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John Legend Pulls From Familiar Roots To Play Jesus In 'Jesus Christ Superstar Live'

Mar 31, 2018

This Easter Sunday, NBC will debut its latest one-night live musical event, Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert. The event's source material is the 1970s rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, an interpretation of the final days of the life of Jesus Christ. But it's not your old school Sunday morning gospel. This time around, John Legend, the messiah of pop-R&B love jams, will take on the titular role of Jesus Christ for the production.

Legend, a Grammy, Tony, and Oscar winner, grew up in a religious household. A heavy gospel influence can be heard on Legend's 2004 debut Get Lifted. Even so, the performer was nervous about playing perhaps the most important figure in the Western world.

"I knew it would be a challenge to take on this role," Legend says. "The opportunity to play Jesus Christ was one I didn't want to pass up."

Legend also applauds NBC for casting a black man as Jesus Christ, a figure often presented as white. "I think we've gotten used to seeing Jesus look like he came from Oslo, when, you know, obviously he was born and raised in the Middle East and probably looked a lot closer to me," he says.

Alongside Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene and Alice Cooper as King Herod, Legend hopes the event will reach religious and non-religious audiences alike.

"Even if you're not religious, I think it's quite a powerful story of love, of humanity, of conflict among friends, of betrayal, of faith, of what it meant to be part of something that is bigger than any individual," Legend notes.

While the 1970s musical was criticized for its humanist approach to Jesus Christ, the NBC event plays up this humanity, placing its characters in simple, modern clothes on a sparsely set stage. Airing on the day that celebrates Jesus' resurrection from the dead, the show is a reminder that all human beings have a light worth sharing with their neighbors.

"I think that's what the really the secret of the success of the show," he says. "It portrays [Jesus] as having human emotion and doubt and regret and passion and love for Mary Magdalene and also a resentment toward his father that he has to do such a difficult thing as to give his life away."

Web intern Stefanie Fernández contributed to this story.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

JOHN LEGEND: (Singing) John Legend on NPR.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yes, that was John Legend, and this is ALL THIS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. And he is here with us today because tomorrow, Easter Sunday, the Grammy, Tony and Oscar-winning performer will play the title role of Jesus Christ in NBC's latest one-night musical event, "Jesus Christ Superstar." It is the live concert version of the 1970's rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. It's an interpretation of the final days of Jesus' life. And if you don't remember or if you miss it, it is not your old school Sunday-morning gospel.

(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA, "JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR")

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (As characters) Jesus Christ, Jesus Christ. Who are you? What have you sacrificed? Jesus Christ, Superstar, do you think you're what they say you are?

MARTIN: And John Legend was nice enough to take time out of the very demanding rehearsal schedule to talk about his role. And I started our conversation by asking him how he was feeling about the big night.

LEGEND: I'm excited. I knew it would be a challenge to take on this role. I've never really done anything like this before, and the opportunity to play Jesus Christ was one I didn't want to pass up on. I thought it would be exciting, and a challenge, and it would push me creatively and as a performer. And so I decided to go ahead and try it. And I'm excited for Sunday.

MARTIN: I mean, I think I have heard you say or have read that you grew up in a very religious household...

LEGEND: Yes, I did.

MARTIN: ...And like a lot of artists, you know, that you sung in church. And your debut studio album from 2004, "Get Lifted," I think a lot of people could hear kind of gospel influence in it. But I think like a lot of people, you know, people grow up and have their own lives and sometimes they don't find that childhood experience as intellectually fulfilling as other experiences that they've had in their lives. And I wonder if you feel where you are in your stage of life and people who are like you, are they going to find something significant in this work even apart from the music and the beauty of the work as a musical experience?

LEGEND: Yeah, I think they can find it. And I think part of it is because even if you're not religious, I think it's quite a powerful story of love, of humanity, of conflict among friends, of betrayal, of faith, of what it meant to be part of something that is bigger than any individual. I think all of that comes through in the songs and in the material as it's written.

MARTIN: Does it mean anything to you to be an African-American man playing this role?

LEGEND: I think it is pretty groundbreaking. I don't think we've seen that before, at least not in a major production of this show. And so I think it is meaningful. As I've said in previous interviews, I think we've gotten used to seeing Jesus look like he came from Oslo when, you know, obviously he was born and raised in the Middle East and probably looked a lot closer to me than like somebody from Oslo. So, I think, in that sense, we're probably getting a little closer to the actual hue of his skin and the look that he might have had during that time by casting me.

But I think, in general, NBC's approach to this was to make that casting very diverse and open. So we have African-Americans, European-Americans, Asian-Americans. We've got people of all ethnicities in the show, and it's kind of a race blind in the casting rather than having any kind of rhyme or reason behind it other than, let's make this look like America. Let's have a diverse group of performers.

MARTIN: What's been the biggest challenge about pulling this off? And what are you most excited about?

LEGEND: Well, I mean, obviously this is something relatively new for me. I've done a little bit of musical theater in high school, and I was in "La La Land." But this is clearly the most-challenging role I've ever taken on as an actor, and so in that sense, that was a big challenge for me. It was something I was ready to do, but I knew that I had to take it seriously. Even the basics of just learning a bunch of new songs. I'm used to singing my own songs that I've written for myself. Learning songs that weren't written from me and trying to find my vocal approach to them was a challenge as well. Luckily, I've been surrounded by a lot of great people that have supported me and encouraged me along the way. And I feel like I'm in good hands with this production team and everybody around me.

MARTIN: Well, thanks so much for talking to us. That's John Legend. He plays the lead role in "Jesus Christ Superstar" live in concert. That's tomorrow night on NBC. We caught him in between rehearsals. John Legend, Happy Easter, if I may. And thank you so much for talking to us.

LEGEND: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.