Jesus Christ Superstar celebrates 40th anniversary with a new cast and new direction

Audio commentary from the show: “My father died on 9/11, my father was the one person who was in flight all the way to New York. His body was never found. … For so many people who have lost family members because of 9/11, it was so important for them to bring down that cross.”

“The response was overwhelming. People from every city around the world had built cross and turned it upside down. To see all these people put it away and continue the battle between good and evil, I think that was very moving.”

The original Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice show about the Jesus Christ/King Herod strife that led to His crucifixion hit Broadway on 31 May 1971. Considered a critical and commercial success, the musical scored eight Tony Awards, making it one of the most successful plays ever. As it celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, it is being revived for the first time in Toronto.

John Leguizamo’s version for theatre audiences is directed by Orson Welles veteran Jonathan Freeman, which is fitting since it is based on the 1971 production which starred Orson Welles. Welles was also the inspiration for the show with the voices of cats (the role originally given to a cat but performed instead by the lead actor).

The show features a different cast as each show travels around the world. It was originally seen in two versions in the US — a touring show and a double bill with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar. In 1987 it was transferred to London where it was seen by the King of Pop Michael Jackson, who became quite involved with it. It was revealed at his 2001 memorial service that the actor who played Judas in the original 1970s production also played him in Jesus Christ Superstar.

As a result, I believe some of the events in the new version of the play aren’t as real as they might otherwise be. Although history might be somewhat murky, I also believe this is a very compelling piece of theatre. Being a producer of it, I got a preview of the upcoming run and while I would often recommend it to those who might have attended the original performance as a child, I also believe some of the changes in the storyline and execution might appeal to someone who hasn’t seen the original show.

One of the main changes to the musical is that the role of Judas has been given to a woman. Michael Hathaway, who played the role in the original tour, did indeed meet with the demanding demands of Judas for almost a year. Judas is expected to become quite violent in this production, possibly causing some people to question just how much of the original story is left in the new version.

In the past, there has been some difficulty in casting the role of Jesus. Naturally, someone who’s played the role twice before is going to have an edge over the newbies. Longtime fans might agree or argue with that criticism of the new selection of Judas. Those who see the show for the first time can see if that analysis is valid.

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