Rob Crouse remembers getting the "Jesus Christ Superstar" rock opera concept album when it first came out on vinyl in 1970. Andrew Lloyd Weber's music and Tim Rice's lyrics retell the Gospels' accounts of the last week of Jesus Christ's life, with a powerful, modern interpretation and emotional, engaging music.
"I'm sure anyone that bought that brown, two-record album with the iconic Jesus Christ Superstar symbol on the front still remembers it. I listened to it over and over and over again, and I'm sure lots of other people have that same experience," he said. "The album was so internationally popular, they turned it into a show."
It was the next year, in fact, it made its Broadway debut. This fall, Weber, Rice and others will celebrate the 50th anniversary of one of the most well-known musicals and well-known stories around the globe by taking "Jesus Christ Superstar" on tour throughout North America. Capital City Productions was lucky enough to secure one of the last licenses to produce "Jesus Christ Superstar" locally before the professional tour hits the road.
"We were one of the last ones to get the license to do it as an amateur company because there is a New York North American tour that is starting, which they did on the heels on the live TV version that aired last year on Easter," said Crouse, who is directing "Jesus Christ Superstar" for Capital City Productions on March 28-30, April 4-6 and 11-13. "People locally won't see it for awhile."
Based on the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, Superstar follows the last week of Jesus's life, from the arrival of Jesus and his disciples in Jerusalem and ending with the crucifixion. The story, told entirely through song, explores the personal relationships and struggles between Jesus, Mary Magdalene, his disciples, his followers, the Roman Empire and most interestingly, Judas Iscariot.
Judas, a member of the Twelve Apostles, serves as the story's narrator, giving a more human figure to his persona that normally isn't discussed elsewhere.
"I love that Judas wasn't a pure villain. There is no real justification in literature or other interpretations that gives you that moment of why Judas turns. 'Heaven on Their Minds' (in which Judas sings that criticizes Jesus for accepting his followers' unrealistic beliefs) is an 'I want to make this clear to you because I've seen something that you haven't,'" said Murphy Ward, who is playing one of his dream roles in Judas. "I feel like that is how a lot of people feel in their faith. They have this question and try to figure out how they fit it into a religious context. He is right there and questions how he navigates; that is one of the most compelling parts of the story to me."
That interaction between Jesus and Judas is one of the main reasons why Tim Bommel, who is playing the Son of God, loves "Jesus Christ Superstar."
"At the time it was written it was very fresh and new, and caused a lot of controversy because it does treat Judas as a very sympathetic character. Judas feels like he is almost being used by God for all purposes and betraying Jesus. He doesn't really want to, but he does because he feels like he has to. That reflects on Jesus as being helpless. Judas is being used by God to betray him, so God is seen as this kind of puppet master, in my opinion," Bommel said. "Andrew Lloyd Weber brought a lot of themes out of the story of Christ that you wouldn't have thought about previously. Regardless of what you believe it is very compelling from that aspect."
Bommel and Ward, who have sang and acted in previous Capital City Productions together — most recently in "Christmas My Way: A Sinatra Holiday Bash" — have utilized their friendship to amplify the varied emotions felt in the friendship of their characters in "Jesus Christ Superstar."
"I think the show itself portrays Judas and Jesus' relationship almost like best friends who are having a falling out. That is the overbearing feeling about all of this is 'What are you doing? Why are you doing this? We are friends.' That is Judas' thoughts. To Judas, it seems dangerous, which makes Judas feel all the more relatable," Bommel said. "Jesus, has all these followers who are putting all their trust in him. At a snap of the fingers Judas can see how it can all fall apart and hurt so many people. And it does. Murphy is great at bringing almost that indignation out of Judas."
A few of the other principle roles are explored more in "Jesus Christ Superstar," including Pontius Pilate, who is played by longtime Columbia resident actor and director Chris Bowling. Pilate, who is governor of Judea, forces the events of Jesus's crucifixion from the beginning to aftermath in a dream, finding himself presented with that exact situation.
"No one is the villain in their own story, and I think the way Pilate is depicted is he considers himself an enlightened man who wants to deal fairly with these ignorant savages who he has been put in charge of," said Bowling, who is acting in his first Capital City Productions performance. "There is this irony that he is unaware of the prejudice he has against these people."
The musical also sheds light on apostle Mary Magdalene, played by Natalie Rose Eickhoff. Though mentioned in the Bible, she is not a leading player like portrayed in "Jesus Christ Superstar."
"There is a little illusion to a connection to Jesus and Mary. It is the same thing with all the other apostles, but she is a woman. She is looked at differently," Eickhoff said.
With such an iconic story told almost solely through music, the actors have worked hard in a short time to deliver a powerful performance. Luckily, they are huge fans of "Jesus Christ Superstar" and know many of the songs by heart.
"The big song for me is 'Trial by Pilate' and that is a lot of fun. I grew up listening to the original soundtrack from 1970. The version that came on later gives Pilate a little more verses in it, so that has been fun adding that little bit," Bowling said. "'Superstar' is probably my favorite in the whole musical. The one that kills me every time is 'Could We Start Again Please' because it is such a poignant moment when Mary and Peter realize just how serious this all is and they want the same impossible thing that everyone wants, to turn back time and undo."
Eickhoff not only enjoys one of the primary solos she sings, "I Don't Know How to Love Him," but she also enjoys "Herod's Song (Try It and See)." Outside of her passion for one of her favorite composers, Andrew Lloyd Weber, she also enjoys learning and delivering his "dynamic music."
"I get the opportunity to really sing really low in my chest voice and pop up into my head voice. It is fun for me as a vocal performer to have that variety," Eickhoff said. "For the ensemble as a whole, it is difficult for them because there is no dialogue in the entire show. It is constant singing, and it is fast and rhythmic and play on words. They are doing a fantastic job."
Ward also likes how a melody from one song will be echoed in another, varying through the music like "vocal literature passed between people." He also tries to emote through the song, which is important in this rock opera for all characters.
"In each musical performance, I know not every note will be exactly correct, but all the emotional notes will be there. To me, Judas is about that emotional dialect in his songs; it is very raw," he said.
The cast, crew and Crouse believe "Jesus Christ Superstar" is a compelling journey for Christians and those of other faiths or beliefs.
"While the story takes a few liberties of the people involved, at its core it is very reverent and respectful of Jesus and what he did. We have tried to maintain that. If you are a person of faith, come out because it is going to bring tears to your eyes and remind you of what it is all about. If not, the music is rocking and you will enjoy the story," Bommel said. "There is a reason why people love the story of Jesus; it is so relatable. What Andrew Lloyd Weber has done has made it even more relatable to our modern times."
Crouse would like to thank Capital City Christian Church for allowing them to borrow costumes from its annual "Journey to Bethlehem" event free of charge for many actors to wear in "Jesus Christ Superstar." Also, Capital City Productions will also host a food drive for Samaritan Center during each production of "Jesus Christ Superstar" as part of its "Pay It Forward" program. Samaritan Center representatives will also be available in the lobby.
"We thought it was the perfect pairing. During Easter especially, we should all learn to be better Samaritans, to see the needs of others around us and do something about it," Capital City Productions president Nate Grey said.
Capital City Productions will offer Lent-friendly meals on Friday productions. A buffet-style dinner will be served prior to evening performances with doors opening at 6 p.m. March 28-30, April 4-6 and 11-13, and prior to matinee performances with doors opening at 11:30 a.m. March 30, April 6 and 13 at Shikles Auditorium, 1200 Linden Drive. For more information, call 573-681-9612 or visit capitalcityproductions.org.