My first introduction to Jesus Christ Superstar was in the ’90s when my father explained how records worked. At seven, I was not interested in most of his music until he took out a large brown album emblazoned with two angels, opened so many times that the spine had to be duck-taped back together decades earlier. The record cracked and popped more than his other albums and he told me that was a classic sign of a well-loved record. The grooves on the song “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” his favorite, were so deep it was almost hard to listen to.
Thirty years later, I know Jesus Christ Superstar casts like people know baseball rosters. I have a fantasy Jesus Christ Superstar team in my head, pulling a Judas from the 1996 Broadway run (Zubin Varla), a Simon from the 2000 Really Useful Group mounting (Tony Vincent), and a Jesus from the original score (Ian Gilly). I know which tours added songs that aren’t in the original orchestration and which versions have extended jazz solos. In short, I know that one tour of Jesus Christ Superstar is never like the last.
Needless to say, I was more than a little excited to talk with current Jesus Christ Superstar cast member, Joshua Bess, to get the scoop on the new tour coming to The Lincoln Center December 1–3, 2023.
By the time Bess, a Colorado native from Littleton, performs for his first time in Fort Collins, he will have over 300 shows under his belt. “It’s crazy. Something that I’ve learned is that when it starts to feel mundane, you find something different in each show,” says Bess. “I call it finding crystals. Sometimes you hear a lyric in a different light or hear a melody woven through another song. You find new things that keep it fresh and alive each show and that is just so exciting.”
I understand that feeling. Every time I listen to the music, I pick out something new that I hadn’t noticed before and the show continues to blossom in my mind.
To Bess, while it’s been over half a century since Jesus Christ Superstar first entered the cultural consciousness, it is just as modern of a musical as ever and it changes with every new production.
“This tour is different from others because we go back to the brown album,” says Bess. The brown album is how they refer to the original cast recording that came out in 1971. “Not a lot of people know this, but the concept album came out long before there was a staging of Jesus Christ Superstar, so what Timothy Scheader did so beautifully is basically take the brown album and adapt it to the stage. What makes it so different is that it has a rock concert atmosphere along with a modern dance feel.”
My ears perk up when he mentions modern dance. Jesus Christ Superstar is not known for its choreography, with most stagings opting for a grittier, more realistic approach (well, as realistic as you can get with a musical that’s dialogue is completely sung). I’m curious how this new tour incorporates dance.
“The choreography is by the amazing Drew McOnie (Strictly Ballroom),” says Bess, “and it’s just as important to the storytelling as the music is. It never stops. It’s very physical. Very emotional. Very dynamic.”
One of the hurdles to Jesus Christ Superstar, however, is that some people may feel they are too religious or not religious enough to enjoy the show. I ask Bess about this and he smiles.
“Despite your religious background, it’s a powerful, powerful story,” says Bess. “If it weren’t characters such as Judas and Jesus—if they were to other named people—it would still be an interesting story that people can connect to. Jesus Christ Superstar is about friends fighting. It’s about people going through hard times. It’s about people who need something to believe in. Because of that, I think it’s a relatable story even if you’re not religious at all.”
When I ask about his favorite part, Bess answers easily, it’s “Heaven on Their Minds,” a stirring song Judas sings to Jesus about his worries over their increasing popularity clashing with the looming police state of Rome. Judas’ love—evident from the first quavering bars of the show—is what makes his betrayal and subsequent repentance so much more moving than simple words could describe. “That song is one of the most incredible, most heart-wrenching, most compelling songs in all of musical theater. It really sets the tone for the entire musical and it only gets more powerful from there.”
Bess’ passion is evident when he speaks and I wonder if he had a similar experience to me in my youth. “The first time I saw it was in high school,” says Bess. “I had no idea what the movie was about. I was shook when it was a rock-and-roll, melt-your-face kinda score. I knew it was something else.”
Ultimately, he says, Fort Collins is in for a real treat.
“They are going to get a show,” says Bess. “They are going to get a rock show, and they are going to feel something. They are going to be on the edge of their seat the entire time because there is no intermission and you do not miss it whatsoever because you are so enveloped in the the emotions and music of the story.”
Get swept away in the haunting story, evocative lyrics and dynamic dance of Jesus Christ Superstar December 1–3, 2023. Seats start at $20 at LCtix.com.