John Legend discusses taking on Jesus and how performing in ‘Jesus Christ Superstar Live!’ compared to performing his own show.
From the moment John Legend sang “What’s The Buzz?” in NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live, we knew we were going to be in for a theatrical experience right in our living rooms. The rock musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber was revived for 2018 on Easter Sunday and for the next two hours we were mesmerized by the electrifying rock numbers as Legend, Sara Bareilles, Brandon Victor Dixon, Alice Cooper and the cast took us through the last days of Christ with Legend delivering a soulful and powerful performance.
Expect Jesus Christ Superstar Live! to land a few Emmy nominations in July. Expect John Legend to receive a nomination and take him one step closer to earning that E in EGOT. Legend already has a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony Award.
I caught up with Legend who revealed he juggled rehearsals for the show while in the middle of an Asian Concert tour. Read our chat :
You playing Jesus was the best thing ever to see on Easter Sunday. What was that whole process like for you?
It was so much fun. It was hectic because we started rehearsing a little over six weeks before the show and I rehearsed for it for two and a half weeks and went on an Asian tour, came back and did another week of rehearsals and there was the show. It was crazy getting back from Asia. A little jet-lagged and a little tired and beat up from singing two-hour concerts. The day after I land I went straight into rehearsals so it was a bit crazy those first few days just getting readjusted to the timezone and everything, but by the time the middle of the week arrived, I started feeling really good and rehearsals were coming together beautifully.
During the last part of rehearsals, a lot of what we were doing was focusing on the camera and what the camera had to do to capture the show perfectly. A lot of it wasn’t about us individually, but about us being where we were supposed to be and allowing the camera to do the work. The final few rehearsals were about that. We had the dress rehearsal on Saturday and around that time my family came into town so I had a bunch of family members that wanted to come and see the show live. I had nephews, my mom, dad, stepmom and cousins who came into town. The dress rehearsal went really well and I felt everyone was doing really well and as a team, I felt we were going to do something really great together.
Then we had the show day. It was Easter Sunday and my wife and daughter went off to a brunch with some of her friends and my family did some Easter things. I was unable to partake in all of that as I was at the venue. [laughs]. Eventually, it was showtime and I was really excited. I knew we had a great dress rehearsal and I had a feeling it would be well received and it was time to do it. We did it and it went really well.
How was that energy going from performing in front of tens of thousands of people in concert in Asia to going to The Armory and performing in front of that crowd?
I think it was great we had a live audience and it felt like a concert in a way. It made me feel comfortable and connected to other people’s energy. It was energizing for most of the cast and ensemble. Having it in that live concert atmosphere was cool and made me feel at home.
The biggest difference between my concert and doing a show like this is that I’m the focus of attention for the entire show and I’m singing for two hours almost non-stop so it’s different than being in a large cast with lots of soloists and moving parts. In some way, doing Jesus Christ Superstar was relaxing compared to my show as I didn’t have to carry it as a vocalist. In some ways, it’s easier to do my own material as I wrote it and I wrote it for me and my lyrical voice. When you’re doing someone else’s material, it’s always a bit more of a challenge. Also, there’s the size of the production for the show, it was pretty massive. There were a lot of moving parts and crew members. I had to be hoisted up for the cross and all these technical things had to happen aside from giving a good performance and being in the moment as an actor and performance and that made it more complex.
When it goes well, it’s all good.
On the subject of being hoisted. It was a gorgeous moment.
It was beautiful. They did a great job presenting it. There were a lot of people involved in the direction of the show. I think it was a brilliant idea the way they did it. I had to be in the momentum as an actor, but other people were in charge of making sure I was strapped in and harnessed. Everyone did their job and it went off without a hitch.
The way they did the lighting was gorgeous. The interesting thing about the show is that there is no resurrection in the show and it ends with him dying. It’s tough for some people to watch so the beauty of doing it with me going into the light that way was gorgeous.
What was your introduction into the musical?
My introduction was singing the songs in show choir in high school. It was the first time I had ever sang some of the songs.
After that, I never really listened to the album or watched the movie until I got cast. I started to revisit the other people who had done it before me. My voice is a bit different to some of the other people who played Jesus in the past. I approached it in a way that fit my voice but still adhered to the original composition. I listened to the original cast recording and movie soundtrack and tried to listen for ideas and focused on doing it my way.
What was an early musical memory that you recall?
Singing in Elementary School or for the church. The first time I was in a musical was in You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown and I did that in my freshman year in High School.
Was there a particular number you were looking forward to performing?
It’s a quiet moment but during rehearsal one of my favorites was the ‘Poor Jerusalem’ moment in the show. It’s quiet and mournful and musically it’s beautiful. Of course, ‘Gethsemane’ is the most critical song for Jesus’ character because it’s so powerful and intense. It’s emotionally and physically taxing.
You know a lot of the behind the scenes guys from La La Land, so how hard was it for them to convince you to say “yes” to the role?
I knew Craig and Neil from the Oscars and Marc from La La Land. It wasn’t that hard. I was into it. I like the sound of “John Legend as Jesus Christ.” I knew it would be a bit of a challenge because I’d never done anything quite like it before. I felt like it was a challenge worth taking on.
Now that you’ve done this, is there a role on Broadway you’d like to do?
I think the best thing to do would be to create something new. I know Sara did it for Waitress. I could see myself doing that.
What’s next for you John. you’ve got the single, ‘A Good Night’.
We have more music. We’re writing. We’ve got the single and we’re happy it’s doing really well. We have more music on the way.
Revisit photo highlights from NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live!