NEW YORK CITY Broadway is always alight, but it seems to be glowing with particular brightness right now, due to a dynamite show which has transferred from the Stratford Shakespeare Festival to the Great White Way.
''Jesus Christ Superstar'' was the most difficult ticket to get at Stratford in the 2011 season. Since it closed last fall, the production has continued on to the La Jolla Playhouse, near San Diego, Calif., where it has once again become the most difficult ticket to obtain from their popular season of performances.
Last month, the show opened at the Neil Simon Theater on Broadway, and it's been called by many reviewers and experts of all kind the best musical show in New York City. Not long ago, the show was nominated for two Tony Awards, the Broadway equivalent of an Academy Award, and the same week, it received two Drama Desk Awards as well.
Bruce Dow, center and the company of “Jesus Christ Superstar.”
I was in New York last weekend, to see the absolutely wonderful opera which Jay Lesenger, Chautauqua Opera's artistic director, staged at the Manhattan School of Music. While I was there, I managed to see the new production of ''Superstar,'' and also to spend some time with Bruce Dow. If you've been attending performances at Stratford over the past decade or so, you're used to watching Dow step out in a performance which is going wonderfully well and make it suddenly shine even brighter.
I'll tell you about my conversation with him soon enough, but first let me tell you about the production.
I wouldn't be truthful if I said that ''Jesus Christ Superstar'' has always been one of my favorite shows.
It was written by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the same composer as ''The Phantom of the Opera,'' ''Evita,'' ''CATS,'' ''Joseph and His Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,'' and many more such major hits, all of which I've liked better. I've seen nearly 20 different productions of it, from tip-top professional companies to a Hollywood movie, actually filmed in the Holy Land, to nice folks having a go at it in a community theater.
I've usually rather enjoyed it, but even with the very top companies, I've had two problems. First of all, since the music is virtually all rock 'n' roll, in the past it has always been amplified to the point of nearly causing my ears to bleed from excessive loudness.
Second, and much more important, the show has typically been presented as a series of relatively unrelated, appealing and familiar songs. It tells the story of the last two weeks of Jesus' life, but any suggestion that what they're singing about now has much of anything to do with what they were singing about a few minutes ago, has been treated as mildly amusing, but unimportant.
And then, along came Des McAnuff. He is presently in his final year as artistic director of the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, preparing to move on to new and bigger things. Among his accomplishments have been the filming of Stratford productions of ''Caesar and Cleopatra'' and ''The Tempest,'' so the wonder which is Stratford could be seen all across the continent. Also, there was the staging of a little Juke Box Musical show called ''Jersey Boys,'' which tells the story of a rock group called The Four Seasons and their career of singing those soaring early rock songs with Frankie Valli's high, high wailing, carrying them along through the music.
I can't resist interrupting my own train of thought to share the fact that while ''Superstar'' is packing in audiences eight times per week, ''Jersey Boys'' is doing the same thing at a theater directly across 52nd Street from the show's new home. They're calling the street ''McAnuff Way'' right now, and they're not completely kidding.
The director had a two-fold solution to ''Superstar's'' traditional problems. First, he hired a sound designer named Steve Canyon Kennedy, who understood the difference between ''loud'' and ''grating, distorted and abusive to the ear.'' Kennedy has been nominated for one of the show's Drama Desk Awards for Best Sound Design, and he deserves it.
Second, he started rehearsals by putting his cast through what he called ''a master's degree program'' in ''Jesus Christ Superstar.'' For days, the company just studied the history of the period; the religious aspects of the story; the personal histories of the people who appear in the story; the economic, meteorological, racial, sociological and every other aspect he could think of.
They discussed why lyricist Tim Rice chose a particular word, why Lloyd Webber's music crescendos on one idea instead of another one, and so on, until everyone felt he completely understood what was happening.
Then, when they began singing the songs, they made sense to everyone. Ideas flowed from one into the next and turned an appealing concert into a powerfully moving play.
By far the most important of these new awakenings is the humorous song, lasting less than three minutes in the second act, which is sung by Herod, the local Jewish leader to whom Jesus was sent for trial by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. The Gospels suggest that Pilate was hoping that the problem of Jesus would just go away, or at least that Herod would get the blame for condemning him to be crucified.
The song is a little ragtime number which is usually danced as a bit of a Charleston, by an effeminate, decadent ruler, to take advantage of the song's light-hearted melody and the fact that its words mock Jesus, which is exactly what the Bible says happened. Herod sings ''Prove to me that you're divine. Change my water into wine.''
Again and again, I've seen that scene make the audience roar with laughter, all the while destroying the sense of horror at Christ's arrest and the cruelty and indignity of his treatment, which had been carefully built up by the show and its music. When Dow appeared on the stage in his ill-fitting robe, with the crown of golden leaves which we have learned to associate with Roman rulers, and eyes so rimmed in red one might have thought he was a long over-the-hill rock star himself, it was frightening.
Here was a clearly unbalanced person who was capable of doing something very dangerous. Dow would report, that in his days of study, before rehearsals began, he had learned that Herod was an angry, bitter man whose father had been King of Israel, while the Romans had given him the far less important title of Tetrarch, rather than king. Why should people call Jesus the King and wave their palm branches at him, when Herod, who was the heir, couldn't get any attention at all?
Throughout his song, although it's still funny, it leaves a feeling in the pit of the audience member's stomach that at any moment, this person could stop being funny and do something hideous.
Because of that, Christ's subsequent whipping and crucifixion strike the viewer as vastly more horrible and brutal than in any other production of the scene I've seen, short of the Mel Gibson over-reaction of a few years back.
Canadian Paul Nolan plays the title role. He isn't the pretty boy of so many portraits, nor the too-old rocker as Jesus has been portrayed so often. Nolan sings well and gives Christ both the personal magnetism needed for the role, and yet a sense of reserve and almost self-doubt which would reinforce the Bible's words that Jesus was tempted in every way as we are tempted, though he didn't sin, suggesting that self-doubt which keeps so many people from rising to their full potential, may have been one of those temptations.
The character of Mary Magdalene has two songs which were on the pop charts for many months in the 1970s: ''Everything's All Right,'' and ''I Don't Know How to Love Him.'' The original actress, Yvonne Elliman, sang the songs beautifully, but with a laid-back coolness that seemed as though they didn't matter to her, all that much.
Pretty Chilina Kennedy is more aggressive. She often steps actively between Jesus and his disciples, especially Judas, and she creates a rivalry which contributes to the betrayal of Jesus by his former follower. She sings well, and acts very well.
Handsome Josh Young was also nominated for a Tony, for best supporting actor in a musical, for the role of Judas, although I didn't get to see his performance, as he was suffering from a bit of a bug of some kind which forced him to miss several performances.
His understudy was Jeremy Kushnier, who has been playing a relatively small role as one of the priests of the Temple, although he has a list of leading roles in shows on his resume which is truly impressive, including ''Footloose,'' ''Jersey Boys,'' ''Rent,'' ''Aida,'' ''The Full Monty'' and many more.
His singing and dancing were dynamic and moving, and he was a driving force in the show's success. It was by no means a second-choice performance.
If you're in New York, and you're prepared to spend the back-breaking sums required to see a Broadway show, I can recommend this revival of ''Jesus Christ Superstar,'' with more enthusiasm than I would have had for the original production.
Bruce Dow has been attracting my attention to shows at Stratford for many years, so when I asked if I could interview one of the actors who had been with the show from the beginning, I was thrilled when they suggested his name.
I met him on a sunny, but very cold Saturday afternoon, at the stage door of the Neil Simon Theater. He had just brought himself on a very long subway ride up from the more southern end of Manhattan, prepared to go through his Herod routine twice in the same day. Other cast members who arriving to get into costume are disappointed that he doesn't have the long, glittery fingernails which he usually keeps under black, leather gloves when not in costume.
''Believe me, two minutes and 50 seconds as Herod is more work than I've ever done in another production in my whole career,'' he assured me?
He suggests that he hasn't eaten anything that day, and perhaps we could talk with fewer interruptions if we adjourned to a small diner around the corner, and he could eat at the same time.
This production is his fourth time on Broadway, including a Lincoln Center production of ''Anything Goes,'' with the great Patti Lupone. He says that the new show has an open-ended run, which means that as long as it continues selling a great many tickets, it will continue to be performed. That means he won't be on any of Stratford's four stages in 2012, and neither will any of the other musical artists in it.
Dow said that there are relatively few changes in this production, from the Stratford days. ''The stage in New York is eight feet shorter than the stage at Stratford's Avon Theater, which means that the dancing and the business need to be tightened up. That's the biggest change,'' he said.
The principal cast members are all the same, except Brent Carver, who played Pilate in Stratford, but who chose not to continue to Broadway. Tom Hewitt plays the role in his stead.
One change from the original production resulted in the performance being shut down for several minutes, the previous evening, when I had been watching. ''There's a structure which looks like a big diving board. When Jesus is crucified, he rises from the stage on his cross, and comes out over the audience's heads, to about the fifth row.
''Last night, a member of the crew was supposed to remove a black curtain before the diving board began moving up and outward, and he forgot, so it couldn't move. The mechanics were such that it couldn't just be backed up, it had to go through its entire electronic path, so they had to do the crucifixion without the rising.'' he explained. ''The guy felt horrible, and face it, we all make mistakes.''
New York has glamour, obviously, he said. La Jolla had wonderful weather and the sea and the cast were housed in attractive small apartments. Stratford? ''Stratford is a little piece of heaven. It's kind of like a big family, and if you go back frequently, it's sort of like being back in college, where you get to live with your friends and do the things which interest you most.''
He guessed that an audience member who went to the show in Stratford then came to see it in New York probably wouldn't notice any difference.
Surely there are disadvantages to New York? He said in New York, space is in huge demand, and everyone and everything is crowded. Even as lead figures on the Broadway stage, the three principals in the cast plus eight women company members have to share two toilets and a single shower. They have to find places to live for themselves, which could be quite far from the theater, and often very small and inconvenient, and while they enjoy meeting fans at the stage door and signing autographs and the like, it tends to happen just after they have given all their energy to a performance and they're tired and their head aches from taking off the wigs, making them do it at the worst possible time.