Back in 1970, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice first envisioned “Jesus Christ Superstar” as a rock opera concept album performed live in concert like The Who’s “Tommy” rather than as a Broadway show. And NBC’s latest concert-musical hybrid delivered on that concept. It was a stripped down, single-space, sung-through, live event at Brooklyn’s Marcy Avenue Armory, starring John Legend as Jesus, Sara Bareilles as Mary, Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas, and Alice Cooper as King Herod.
Between Jason Ardizzone-West’s (“Adele Live in New York City”) architecturally-inspired production design, and Paul Tazewell’s forward looking costume design (Emmy-winner for “The Wiz! Live”), “Superstar” became an aesthetically relevant event.
Designing a Space That Evokes the Past and Present
“Unlike other live concerts, this was relatively compact in one space,” said production designer Jason Ardizzone-West (“Adele Live in New York City”). “The camera crew didn’t have to move from sound stage to sound stage, but there were a lot of moving parts in terms of camera, lighting, and the choreography of actors and musicians.”
Therefore, under the direction of David Leveaux (“Jumpers,” “Nine”) the production designer broke it down architecturally as both rock and opera, part ritual, part industrialization. The live production even included an on-camera audience of around 1,500, with some lining two sides of the stages as a mosh pit.
“We were creating a room that everybody shared,” added Ardizzone-West. “We were quite inspired by the idea of imagining that we were piecing together broken remnants of this ancient chapel covered with fresco painting and reassembled in this armory space in Brooklyn.
“It’s broken and has gaps and it’s held together by a large scaffolding,” he said. “It’s like a rock concert setting with raw metal mixed with crumbling stone. Part of my job as the production designer was to also design the room as a theater space and part installation for a continuous, forward motion.”
At the same time, graffiti gets splattered on the wall with the ignition of fire, as musicians come out and play. By contrast, the space with the high priests was conceived as a dark and mysterious, industrialized environment. It was conceived as shadowed textures cast through scaffolding and forming sharp, geometric patterns.
The production designer also got to go over the top with Vegas glitz for Alice Cooper’s wild appearance as Herod. “There was this broken grand piano that comes down from the scaffolding during the sequence, and a baroque painting that matches the gorgeous gold suit that Paul designed for him,” said Ardizzone-West.
However, realizing the Crucifixion scene became more difficult than anticipated. “Even before the design of the space, the idea of Christ disappearing into a cross of light was one of the very first conceptual thoughts that David and I talked about,” Ardizzone-West said. “It was inspired by The Church of Light designed by Japanese architect Tadao Ando. A very simple void cut through this massive solid wall.”
Costuming a Forward Looking Silhouette
For Tazewell, “Superstar” was an opportunity to build on his Tony-winning work for “Hamilton” and Emmy-winning “The Wiz! Live.” It was about finding the right silhouettes, combining biblical draperies with contemporary fashions. “We wanted to be contemporary and reflective of what we see today, but pulling out the principal characters because they were cast as celebrities with public images,” Tazewell said.
Thus, their clothes emphasized both their iconic personas and the legendary characters they portrayed. With Legend’s Jesus, Tazewell stayed somewhat neutral and abstract, a figure in white or off-white whose simple silhouette stood out above the rest. He put him in a linen coat, T-shirt, and jeans. “He was like a Bedouin traveler always on the move,” he said.
Bareilles’ Mary wore a rust-gold old dress, representative of the gold flame. “Next to Jesus she was the most stripped down, simplified, character,” added Tazewell. “She was the heart and fire of Jesus’ energy or motivation.”
Victor Dixon’s Judas was much darker and hard-edged in black leather and red shirt. “There’s definitely a rock’n’roll quality to him, especially with his music,” said Tazewell. “It’s some of the most aggressive of the pieces.”
The high priests wore black hooded cloaks and wide-legged pants, inspired by Japanese fashions that emphasized angular shapes and rough textures. “It was crunchy, ominous, visceral. They were like monks,” Tazewell said.
And Cooper’s Herod provided the most outlandish inspiration: Vegas meets vaudeville. It was like Elton John’s Pinball Wizard in Ken Russell’s “Tommy.” “We wanted to make the most out of who he is as Alice Cooper, melding that with the [sadistic] character,” Tazewell said.
“Within his well-tailored, three-piece suit was baroque imagery inspired by paintings of tortured souls: Bodies and twisted heads and misshapen faces printed onto this gold fabric. It looks brutal, off-putting, and over-the-top. But it’s a Vegas number with show girls and that’s where the comedy is.”