it’s also a chance to hear from the actors. You get insights that are valuable from the performers.”

Inspired by this research, McAnuff shaped his production as a “secular love triangle” among Jesus, Judas, and Mary Magdalene, meaning we follow the deep, tumultuous bonds that drive the characters to their fates. “But then there’s another layer, which I would call ‘the layer of consequences,’” he adds. “You have this very short period of time—a week—with this ragtag group of disciples following Jesus. And they managed somehow to change the world forever. And perhaps that week has had more impact on human history than any other week.

“I wanted that to be constantly in people’s minds, and I was certainly developing those ideas throughout the dramaturgical process.”

To that end, the show ripples with a sense of history. The set, for instance, is a rock-and-roll collection of metal catwalks, ladders, and rolling staircases, and there are screens hidden everywhere. Sometimes, the screens show abstract images, but sometimes, they tell us the day of the week or the location of a scene. They’re like news bulletins from the ancient past, reminding us that actual events led to a profoundly religious moment.

That perspective inspired McAnuff’s vision for “John 19:41.” The explosive music is matched by an ocean of text that flows from every screen and seems to surround the characters. It’s like watching real people turn back into history. McAnuff says, “What finally came to me—and this had to do with reading so much out of the Bible and reading aloud the Gospels—was that there’s been more written about Jesus Christ than anyone. For someone we know precious little about, that’s pretty remarkable. And people actually read what’s been written. It affects people every day.”

Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online

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1 Harvey Auger { 03.23.12 at 5:28 pm }

I think Des’ final solution is a great way to do it. Having played bass for the original Broadway road tour in the mid 70s, this was always a concern. However, I must add that we DO know more about JC than just about any other ancient figure in history because of the vast amount of writings contained in the bible that have been meticulously maintained throughout the centuries. Can’t wait to see the production.

2 Ali Sharaf { 03.23.12 at 11:22 pm }

I am very excited about seeing this production.My parents went to the original production back in the 70s they bought the cast album for me and I loved singing along with it. Was so powerful and meaningful. I only wish there were more female vocals. I always thought how cool it would be to do a female version of the show.

3 Mark Blankenship { 03.28.12 at 4:54 pm }

Hi Ali — Do you know the folk group the Indigo Girls? Along with a few friends in the Atlanta folk music scene, they recorded a version of the score with Emily Saliers singing Mary Magdalene and Amy Ray singing Jesus. It’s really interesting to hear a woman sing the Jesus role. You can buy their version on Amazon, and I’m there are probably places to hear it online. — Mark (TDF Stages editor)

4 Nancy P { 06.08.12 at 3:08 pm }

I was so taken by the ending of the performance….thought it was handled beautifully…I also saw the production in the 70′s and then a production in connecticut several years ago. I was so excited when this performance came out….I’ve seen it 4 times already and will definitely see it again. It amazed me that the new young performers sang it perfectly!….Hope there will be a soundtrack..

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