With its latest musical, Jesus Christ Superstar, NBC ups the ante: not only will the cast perform live — so will the orchestra.
Almost 50 years ago, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice created a rock opera based on the final week of Jesus's life.
Little did they know it would become one of the most enduring musicals of all time.
"The thing about Jesus Christ Superstar, according to Andrew and Tim, is that it was kind of a fluke," Neil Meron says. "After the concept album came out [in 1970], people started performing it in concert. Then Andrew and Tim had the idea that it should be live on stage, and it just steamrolled."
Meron is executive producer of NBC's Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, a title he shares with Webber, Rice, Craig Zadan, Marc Platt, Ty Stiklorius, Mike Jackson, Alex Rudzinski and John Legend, who will play Jesus this Easter Sunday (April 1).
The show opened on Broadway in 1971, and a film version was released in 1973. Webber's music and Rice's lyrics — called controversial and even blasphemous by some at the time — have since inspired multiple revivals and interpretations, even at churches.
"I think it's one of the greatest scores ever written," singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles says. Slated to play Mary Magdalene, she's no stranger to live musicals, having written and starred in the current Broadway hit Waitress.
"It's so melodic and passionate, so of the time and of the moment. Right out of the gate, at the top of the score, you're in it. It's so electric and motivating. There are these soaring, beautiful melodies that are aching, but also punishing each other. It's a really intense musical. Hopefully it will play well in this medium."
Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert will be the fifth live televised musical Meron and Zadan have produced; their run started in 2013 with NBC's The Sound of Music Live!
"What's great about doing these live musicals is that each one has taken a different form," Meron says. "This is the first one that we're doing as a concert-type performance, because that's how it was originally written."
Their previous musicals used prerecorded orchestral tracks, but the orchestra will play live this time. "We're going to have to balance the live musicians and our actors in a new space we've never worked in before — an armory," he explains. "As with the others, it's about having enough rehearsal time, enough time in front of the camera."
"Our rehearsal period is quite brief," Bareilles says. "I finish my stint in Waitress and go directly into rehearsals." Fortunately, her learning curve won't be steep; she fell in love with this musical as a child. "I remember watching the scene at the Garden of Gethsemane and weeping and being moved by the music. It was so strange and beautiful to see these characters that are so mythologized — especially for a Catholic girl — humanized."
As for the Easter Sunday airdate, "It feels thoughtful and intentional," she says. "It's a day to talk about this subject matter, and hopefully we'll pay homage to this beautiful musical. I love it so much, and I'm thrilled that people who maybe don't know it are going to be exposed to it."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2018