Ask any musical fan about Jesus Christ Superstar and the memories are varied. For singer Julia Deans, she remembers going to the 1994 New Zealand version starring Margaret Urlich and Jay Laga’aia. Actor director Oliver Driver never saw this adaptation, but he does recall mishearing the lyrics.
“Did you ever sing ‘Jesus Christ Superstar, racing ‘round the corner in a Yamaha?’ It reminds me of being a kid.”
Reincarnated on stage and in films since its inception as a concept album in 1970, Jesus Christ Superstar is arguably one of the most famous stage shows of all time and fans often have fond recollections of the musical that is celebrating its 44th year.
And therein lay the problem for Oliver, who is tackling the rock opera for the Auckland Theatre Company this month.
“The biggest challenge is doing something that everyone has such a strong opinion of,” he explains. “Never before have I done a show where people come up to me and say, ‘I saw it 20 years ago’ or ‘I had the album as a child’, or ‘Oh, my God! That’s my favourite song.’ It’s the first show where people were calling me to audition or to work on the project.”
Oliver (39) has recruited some of New Zealand’s top musicians, including Julia (40) and former Midnight Youth lead Jeremy Redmore, for the starring roles and has turned the iconic musical into a modern-rock concert.
“We’re trying to approach it as if Jesus was in a band,” Oliver says of his vision. “We thought, how would he spread the word of God today? You’re not going to stand on a mountain and reach 4000 people, you’d want to reach four billion!”
While this is Julia’s first foray into a traditional musical – “except for when I was Blousey Brown in Bugsy Malone in high school” – she’s enjoying taking on the challenge of walking, talking and singing all at the same time.
Despite auditioning hundreds of performers for the coveted part of Mary Magdalene, Oliver and his team offered Julia the role based on her recent theatre work in Brel, a musical tribute to singer-songwriter Jacques Brel, and a cover show of Joni Mitchell songs earlier this year.
“I knew heaps of people had auditioned, and then I got a call asking if I wanted to do it,” tells Julia. “I was like, ‘Really?’”
Oliver knew she’d be perfect for the role. “Musicians are so used to being in control. They have to give that all up when you come into a project like this and embrace what we want them to do without attitude, fear or nerves.”
Julia admits she’s enjoying being told what to do.
“Now I just have to remember everything on stage – that’s the hard part!”