When I heard there was “a baking Judas” in the cast of the Lyric Opera’s “Jesus Christ Superstar,” I was hooked.
In the stage musical, the apostle Judas is played by Ryan Shaw, who not only sings, acts and dances his way to audience acclaim, but also bakes his way into the hearts of his castmates. For example, he recently engaged in four hours of baking, which yielded 103 cupcakes.
“People who eat my cupcakes say they are the best cupcakes they’ve ever had in their life,” said Shaw. “I love to entertain. I love to cook. I do a lot of random things.”
On a recent Wednesday morning, Shaw walks into a Bucktown kitchen with grocery bags full of ingredients to make his famous Sunrise, Sunset Chili – named for its white and black beans. So, why no cupcakes?
“My cakes and cupcakes are from my secret recipes. [It may be] my retirement plan,” he says with a laugh so loud, the tail end drags out dramatically. It makes me want to let loose and laugh louder, too.
His laugh is frequent and whole-hearted. He’s focused, talks and moves fast. He still has eyeliner on from his performance the previous night. He’s relaxed and just exudes “realness.”
Shaw dives into preparing the dish, taking the recipe and cooking quite seriously. When asked when he started cooking, Shaw couldn’t remember, saying that with so many mouths to feed, there was no going out to eat.
Shaw grew up in Decatur, Georgia, the third of eight children in a deeply religious Pentecostal home. Growing up, the boys shared one bedroom with three sets of bunk beds.
“I grew up singing in church. Mandatory. From the age you could talk you were put in the choir. You didn’t have choice in my mom’s house until you were 18,” said Shaw. After he turned 18, Shaw said his mother told him, “You don’t have to go to my church but you have to go to somebody’s church.”
It was that strict upbringing from which he eventually “escaped,” moving to New York, the city that would ultimately prepare him for a career on the stage and as a singer. He went on to release several Grammy-nominated soul albums and to perform on Broadway as Stevie Wonder in “Motown the Musical.” He later lived in London for a year performing in the Michael Jackson-inspired “Thriller Live.”
In the Lyric Opera production, Shaw is the first to sing a solo performance in “Jesus Christ Superstar,” literally cutting off Jesus mid-sentence to perform “Heaven on Their Minds.” Just as Heath Saunders portrays a very human Jesus, Shaw expresses the agony of Judas’ infamous decision, the heartbreaking ending of a friendship. It is a deeply moving performance.
“[Judas] was human. It has to be more complex, any friendship where people change… This is not how we started out, you started out speaking in great parables, and suddenly this slight shift happens,” Shaw explains. “If I’m Judas and I’m this best friend and suddenly we go from talking about this heavenly father to you being the son of this father, that’s a different story.”
“And now you’re getting all of this fame and probably a little jealously is involved… [Jesus] knows he has to die but [Judas] thinks he is being ignored [about the impending Roman crackdown] … by the end, if I’ve done my job right you feel sympathetic for Judas.”
Reflecting on scripture and Jesus is not new territory for Shaw. He pulls from a deep well of knowledge, and for a time he felt he had to leave the church entirely behind only to return later. He recites Scripture easily, and comfortably speaks about his spirituality. He even credits his ability to sing as an answer to prayers when he was young.
Shaw’s parents came to opening night of his performance. Afterwards, his mother, who is a minister, discussed the rock opera’s spiritual content for about an hour and a half with him.
“My mom is from the school [that] if it pertains to Christ, it needs to be done exactly; there has to be an altar call, people have to be saved,” said Shaw. “This show for me is like when the Bible talks about planting a seed… this show raises the question of what do you specifically believe? For anyone to believe in something greater than themselves brings more good to the world because every religion talks about treating each other better and loving one another. To bring more goodness in the world, plants the seed. If I can affect the world that’s around me at the moment, I think that’s what it’s about.”
“Jesus Christ Superstar” is so worth seeing. I’m sorry that it’s not here for a longer run (it closes May 20). It is a thrill ride from the get-go and never lets up.
Shaw’s Sunrise and Sunset Chili was great, too, even though we forgot the tomato sauce, and used tomato paste instead. It seems his chili recipe is top-secret, too, since he did so much tasting, adding and adjusting that I’m not sure I could recreate it!
I guess it might be another part of his retirement plan, though I doubt he’ll need one.
“Jesus Christ Superstar” is playing through May 20 at the Lyric Opera House, 20 N. Wacker. For tickets, visit lyricopera.org.