NBC’s presentation of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s religious rock opera was a hit with viewers, but will the Television Academy also say amen?
The live television musical has become event television–whether people want to believe it or not–and Emmy usually comes calling by the time awards season rolls around. For Easter, NBC produced Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert (or as I like to call it, LIIIIIIVE!!!), and when it was announced, it felt riskier than the musical iterations that came before it. When NBC began televising musicals back in 2013, it started with the beloved The Sound of Music and Peter Pan, two very traditional musical theater pieces that have been produced thousands of times across the country. Would a general audience go for a religious rock musical? The short answer is yes thanks to a stellar cast and a staggering production.
Rydell High On Their Minds
Of all of the musicals that have been broadcast in the last six years, FOX’s Grease: Live was the most successful during Emmy season. Nominated for ten awards (and winner of five), Grease collected so much attention because of the size of the production. Up until that point, musicals were shot on a stage and took plenty of commercial breaks to change the sets. With Grease, they dressed several sound stages and added a live audience. It also helped that FOX campaigned the hell out of that event. You wanted to tune into that production. And not just for Aaron Tveit in Rydell High short shorts.
How did the Television Academy respond to other musical productions? The Wiz and Hairspray were both nominated for six Emmys and The Sound of Music nabbed a win for Technical Direction. We won’t talk about The Passion, Peter Pan, Dirty Dancing, or The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again (Yeesh…remember that train wreck?) . Even though these productions do end up winning some Emmy love, Grease is the only live musical that has won Special Class Program (which has now been renamed Variety Special (Live). The combination of star power and good reviews feels like it should propel our Lord and Savior to at least a nomination in the top category.
Could We Get Some Acting Nominations, Please?
Despite musicals garnering huge ratings and Emmy nominations, recognition hasn’t been showered on any of the performers of an NBC or FOX musical. Huge names have been attached to these productions including Carrie Underwood, Laura Benanti, Jennifer Hudson, Mary J. Blige, Christopher Walken, Harvey Fierstein, Martin Short and Kristin Chenoweth. No Emmy nominations. None. Zip. I personally was bummed that Chenoweth (for Hairspray) and Vanessa Hudgens (for Grease as Rizzo) were ignored.
John Legend as Jesus is an unconventional choice because his voice is so unlike the part as it’s written. His Jesus is warm and kind of easy to adore, especially in the beginning of the show. People love throwing awards at Legend, because he’s one of the nicest guys in the business, and also, you know, he’s enormously talented. While his rendition of “Gethsemane” (Jesus’ emotional ballad in Act II) left a little to be desired, it’s not hard not to be affected by the end of the production during the crucifixion sequence. It should also be noted that Legend is an Emmy away from completing his EGOT. Should the show win Special Class Program, Legend should complete his EGOT quest as he serves as a producer.
Other than Legend’s Jesus, one of the standouts was Sara Bareilles’ Mary Magdalene. Sure, Mary doesn’t get much to do in the show other than long for the title character, but “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” is one of the most memorable songs of the entire show. Bareilles’ performance is lovely, and she killed that song during the live broadcast.
Which brings us to Brandon Victor Dixon’s Judas Iscariot. Of the three leads of the production, Dixon has the most accomplished stage resume having just completed a stint as Aaron Burr in Hamilton and receiving a Tony Award nomination for his performance of Shuffle Along. Judas is arguably the most complex character on stage, and if you didn’t know who Dixon was before the broadcast, you will surely know him now. His sky high rock vocals contrast well with Legend’s gentle tone, but his presence on stage is utterly transfixing. His rendition of the title number brought the house down at the end of a show. That being said, performances from these musicals are usually campaigned in the Limited Series/TV Movie categories, and they are usually packed to begin with. Limited Series feature big ensemble casts with huge names, so it will be an uphill battle for NBC to get Dixon and Bareilles nominated.
Even if Superstar fails to get nominations for its performances, it should at least collect a number of nominations below the line. Outstanding Technical Direction, Camerawork, Video Control for a Limited Series, Movie or Special have been awarded to musicals in the last two years (Grease and Hairspray, respectively), and if Peter Pan can get nominated, Superstar should have this in the bag. Directing should grab a nomination as well. Alex Rudzinski won this category with Thomas Kail in 2013.
Costume designer Paul Tazewell won an Emmy for The Wiz, but his work here is a lot subtler. The Wiz features outrageous colors while Superstar’s palette is much more muted. He should get nominated solely for giving Legend’s Jesus a comfy, savior chic look and for putting Dixon in that sparkly chain number for his last appearance on stage. Shout outs also to those Dementor/Assassin’s Creed hooded cloaks worn by Norm Lewis’ Caiaphas and Jin Ha’s Annas.
It might be harder for the production design (by Jason Ardizzone-West) to get nominated, but that’s only because it appears to only be a bare stage with some scaffolding. The Television Academy might notice the faded mural that’s shown near the beginning of the production or respond to how it was designed to break apart during the final crucifixion sequence.
Variety Special (Live)
Lead Actor – John Legend
Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie – Sara Bareilles
Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie – Brandon Victor Dixon