Nearly 50 years after it was first performed, a new national tour of Jesus Christ Superstar will make its debut in Syracuse next week at the Landmark Theatre.
The iconic rock opera is the third production in recent years to choose Syracuse for its national premiere, thanks in part to a $16 million renovation at the Landmark that has brought bigger shows to the area. Performers will spend this week in Syracuse putting together the lighting, costuming and choreography for the first time and share their work with an audience Oct. 1 to 4.
The Jesus Christ Superstar 50th Anniversary tour will be a new chapter for a production that didn’t start out as a musical. The first performance was held at a concert hall in 1970, when then-unknown writers Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice were in their early 20s. The subsequent album became a bestseller and staged as a full-fledged musical the following year.
“These two 23-year-olds had the audacity and courage to write a concept rock opera based on the passion of Christ,” said director Timothy Sheader, who drew much of his inspiration for the 50th anniversary tour from the production’s humble beginnings.
“We don’t consciously try to make the music sound modern, but everyone says to me that it sounds like it was written yesterday,” Sheader said. “If this piece fell in my desk today, i would still think it was a radical piece of theater. But it’s 50 years today.”
“I think it is one of those rare pieces of theatre that does cross the generations,” he said.
The newest interpretation: a “high stakes narrative music theater meets live music and thrilling aerobic dance concert,” Sheader said. Performers deliver much of the music with hand held microphones; Jesus performs the iconic ballad “Gethesemane” while playing the guitar in front of a mic stand.
“It should feel like you’re at a live gig,” Sheader said. “It is fully staged, but it is not staged literally. It isn’t people sitting around a table at the last supper, it is all quite expressionistic.”
The theme extends to the costuming, which Sheader said “looks a tad like a Kanye West concert,” with sneakers, baggy pants and hoodies instead of robes and sandals.
“It’s quite street, but it feels quite timeless,” he said. “Those flowing fabrics, if you put your hood up with baggy trousers, your silhouette looks like it could be from the Middle East.”
“The message today could be how we invest in a person and then suddenly tear them down to make them an icon,” Sheader said. “Amy Winehouse, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix – all those celebrated musicians that kind of only came alive on stage but couldn’t quite exist in real life.
“We make those people icons, and we make those dead people legends forevermore,” he continued.
The adulation comes alive in the energetic choreography, where the ensemble cast “moves in unison as the followers of the rock star, as disciples, as a Christian faith.” The climax comes at the crucifiction, which Sheader described as violent and emotional.
“You see them transform in a mob of people who are yelling, ‘Crucify him, crucify him,’” he said. “They’ve celebrated him, and want to see him fall flat on his face.”
Sheader said the show takes a physical toll on the cast.
“The performers are dripping in sweat and almost broken by the end of it,” he said. “They don’t have to pretend anything. You really get the fact that they it has cost them something.”