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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Any director who revives Jesus Christ Superstar, the Passion-flavored rock musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, has to contend with the show's final number, "John 19:41." An orchestral piece that follows Jesus' crucifixion, it's a blank slate that demands imagination.
"If you look at the libretto, there are no suggestions for what to do there," say Des McAnuff, who's directing the current Broadway revival at the Neil Simon Theatre. "He dies, and you have two and a half minutes, and you have to decide what to do with those two and a half minutes. I generally love these challenges, but when the ideas aren't coming, they can be kind of terrifying."
McAnuff began grappling with the finale last year at Ontario's Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where this production ran for several months before transferring to La Jolla Playhouse in California. (McAnuff's in his final season as Stratford's Artistic Director, and he previously led La Jolla, where he directed future Broadway hits like Big River and Jersey Boys.)
To shore up his concept, McAnuff began rehearsals like he usually does---by gathering his team for research and conversation. "We obviously studied the history of Jesus Christ Superstar itself, but then we also studied the Gospels and looked at secular historians and the history of Jerusalem," he says. "We studied all of this quite carefully with the company over three days, which is twenty or twenty-one hours of class time. It was the equivalent of a graduate school class, I suppose, before we ever got on our feet."
The director calls this an "invaluable" process: "Not only is it a chance to go over the material in great detail, but it's also a chance to hear from the actors. You get insights that are valuable from the performers."
Inspired by this research, McAnuff shaped his production as a "secular love triangle" among Jesus, Judas, and Mary Magdalene, meaning we follow the deep, tumultuous bonds that drive the characters to their fates. "But then there's another layer, which I would call 'the layer of consequences,'" he adds. "You have this very short period of time---a week---with this ragtag group of disciples following Jesus. And they managed somehow to change the world forever. And perhaps that week has had more impact on human history than any other week.
"I wanted that to be constantly in people's minds, and I was certainly developing those ideas throughout the dramaturgical process."
To that end, the show ripples with a sense of history. The set, for instance, is a rock-and-roll collection of metal catwalks, ladders, and rolling staircases, and there are screens hidden everywhere. Sometimes, the screens show abstract images, but sometimes, they tell us the day of the week or the location of a scene. They're like news bulletins from the ancient past, reminding us that actual events led to a profoundly religious moment.
That perspective inspired McAnuff's vision for "John 19:41." The explosive music is matched by an ocean of text that flows from every screen and seems to surround the characters. It's like watching real people turn back into history. McAnuff says, "What finally came to me---and this had to do with reading so much out of the Bible and reading aloud the Gospels---was that there's been more written about Jesus Christ than anyone. For someone we know precious little about, that's pretty remarkable. And people actually read what's been written. It affects people every day."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online