What’s the buzz with MLOC’s upcoming production of Jesus Christ Superstar? Theatre People sat down with Rhylee Nowell, Director and Choreographer, and Matthew Hadgraft, the Musical Director, to find out what’s a-happening.
Jesus Christ Superstar is a 70s seminal rock opera with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. Starting as a concept album, it was first staged on Broadway in 1971. A sung through musical with no spoken dialogue, the biblically inspired tale follows Jesus in the last week of his life, and since it’s original release has undergone many different versions and makeovers. From two movies, one very traditional, biblical take in 1973, and a second, more modern film made for television in 2000, to the recent UK Area tour transforming the show into a modern day revolution and rock concert, Jesus Christ Superstar is a show that has stood the test of time and entertained audiences in many different ways over 40 years.
For MLOC and Hadgraft, they wanted to go for a more traditional approach, with not a mobile phone or piece of denim in sight.
“Using the original rock tone of the music to contrast with the look of the show, we wanted to do something different as well, as most productions in the last few years have been very contemporary in their look and interpretation” says Hadgraft.
For Nowell, it’s all about bringing back that 70s sound.
“This is far more toward the traditional end of the spectrum” she says.
“We’re doing the 5-piece band version, and on the whole it will sound more like the 70s than anything else. It occurred to me that a lot of people’s favourite memories of the show were their original records, or the original concept album – and the score lends itself to the 70s beautifully anyway! “
Regardless of the time line or interpretation, the show is centrally about the psychology and relationships for Jesus and his disciples.
“We really wanted to explore the relationships of the people caught up in the story, and how it would have affected them emotionally,” says Nowell.
“I could imagine JCS being adapted successfully to mirror how the Internet and its communities will scapegoat and hate en masse at the drop of a hat”.
As this is a sung through musical, with no spoken word, the show requires strong singers and performers, which made the audition process a little different for this show.
“The story has to be told through lyrics, and we were very blessed in the high calibre and volume of talent! As there are no lyrics, along with the songs and harmony line, we got [auditionees] to recite either a poem or song lyrics as a monologue. Some wonderfully interesting interpretations!” says Nowell.
“There are so many good performers in Melbourne that we were inundated with excellent singers and actors, so it wasn’t hard to find the right people” says musical director Hadgraft. ,
“Very few of them ended up with the role the went for. For instance, our Judas auditioned for Peter; our Jesus for Judas; our Simon for Jesus. Along with the usual songs and a short spoken bit, we got everyone to sing a harmony line for Waltzing Matilda as an ear test, and it was wonderful, but I never want to hear that song again” he says.
The show is a big one, and MLOC’s approach to putting it on has been high energy and very detailed.
“ We spent 6 weeks just on vocals. As the show has no dialogue, I have looked at the blocking in some ways as if it where choreography, everything within this show has to flow” said Nowell.
“We also did a workshop that incorporated a Zumba class and a physical theatre workshop, to try and show how the energy you feel when doing something as upbeat as Zumba, you need to feel that even when you are standing still on stage” she said, which this Theatre People reporter thinks is a really interesting idea!
Hadgraft and Nowell have had the pleasure of working together before, meeting in the Gold Coast under panicked circumstances. Nowell was directing The Producers when not one but BOTH musical directors were unable to play for the show that night.
Hadgraft was called in to sight-conduct the entire score. They worked together again, and became strong friends during a production of The Boy From Oz on the Gold Coast, and they are both pleased to have found the same friendly, fun, buoyant community vibe in Melbourne as in they found in South East Queensland.
The power duo are backed by a talented team and cast.
“ This cast is phenomenal. The vocals are astonishing and the performances as a whole are truly stunning. This team of people though are not only talented, they are all so dedicated and passionate” praises Nowell.
For Hadgraft, his was a cathedral chorister, and spent everyday of primary school singing church music.
“I feel somewhat qualified to be behind the baton for this one! I actually have fairly limited experience with musicals – so I feel more at home with JCS” he says.
Something that has been discussed in both professional and amateur theatrical circles is whether we are ready to see a female Judas gracing Melbourne stages. When asked, both Hadgraft and Nowell had some very interesting things to say about the idea.
“Personally, I’m not opposed to it, but whoever gets the role, would really have to “Bring it” as it were and add another dimension to the production” says Nowell.
“I wouldn’t swap our Judas (Omar Moustafa) for anyone!” says Hadgraft.
“Judas rocks the boat, betrays his best friend and commits suicide in grief: sounds to me more like something a man would do. I reckon a male Mary would be FAR more interesting and say a lot more!” he says.
“I absolutely do think we’re “Ready” to see something like this, but for that matter, is the world “ready” for a female Jean Valjean or a male Elphaba? If you’re prepared to walk up to the authors and say, “I’m going to change your carefully-calculated piece for this reason,” and they say yes, go for it tiger! But it had better be for a very good, very thought-provoking reason, or it runs the risk of seeming arrogant.”
MLOC’s Jesus Christ Superstar is set to be a dynamic and thought provoking piece, focusing on relationships and bringing back a more traditional, 70s vibe to the show. It opens Friday 6th of November at the Phoenix Theatre in Elwood, with tickets to be booked at this link.