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‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ at Lyric Opera further fuels the musical’s resurgence

Jo Lampert as Mary Magdalene and Heath Saunders as Jesus in Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of "Jesus Christ Superstar." | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018

Who would have thought the story of a first-century Jewish preacher would make for great musical theater? More to the point, great rock-infused opera?

Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice, who in 1970 turned the story of that Jewish preacher — one Jesus of Nazareth — into the seminal concept album “Jesus Christ Superstar,” followed by a stage musical and feature film.

And nearly 50 years later, the musical — once condemned by leaders of various faiths as blasphemous — is in the midst of what might be described as the theatrical Second Coming of Christ.

‘JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR’

When: April 27-May 20

Where: Lyric Opera of Chicago, 20 N. Wacker

Tickets/info: lyricopera.org

Cases in point: The marvelous all-African-American cast production staged last year at the Paramount Theatre in Aurora and the recent NBC “Live in Concert” presentation of the show starring John Legend, Brandon Victor Dixon and Sara Bareilles. Now Chicago is about to feast its eyes and ears on Lyric Opera of Chicago’s staging of the musical, in a Timothy Sheader production first presented at London’s Open Air Theatre in 2016 and remounted in 2017.

Seriously, what’s the buzz?

“When I first heard the album it was the music, not the story, not even the lyrics that had the most impact on me,” said Sheader. “When we got the rights and I looked at the libretto, I said I don’t know how to do this — there are no scenes, they don’t do any talking! The starting point for me was putting the music at the front so that it feels like we’re listening to a concept album. [The music] just makes me smile and groove. It’s cool. And music theater is rarely cool! … When the album came out it was revolutionary. It was 100 percent the ‘Hamilton’ of its day.”

Director Timothy Sheader, for the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" introduces us to what the show is all about.

That didn’t mean Sheader neglected the story’s impact when conceptualizing his staging. That staging has evolved into a massive undertaking at the Lyric, with a cast that has more than doubled from his London version.

“I would happily start this in an opera house now that we’re in an opera house,” Sheader said with a big smile. “They call it a rock opera. … So it has gotten bigger, and we’re using the house orchestra and 48 people and 37 musicians, so it’s big. It’s not the size of ‘Turandot,’ but for a musical it’s really big. … And we get the rock singers at the front. We also get the opera chorus so you get that rich, religious, classical sound clashing with the rock sound. Who’s doing that? I can’t wait.”

The “revolutionary” impact of the musical is not lost on the cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar,” some of whom come to the musical with a lifelong understanding, others who know it only from the recent NBC “Live” incarnation. The musical has had a profound impact on their lives and their approach to the characters.

Jo Lampert stars as Mary Magdalene (from left), with Ryan Shaw as Judas and Heath Saunders as Jesus in the Lyric Opera production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018
Jo Lampert stars as Mary Magdalene (from left), with Ryan Shaw as Judas and Heath Saunders as Jesus in the Lyric Opera production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018

“I have long history with the show,” said Heath Saunders, who portrays Jesus in the Lyric Opera production. “My father loves it, my mom loves it. So it was in my world [at a very young age]. In family room we had a grand piano, and behind it [were] books and books of musicals, and there was this brown-and-yellow book of vocal selections from this show. And I remember playing [them] and going, ‘What IS this?’ Piano could never do [this show] justice!”

Ryan Shaw, a Grammy-nominated R&B singer, portrays Judas. “When I first heard the album I was very aware that it was a story I was taught in church,” he said. “But most religions [early on] rejected it because of the sound, not the message. If you look at the [legendary gospel greats] Hawkins Family, they sing ‘Oh Happy Day.’ They couldn’t sing any of their music in church. The message was fine but the sound behind it was new. Sonically what they were doing was tainted.”

Starring in the role of Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea who becomes a reluctant player in the story of Christ’s final days and sentences him to death on the cross, is jazz artist/actor Cunio (familiar to Chicago audiences for roles here in “Jersey Boys” and Under the Streetlamp).

“ ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ is the first CD I ever owned. It’s the show that made me want to become a singer, the show that made me want to become an actor. I got into musical theater because I love ‘Jesus Christ Superstar,’ ” Cunio said, smiling. “I’m Roman Catholic and [you are taught] Pilate is a bad guy. [I came to believe as a child that] had there been no Pilate, Jesus wouldn’t have had to die, not realizing that if Jesus didn’t die there would be no Christianity. It’s been an interesting shift to come to see [Jesus] as a human, as a man. What was so shocking about this show when it first opened is that they dared to treat him like a man. … We’re all human, and Jesus was, too.”

The musical’s only female featured role is that of Mary Magdalene, referred to in the show as a prostitute, though the gospels make no clear mention of her profession. For actress and tUnE-yArDs tour vocalist Jo Lampert, the musical is becoming a revelation for her musically, spiritually and fundamentally.

“I had never seen [the movie], never seen a production, did not listen to the record,” Lampert said. “I know the songs from other pop culture references. In season four of ‘Transparent’ they were singing songs [from the musical]! … This really is the first rock musical. It’s something I’ve always known because it [became] this pivotal change in musical theater.

“I am not someone who has distinct or defined spirituality or faith. I love being Jewish, for example, but it’s much more cultural,” Lampert continued. “I didn’t grow up engulfed by religious practices by any means. … What you get of Mary [in the show] is that she hasn’t been [part of the story] for very long. She’s realizing that Jesus is a rock star. Jesus the biblical figure is profoundly changing her in very quick time. I’ve been a support act many times [in my career]. I’ve been a backup singer. But I’ve been profoundly changed by the people I’ve sung for. I’m so inspired by this production because it looks at the story from other angles that aren’t biblical.”

Lampert is not wigged for the role; instead her hair is fashionably buzz-cut. Lampert sees great symbolism in that.

“This show is a lot of men getting to say a lot of things loudly at a woman who does sing much softer in response to the men yelling in her face,” Lampert said with a laugh. “That’s staying very true to how the music was written. But I want to find the feminist in her. I want [her] to be at the Last Supper! Maybe that really is Mary in ‘The Last Supper’ [the painting by DaVinci]!”

Sheader sees Mary “as someone who comes into Jesus’ life and offers him peace. For three years he’s performing miracles, preaching, helping people. He’s exhausted by the time he gets to Jerusalem. Mary in this piece offers him respite. She offers him peace and quiet. She doesn’t demand; she pulls him aside and lets him rest.”

It’s that storyline that leads to the show’s biggest breakout hit, “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” performed originally by Yvonne Elliman in the Broadway and movie versions, and later covered by Helen Reddy. For Lampert and Sheader, the song is a revelation, if you really listen to how the lyrics are punctuated.

“The song isn’t about [Jesus], it’s about her,” Lampert said. “What moved me about the song was there’s a conclusion with an ellipses. There’s a journey [in the song] we can all relate to. But it’s the last three lines: ‘He scares me so. I want him so. I love him [pauses] so.’ It’s the exploration of what that last ‘so’ means. It’s not the same as the others. [It’s like she’s realizing] I love him so anything can happen now. I’m changed. I never thought I’d come to this. It’s terrifying, but here we are. And [most importantly] what’s next?”

For newcomers, “Jesus Christ Superstar” is told mostly from the perspective of Judas, the man who betrays Jesus, turning him over to his enemies for trial and ultimately his execution. The role is as complex and multilayered as the story on which it is based, for it depicts the familiar story of the last days of Jesus’ life as written in the gospels, but it digs deep into the friendship between the two men.

“When I was growing up in church [Judas] was always the bad guy,” Shaw said. “He betrayed Jesus, but growing up and maturing and reading between the lines, [I came to understand that] to betray someone means you had to be their friend. There had to be a trust there to betray a friend. Jesus is [Judas’] best friend.”

Ryan Shaw stars as Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Lyric Opera of Chicago. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018
Ryan Shaw stars as Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar” at Lyric Opera of Chicago. | © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2018

All four of the cast members agreed on one thing: The musical’s resurgence is based as much on the state of the world as it is on the music.

“The musical could not come at a better time,” said Saunders, “because of its message that there is still redemption possible.”

Said Shaw, “For Christ to be that final sacrifice, there was no sin in him [and] he had to give up his life. The one who had done nothing wrong became the ultimate sacrifice. After Sept. 11, the churches and temples in New York were packed for months. Then it fades. At this time, this [show’s] message of hope is having a resurgence. It’s the perfect time.”

Cunio added, “Part of the reason [the show] has lasted for nearly 50 years is because it’s always been the right time. There’s always been a push and pull between church and state, religion and interpretation and progressivism. When it came out in the 1970s it meant something very different than when it’s [staged] now.”

Sheader pointed out the crucifixion scene is particularly brutal so audiences could fully understand the journey Jesus took and the ultimate sacrifice he made to achieve salvation for all. It’s Jesus’ incomparable goodness, his sacrifice, the fact that he held no animosity toward Judas despite the betrayal, that Saunders said is at the core of the story.

“Whether you consider the story one of gospel truth or [just] a story of this dude, it’s telling this beautiful story of commitment to goodness in the face of violence and anger and hatred,” Saunders said. “That sort of is my hook into the show, the story, the character. There’s this guy trying his absolute best to live the life that he’s preaching. He’s saying be good to each other no matter what happens. He knows he’ll be martyred for making the case he’s making in the world he lives in, which has all sorts of implications about the world we live in today. In that space of discomfort and disquiet and revolution and unease, preaching a story of love and Goodness with a capital ‘g’ is worthwhile.”