The human side of a superstar

Signature Theatre spotlights relationships in rock drama.

Jesus Christ Superstar
Photo by Christopher Mueller

Joe Calarco has considered the challenges of contemporizing an oft-performed 1970s rock opera.

“I never like to do anything that I’m not simultaneously excited about and terrified of,” says Calarco, resident director and director of new works at Signature Theatre.

Jesus Christ Superstar—one of several epic shows crafted for the stage by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, including Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat and Evita—began as a concept album released in 1970. The score was soon translated for the stage, premiering on Broadway in 1971 and as a film in 1973. Signature Theatre’s production runs May 9 through July 2.

“It’s a show I’ve wanted to do for many years. The score is amazing, and it’s the greatest story ever told,” Calarco says. “And you know the two things they always say [to] never talk about in public: religion and politics. To me, the Christ story is religion and politics,” Calarco says.

Superstar tells the story of Jesus’ final days, with special attention paid to his relationship with Judas Iscariot and Mary Magdalene. Both Calarco and music director William Yanesh are quick to distinguish Superstar from fellow ’70s rock musicals, such as Godspell.

Godspell is really based on teaching parables and scripture, and Superstar has almost no interest in that. It’s really all about the human relationships. All the characters have stuff going on, but it’s really about those three characters trying to figure out a very, very difficult time in their lives,” Yanesh says.

To develop his performance concept, Calarco researched both biblical history and past productions of Superstar.

“I think aesthetically and in design, it will look different than any you’ve seen. Again, my goal is to really—whenever I do any revival—get down to the core of what the writer’s intent was,” Calarco says. “That score and then the actual text is asking you, I think, to look at Jesus Christ and his followers, and his people who are against him, in a different light.”

Yanesh, who has conducted, accompanied and music-directed several musicals throughout the Metro-D.C. region, underlines the importance of the orchestra in a show that’s entirely sung-through.

“I like to think that what I’m providing in the accompaniment is another character in the drama because it’s always there; it’s ever-present,” Yanesh says.

Calarco intends to keep both the set and costuming simple in order to preserve the story as the central focus. “It’s very spare, and we’re trying to tell the story very purely,” Calarco says.

(May 2017)