It looked like a setup waiting for a punchline: J.C. Chasez (*NSYNC), Michelle Williams, (Destiny's Child), Brandon Boyd (Incubus) and John Lydon — aka Johnny Rotten of the Sex Pistols —walked into New York City's Hammerstein Ballroom with musical theater legends Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice. Only, it wasn't a joke. It was an extravagant press conference in New York's Hammerstein Ballroom to reveal a U.S. arena tour of Rice and Webber's legendary musical "Jesus Christ Superstar" — with the diverse array of performers as the stars of the show.
Still, there were moments of humor, especially when Rotten interrupted Cohl and Webber and sneered and threw signed bananas into the audience, saying, “Anyone want a rotten banana?" But when Boyd (Judas Iscariot) took the stage for the show's title track, which he performed with a full backing band, including a horn section and keyboards, it became clear that the eclectic arena performers could be the perfect match for a high-tech revamp of the 1971 arena rock spectacle.
Later in the press conference, there were two more performances. Williams (Mary Magdalene) sang the heartrending ballad "I Don't Know How to Love Him" and Ben Forster (Jesus), who earned the role through Webber's U.K. reality show "Superstar," staged a breathtaking version of "Gethsemane (I Only Want to Say)."
Lydon interrupted the proceedings to preen for the cameras and ask, "Do you nice people have any questions?" before the Q&A was scheduled to begin. When it did take place, only Webber, Rice, and promoter Michael Cohl fielded questions. But after the houselights came back up, Yahoo Music talked to all of the stars of the show — with the exception of Lydon, who, it seemed, was kept away from reporters. And while it was clear that all the leads in the cast come from different backgrounds, they revealed similar concerns, motivations, and expectations about the production.
"When you look at the cast on paper you scratch your head," Chasez said. "You go, 'What is J.C. doing next to John, next to Brandon, next to Michelle?' It's crazy, in a way — and I love that. There's going to be all of these different performance styles colliding in this epic moment."
"For me to be associated with John Lydon in a production is really strange," Williams admitted. "I said, 'I'm gonna have to hang out with him for at least one night just go get into his world.' Then I'll go to church the next day."
Each performer brings style of theatrical experience to the production. Williams has a background in pop, gospel, and R&B; Chasez was a pop icon; Boyd has experience with hard rock and alternative; Lydon helped conceive and shape punk rock; and Forster is a pure West End musical performer. To be fair, Williams has developed an extensive theater background as well and was chosen for "Jesus Christ Superstar" based on her work with Rice in the 2003 Broadway production of "Aida," in which she played the lead role.
"I'm having some great experiences which some pretty cool shows; if you don't mind me naming them, 'Aida,' 'The Color Purple,' 'Chicago, Fela!,' and now 'Jesus Christ Superstar,'" she said, then laughed. "So I'm like, 'Just go ahead, Michelle, and embrace it! You belong in theater.'"
When Williams told her former bandmates in Destiny's Child — Beyonce and Kelly Rowland — that she was cast in "Jesus Christ Superstar," both where excited, but surprised. "They just tell me, 'Go girl,' because they don't understand how I can do eight shows a week," Williams said. "But I encourage them and say, "I think you all can do the same!"
Chasez's former *NSYNC bandmates were equally supportive, though at first they were skeptical that the show was really happening, perhaps because of how diverse the cast is. "They were going, 'That's real?'" he said. "They were surprised and excited because it's a great idea. When we were in *NSYNC we were always looking how to become larger than life. We ended up in stadiums because we wanted to push the boundaries and see how far we could go. And I think Webber and Rice have decided we're going to go in arenas and we're going to turn it up to 11 and go larger than life. This story is larger than life, already. It's amazing that they're pushing themselves as well."
Boyd, grew up listening to musical theater, but has never been in an actual production — not even in high school. As the vocalist of the rock group Incubus, he has played on big stages for roaring crowds. But he has always performed for the band and the song; he hasn't acted for any particular production. "I feel like a babe in the woods," he said. "I love the fact that I feel like I'm being thrown in a completely different world. The Sons of the Sea [side] project I did was like four steps away [from Incubus]. This is like 30 steps away, then a left turn through the forest and meet back at someone's house you've never been to before. It's a full-on different environment with a different kind of singing, too. A lot of the material Judas sings is quite challenging. There are some big notes. But I'm up for the challenge."
Chasez, who has also specialized in music, not theater, said his greatest challenge is striving to meet the level of perfection required for the role of Judas Iscariot. "This is the most well-known story in human history and you're also working with some of the most talented people," he said. "When you're with Webber and Rice, you're with the best, so the thing that is a little daunting to me is being as good as they deserve. And my way forward for that is to give them my best. I like the fact that [Judas Iscariot] is very complex. He's torn on all sides about what he has to do. And, essentially, that's going to be something I'm going to have to capture onstage."
Williams, too, is working to capture the subtleties of her character. And she has gotten so into the role she became emotional and cried when she sang "I Don't Know How to Love You" to Webber in the first two days of rehearsal. "I started to really connect with the lyrics and was having a moment," she said. "It's so powerful. What I love and relate to about Mary Magdalene is her imperfections, her flaws, her insecurities. Even after you've been redeemed from something or forgiven, you might have a little insecurity. I'm like, 'Well, how does everyone see me or view me after a mistake I made?' She wasn't perfect. Nobody is."
As for his role of King Herod, Lydon said in a press statement: "I'm here to sing with the King of the Jews. Who could ask for anything more?"
Forster might be an unknown entity for North American audiences, but before he won the U.K. show "Superstar," he was already an experienced actor in London's West End, having worked in various shows for 15 years including "Michael Jackson's Thriller Live."
"Being on the 'Superstar' program was the most terrifying experience of my life, but it was amazing," Forster said. "It's funny, because these are all rock stars in this show. I'm not a rock star. I'm definitely a musical theater guy. But I do have a rocky, poppy voice, and I think that's why the public and Andrew choice me to do it. Of course, I'm definitely a fan of Destiny's Child and *NSYNC. I couldn't have grown up in my generation and not be."
In addition to being in the here and now and focusing at the upcoming rehearsals and performances, many members of the cast can't help but take a step back and examine the show's fascinating history. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice wrote "Jesus Christ Superstar" in the U.K. with the intent to bring it to the theater. But they were unable to find a room to stage the production. "Nobody believed back in 1969 that you could present a stage musical about the last days of the life of Jesus Christ," Webber said. Since they had a musical but nowhere to stage the show, Webber and Rice assembled a cast and recorded a rock album, which came out in 1970. Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan played the role of Jesus, and the popularity of the album convinced Webber and Rice to take the show to stages in the U.S.
The first performance was at the Civic Arena in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on July 12, 1971, and after a successful run, "Jesus Christ Superstar" opened on Broadway on October 12, 1971. "What's special about ['Jesus Christ Superstar'] is how timeless it is," Williams said. "I can talk to my parents about it. They can say, 'I remember when this came out.' And then I can introduce my young nieces and nephews to it and hopefully it will still be around years from now, when they can tell their kids about it. I can tell my future kids about it — it will be a while yet, but I'm sure there will be another 'Jesus Christ Superstar' revival by then."