Jesus of Nazareth

Male. Rock Tenor. Leader of the Twelve Apostles, a man called the “Son of God” and the “King of the Jews.”

Age range: 18-40
Vocal range: A2–G5
Voice type: “a well-rounded baritone voice that also has a super extended upper register” (50th)
Possible musical influences: “Think James Taylor meets Steve Tyler” (50th)

Relevant Insights

“We need to humanize Christ because, for me, I find Jesus as portrayed in the Gospels as a God as a very unrealistic figure…”

– Tim Rice

“In every interview I did for the 1990 tour, without fail, the first question I would get was ‘What’s it like playing God?’ Now fortunately, the first answer that popped into my head was the right answer, the true answer for me, and it’s the one I kept using: you can’t play God, you can only be God. But you can play a man. Even though I don’t know the creators of the work, they seemed to be focusing on the humanity of the character rather than the divinity, which, in the beginning, was what all the hoopla over it was about anyway. Having said that, being raised Catholic, but not practicing since I was 16, I have become more interested in the spiritual nature of human beings, metaphysically speaking. I looked at the libretto for JCS, and some things always bothered me from the beginning, and I thought, ‘How do you play this?’ If Jesus was a man of peace, had this mission, knew what he was, and was spiritually evolved at that level, then why would he (vocally) rant and rave with Judas? Particularly in ‘The Last Supper’ […] it [the score] sounds so angry, almost out of control. So, I found a little trick for myself, certainly for all the other productions that I did. The way I looked at it was as if we were taking the last week in the life of Christ and, dramatically, taking all the experiences in his life and condensing them into this week’s timeframe. He couldn’t have gone through the Crucifixion with all that baggage! So, for me, each scene was like a release, releasing something to get to that point where he could fully submit to the will of God […] ‘Gethsemane’ was the biggest moment for me, because that’s the point where he gets the answer by fully releasing the ego – however, not without plenty of blood, sweat, and tears.”

– Stephen Lehew (Jesus, 20th-anniversary tour, 1989-90)

“It wasn’t until I played the role that I learned that Jesus is the title character, but not the principal character. He’s not the star of the show. […] Jesus is an amazing role to play because everything comes to you. Excluding a few numbers like ‘The Temple,’ and ‘Gethsemane’ of course, Jesus is a reactionary character. […] There’s an amazing amount of storytelling that has to happen while Jesus remains a passive character. […] Superstar isn’t about the stained glass in church; it’s not about the Stations of the Cross. It’s about brotherhood, men, betrayal, and the preservation of ideals. The deity will take care of itself. It always does. When you play all the other things, all the things I just said, everything else aside from the deity, all of a sudden you have a story that is hypnotic to be a part of and watch. There is a reason why The Passion is called the greatest story ever told. If you do nothing but play the Stations of the Cross, it takes all the humanity out of the piece and makes it not as fun for an audience to watch. Honestly, that is the biggest mistake that recent incarnations of the show have made in my opinion. They play the deity.”

– Danny Zolli (frequent Jesus/Judas/Annas performer)

“When I’m given a part to act and a play to be in, I have a responsibility to what’s in front of me. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice have taken poetic license and interpretive license in how they want to tell the story of Jesus Christ. That is what we have to begin with. I look at that and try to fit into the story they’re telling. Not ‘how do I tell the story of the Bible’ or ‘how do I tell the story of doctrine such and such you have on Jesus Christ’. What I do is tell Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s version of this story. So, you start with the material that’s there. You start with what, intuitively and intrinsically, they are doing. You get that through lyrics, you get it through the quality of music, the order in which they tell the story… you start with that. Sometimes you have to bring in a lot of your own imagination to help fill it up for you, emotionally or spiritually. Without getting into how much I feel about it… you can turn to the Bible and history and ask, ‘Where is that Temple theme coming from?’ So, you fill yourself up with knowledge, with what the Bible says about the Temple scene and what other historians say about it. […] I believe that Rice and Lloyd Webber hit it in the first verse of the show: ‘If you strip away the myth from the man…’ They were obviously, to me, exploring Jesus as a man, not as a god or demigod. They were exploring an enlightened person who, at that time or in this story, had a much closer relationship with God than anyone else on earth, but he was still a man, living life on earth as a man. That is very important to me as a person. I don’t see him as a god on earth who didn’t fear and didn’t doubt. I would be fighting the material if I played Jesus as a doubtless and fearless person. I feel that’s the most wonderful thing about the story, that he’s a human being who loves humankind so much that even though he is in agony in the garden, afraid of the pain, and the threat of hate against him, and his friends turning away from him, his friends denying him and betraying him, he fears all of that, and yet he does it anyway, not knowing for sure whether it will work. That, to me, is what they were going for. […] Essentially, Jesus’ humanness is what interests me. […] I know it’s not an accurate way to say it, but there is no wrong way to play Jesus Christ. There’s no right way to act or sing it. It has to be truthful to the actor and singer. The part could be interpreted differently by a different actor than how I’m portraying him. It’s like Hamlet. Brent Carver playing Hamlet is going to be far different than Paul Gross or Christopher Plummer playing the role. An actor is kind of the paintbrush and the color that the director paints with. That’s what’s interesting about theatre. […] I use what’s on the page, and I bring my own experience, my passion, and heart to the piece that I can. That’s the only way I can serve it.”

– Paul Nolan (Jesus, Broadway, 2012)

Further Analysis

When Danny Zolli says that Jesus is not the show’s star, he’s correct, but it is called Jesus Christ Superstar for a reason. In many performances, Jesus is dominated by Judas and becomes almost more a bored, petulant background character than anything else, played by a pretty boy who can belt a High G. However, the role is much meatier than just the vocal, and a good performance (not even the best, but a good one) will be about hitting the emotional notes as much as (if not more than) the notes on the page.

Paul Nolan makes another crucial point: playing Jesus comes with a lot of baggage, namely, two thousand years of Christian culture experienced by most of the Western world. People have certain beliefs about the mark the young man from Nazareth left on history and expectations about how he should be played that come with them. The first thing one can do to play the role successfully is to shed all preconceived notions about who or what Jesus is in your mind or the minds of others. We aren’t dealing with the actual Jesus (not that we’re ignoring him, whoever or whatever that is to you), but with a conception of him proposed by two creators of musical theater. At its heart, JCS isn’t a religious story (as Tim Rice has said many times), nor a story about Christ’s suffering or the nature of his divinity.

JCS deals with Jesus as if he were only a man, not the Son of God. To be clear, it never says he isn’t divine, but neither does it reinforce the view that he is. In JCS, that issue is off the table, irrelevant to the story Rice is telling. Everyone already knows the story of Jesus as the Son of God. This is the other rarely examined side of the story of Jesus, an “ordinary guy” who became an unlikely star. It is that ordinariness that gives the story resonance and life. (Rice told an interviewer that he did not believe Jesus was the Son of God, but that made the story all the more astonishing for him.)

Part of what makes the role hard to play, however, is that Jesus is divested of much of what makes him distinctive in the Bible. One critic said of the Jesus portrayed in the show, “It is often a little hard to believe from this […] that he inspired the faith of his disciples, much less the millions who followed.” Many have criticized the character as weak, too unsure of himself, sometimes too timid, and sometimes too shrill.

Perhaps. Or perhaps they struggle with what JCS portrays, in detail, which at the time they were first observing (assuming they hadn’t read the first book on the “Helpful Hints” list below): his human side. Ecstasy and depression, trial and error, success and regret, just like us. He agonizes over his fate, is often unsure of his purpose, and rails at God. While there are hints that he’s someone special, with knowledge of his destiny to come, he doesn’t appear to be the mystical, knowing, mostly self-assured demigod from the Gospels, much as some actors choose to hearken back to that vision of him. Let’s face it: he wasn’t always a religious icon. The people who lived and worked around him saw him as just another guy. Honestly, less, by the standards of Jewish society of the day.

For starters, Jesus’ family was likely one without land, putting them extremely low on the economic ladder. Next, do you think you had it rough as a kid? Did you grow up being laughed at, teased, and maybe even physically bullied? Try this on for size: traditionally, Jews always referred to a man as his father’s son unless he was illegitimate – that is, born outside of marriage, regardless of the biological parentage. When Jesus returned to his home village as he preached and taught, the citizens cried, “Is not this the carpenter? The son of Mary?” I can’t imagine other kids were much kinder when he was young, whether or not his origin was divine.

He wasn’t a scribe or a priest; he never held office, and he was lucky if he knew how to write. As for carpentry, despite what most of us think, Jesus was not a carpenter in the sense of a trained artisan – the Greek word used to describe him (and his father) in the Gospels is tekton, meaning anyone who makes things with his hands. The modern equivalent might be a construction worker or day laborer. Humble roots, indeed.

But then he started having ideas. Strong ideas that he believed could help people live better lives. And, this being an oral culture, he began to share this philosophy. It was simple, and he was somewhat vague about applying it. But he was compassionate, sincere, and driven, and he spoke to the people who needed this message: the poverty-stricken and oppressed. More importantly, he was good at it. If the Bible is any clue, he was soon comfortable addressing a group of 12 or an arena of 12,000, commanding their attention without a microphone. (The songs “Hosanna” and “Simon Zealotes” attest to the attention he drew in-universe.) As Ted Neeley said in an interview, “He was a rabbi with a radical view – a man who could speak in parables and connect. And that thing we call charisma – well, he had a big bag of that.” Jesus had a new message for the people, and they embraced it (for a while, at least).

Whether or not his goal was power, he quietly became powerful enough to make the establishment (which rapidly considered him dangerous and corrupting, like many celebrities today) nervous, a controversial political figure, and a spiritual leader. Soon, he was a true “rock star” of his time, thronged when he went out in public, widely popular, complete with groupies who cared more about his star status than his message. Depending on their view of him, people called him a social revolutionary, an insurgent, a radical philosopher, an apocalyptic prophet, and a speaker of truth to power – in other words, a political activist.

Too strong a comparison? At that time, and to some extent now, politics was how humans decided collective morality, questions of how to live morally in a community (of whatever size) and of which values would be shared by that community, while religion dictated those answers, rather than allowing the people to explore and form morality of their own. This guy didn’t point the way to God half as much as he showed the path to living a moral, engaged life. Moreover, this possible connection is far from a coincidence. JCS was developed, consciously or not, with clear parallels to the 1960s hippie movements. The target audience readily identified with a long-haired radical preaching peaceful political upheaval suppressed and ultimately eradicated by the establishment for upsetting the social fabric. This was not viewed as received scripture. Mirroring the times, it was political history. They knew all about choice and the removal of choice by the forces of politics and public opinion. They had only to turn on the news to see an example of success and the power that comes with it.

Back to Jesus. Stephen Lehew’s theory of compression discussed above is very insightful in that JCS chronicles only the last week of Jesus’ life. While in the thick of his success for three years, it’s unlikely that he constantly mused about his fate. But now that he’s closer to the finish line, he’s losing control – of his doubts (easier to silence when you’re busy doing good works and connecting with people, and less so as threats appear on the horizon), of his followers (who still don’t get what he’s teaching), of his popularity (judging by the authorities’ increasingly frightened response). That’ll get you some intense moments like “The Temple” or “Gethsemane.”

Think in terms of being a leader, as he was. You have to motivate people, encourage them, guide them, and at times manage them. And you might be afraid of being vulnerable and letting your guard down in that position. I call it the “never let ‘em see you sweat” mentality. It’s easier to do when you’re alone.

Now, note that during Act I (so swiftly paced that sometimes the audience is surprised it’s time for intermission when I see it, which is amplified if a production dispenses with the act break), he’s near-constantly surrounded by crowds or leading the disciples. He almost has a moment to himself after he throws the riff-raff out of the Temple, but the lepers ruin it. We barely see Jesus’ vulnerable side. In Act II, finally, he cracks under pressure (i.e., the vocal histrionics at the Last Supper and Gethsemane). The nature of his fate has hit him like a ton of bricks, and he’s had enough. Once he’s had the catharsis of accepting it in the garden, of blowing his stack, he “crashes,” swept along by events until the inevitable conclusion.

As we focused on “Heaven on Their Minds” with Judas, it seems natural to turn our attention to “Gethsemane” with Jesus. The mastery of Rice’s dramatic writing frequently lies in its subtle use of psychology. Though this theory has come in for some well-deserved criticism, it’s clear that he’d picked up – or at least heard of – the “five stages of grief” model introduced by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book On Death and Dying because you can practically put a pin on the exact moment in the song where Jesus moves through each stage:

  1. Denial (in which we tend to deny the loss has occurred and may withdraw from our usual social contacts; this stage may last a few moments or longer) – “Take this cup away from me…”
  2. Anger (we may be furious at the person who inflicted the hurt [even if they’re dead], or at the world for letting it happen, or angry with ourselves for allowing the event to take place, even if, realistically, nothing could have stopped it) – “Listen surely / I’ve exceeded / Expectations / Tried for three years / Seems like thirty…”
  3. Bargaining (we may make bargains with the universe, God, etc., asking for answers or to lessen the pain) – “Can you show me now / That I would not be killed in vain […] Show me there’s a reason / For your wanting me to die…”
  4. Depression (we feel numb, although anger and sadness may remain underneath) – “Then I was inspired / Now I’m sad and tired…”
  5. Acceptance (when the anger, sadness, and mourning have tapered off, and we accept the reality of the loss) – “God thy will is hard / But you hold every card / I will drink / Your cup of poison…”

Possible junk science or not, it makes for some dramatically compelling material. Not that it hasn’t made some religious critics – what else – turn up their noses.

They’re quick to point out that it’s not that Jesus doesn’t have some doubt in the biblical version of the story; indeed, scripture suggests he had severe doubts about what he’d gotten into. But that despair and those doubts are articulated so utterly and intensely here that they sound more like blasphemy than a mere breakdown.

The late Jeff Fenholt, who debuted the role live on tour and then on Broadway before (eventually) becoming a born-again Christian, later explained the fundamentalist viewpoint on the song that he had since embraced in an interview:

“…there were a few lines that, now that I’m saved, that bother me, a few that I… the reason that I haven’t sung my so-called big song in Jesus Christ Superstar [since ‘being saved’] was, there are lines that say: ‘I’d have to know, I’d have to know, my Lord. If I die, what will be my reward? Would I be more noticed than I’ve ever been before? Would the things I’ve said and done matter anymore? I’d have to know, I’d have to know, my Lord.’ And it’s singin’ about somebody who doesn’t know who he is, or doesn’t know what’s gonna happen, and… he’s praying to the Lord, it’s Jesus, but he’s saying, ‘My Lord, who am I? What’s my reward? What am I gonna receive?’ It was a little weird. [When the interviewer suggests it ‘denied (Jesus’) divinity then,’ he responds:] Yes.”

To that, I can only respond with the counterpoint of another Jesus, Stephen Lehew, who opined, “When the real Jesus went through his ‘Gethsemane,’ did he have some doubts? Scripture says he asked that ‘this cup be taken away’ […] whether he would have doubted God at that point, I don’t think so. My feeling is that he didn’t doubt God, but he undoubtedly questioned God.”

And I’ll add the words of Tim Rice, who, having written the piece, would know best what inspired him to do so (emphasis mine):

“I had kidded myself for years that one day I would write a book, or a play, about the death of Jesus from Judas’ point of view. […] What did he think about Jesus as God? How could he go along with such a staggering concept when he knew Jesus so well as a man, an extraordinary man, a good man, a great man, but surely no more than that? What did God think about Judas? As Bob Dylan had put it so brilliantly: ‘Now I can’t think for you, you’ll have to decide / Whether Judas Iscariot had God on his side.’ […] [T]his follower of Jesus […] is eternally damned, perhaps simply because he had the bad luck to be around at the time. But without his betrayal, where would Christianity be? Judas’s point of view had to be that the man he admired as a Jewish leader was in danger of bringing the wrath and murderous power of the Roman occupiers down upon the Jewish people because he was allowing his followers to get out of control, encouraging them to believe the unbelievable. So, Christ in Superstar is seen only as a man, because Judas saw him only as a man. But even Judas has his doubts; before his suicide, flailing desperately, accusing Jesus of bringing about his death – perhaps Jesus was God! Perhaps he was, but in Superstar the question is left open.

And maybe some of your questions have been answered.

My Two Cents

Helpful Hints