John Legend and Sara Bareilles share how faith influenced their starring roles as Jesus and Mary Magdalene.
- Posted on Mar 29, 2018
It began as a hit album in 1971 that turned into a Broadway musical and then went on to become a movie. And now Jesus Christ Superstar, the iconic rock opera based on the final week of Jesus’s life, will be NBC’s next big live TV performance Easter Sunday night. Music theater legends Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice wrote the songs that spawned hit singles including “I Don’t Know How to Love Him.” The idea for the album came to Webber from an Anglican minister who suggested recounting the story of Jesus in a way that modern youth could identify with. Grammy-winning singer and actor John Legend—fast becoming a legend himself—plays the role of Jesus and Broadway composer and chart-topping pop singer/songwriter Sara Bareilles plays Mary Magdalene. We caught up with both performers to talk with them about how growing up in faith-filled homes helped them in their roles and what they hope viewers take away from the show.
GUIDEPOSTS.ORG: The show is airing live Easter Sunday night. What was Easter like for you as a boy growing up in Springfield, Ohio?
John Legend: We went to church [at El Bethel Temple]. We got dressed up. I went to church all the time. We used to call people that didn't go normally the "C.M.E.’s—the Christmas, Mother's Day and Easters." People that didn't see their way at the church very often that time of year—except those times of year. But you know, I was there Sunday mornings, Sunday night, Wednesday for Bible study, and Tuesday for choir rehearsal. My family was basically the backbone of the church. And my grandfather was the pastor. My grandmother was the organist. My mother was the choir director. This was all part of who we were as a family, and how we interacted with each other as a family.
GUIDEPOSTS.ORG: Sounds like you were primed for this role. How did your faith background help you?
JL: I was very familiar with how Jesus has been portrayed and discussed over the years. I think I understand his message and understand what he has meant to people pretty well. But I think it's important to also realize that Andrew [Lloyd Webber] and Tim [Rice] were writing a character as they imagined him. It was based on the biblical story, but they took some liberties as well as far as what he might have been thinking when he was going through these really trying times. And the idea of giving up his life as a 33-year-old man is quite a thing to ask of someone to do. A lot of the show is about that turmoil that he felt, that conflict within himself, with his dad, saying, "Do I really have to go through with this?" And that feeling is a lot of the emotional climax of the show, and the fact that his friend might betray him or deny him. Andrew and Tim wrote a musical that was about those emotions that you might feel if that would happen to you.
GUIDEPOSTS.ORG: This production is a new representation of a classic album from the ‘70s. What do you bring to it that makes it modern to today’s world?
JL: I bring my own musical experiences to the show. And even though we're essentially singing the material that's already been written, I think when you're a vocalist, you're interpreting things your own way. I think just by being who we are and allowing ourselves to be artists, we're gonna put our own spin on the material.
GUIDEPOSTS.ORG: Was there one song in particular that means the most to you?
JL: “Gethsemane” is the most powerful song in this show for Jesus because it is the climactic moment where he's about to submit himself to this awesome mission that he has, which is so painful for him to think about. He's having one more moment of, like, "God, is this really…do I really have to go through with this?" And the emotions that he feels in that song, and the vocal range, and the power of the music is really intense. So that'll be the one that I have to get right, more than all the other ones I have to get right.
GUIDEPOSTS.ORG: How do you tap into those emotions to get your mind in that space to play Jesus?
JL: It's just the music. You feel it. I've been rehearsing it and as you get into it—the lyric, the music, it's just truly powerful. It moves me when I perform it. And I'm just gonna allow myself to be
GUIDEPOSTS.ORG: Has playing this role strengthened your faith?
JL: I think it reconnected me to what Jesus’s message meant to so many people. It's inspiring. It makes you think about living a life of importance and significance that really impacts people and changes people's lives.
GUIDEPOSTS.ORG: What do you hope the audience takes away from the performance?
JL: I think it's really powerful message of love, grace, charity, giving, and also sacrifice.
GUIDEPOSTS.ORG: What was your introduction to Jesus Christ Superstar: the album, the movie or the musical?
Sara Bareilles: It was the movie. I remember watching the film sometime in the ‘80s and just weeping. I went to Catholic school [St. Bernard's Elementary School in Eureka, California] and growing up Catholic and having the story of Jesus being so prevalent in my life the movie was really moving. Especially the song “Gethsemane”—that's the scene I remember vividly from watching it the first time and just weeping. I anticipate doing the same when John sings that song.
GUIDEPOSTS.ORG: As someone with a faith-filled background, does starring in this production on Easter Sunday mean even more to you?
SB: I have such a love for this story. It's meant so much to me. I think this whole company and our creative team is very cognizant about the fact that this story and production means a lot to a lot of people. It's sensitive material. There's nothing but a desire to honor the show and the life of Jesus. It feels very spiritual.
GUIDEPOSTS.ORG: Has this role strengthened your own faith?
SB: My faith is pretty strong. I talk to God all day long. This production feels like a beautiful expression of two people’s interpretation of the history. It’s this combined reality and truth about Jesus as man. Jesus as God, and the complications that brings up when they are on this earthly plane. I'm sure there will be a lot of differing opinions about what we get right and what we get wrong. But, ultimately, it's a beautiful show that was done with the utmost respect and love for this story. That's what we are trying to bring to life in the room.
GUIDEPOSTS.ORG: What do you bring to this role?
SB: I'm someone who feels dedicated to being my most authentic self as best I can. I screw up all the time, of course. But, I really think Mary Magdalene’s story and her devotion to Jesus was so pure and so true. I feel a great sense of honor that I get to tell her story in this light. She's a complicated figure. But her love for Jesus and his message are really, truly a very pure expression of love. And so, I'm hoping to bring that.
GUIDEPOSTS.ORG: One of the producers described your rendition of “I Don't Know How to Love Him” as a revelation. Tell us how you approach singing this iconic song that Yvonne Elliman made famous.
SB: Everything's already there in the DNA of this song. I'm not trying to impose any bells and whistles on it. I want to give a beautiful, simple, emotional interpretation of what's already on the page. I love that everything is there in the text. She's conflicted and she doesn't have an answer for herself. It's a little bit like a prayer in its own way. For me, the intimacy of that is what I'm hoping to offer. Yvonne’s rendition is such an iconic interpretation. [I have] big shoes to fill.
Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert airs on Easter Sunday, April 1st, 2018, at 8 p.m. ET.