After months of rumours and speculation, last week it was officially announced that Andrew Lloyd Webber will cast the lead role for the arena tour of Jesus Christ Superstar through another of his TV talent shows, this time with ITV. Lloyd Webber, who has previously worked with the BBC to find new stars for The Sound of Music (Connie Fisher), Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat (Lee Mead), Oliver (Jodie Prenger) and The Wizard of Oz (Danielle Hope), is now planning to use the same format to find a star to play ‘Jesus’. The Lord himself will sit on the judging panel, alongside Steve Balsamo (who has previously played the role), the actress who is to play ‘Mary’ and a big name singer – he’s believed to be trying to get Meatloaf to sign up.
The announcement has whipped people up into a frenzy and you could almost hear the collective cheer of tenors all around the country – not everyone was so pleased by it though.
Lyricist Tim Rice, who collaborated with Lloyd Webber on West End hit Jesus Christ Superstar in 1972, has spoken out against the idea, calling it ‘tasteless’ and ‘tacky’. Rice has already made his feelings clear to Lloyd Webber, but with the formal announcement of the show, it appears that Rice’s objections have been well and truly overruled. So what exactly does Rice have against against casting ‘Jesus’ through a televised public vote?
“Andrew wants to rehash things all the time, but I really don’t think Superstar needs that tasteless reality television treatment. Those shows are relentlessly downmarket, which is fine if the show is a lightweight bit of fluff. I am fully behind an arena show, but I just don’t think you need another television series to do that.”
To be honest, I think that Rice makes a very valid point in his argument. JCS was the first musical I ever saw and it remains one of my favourites to this day. The musical, with its religious and political themes, is in a different category to shows such as The Wizard of Oz, which is a more mainstream popular and family-type production. JCS has its fun moments of course, but it is a heavier story than previous shows that have had this reality TV treatment: ‘Gethsemane’ – which is one of the all-time greatest songs, in my opinion – perfectly encapsulates the altogether darker themes which are present in the show. With its subject matter and the apparent glamourisation of a worldwide figure of worship, JCS caused controversy when it first premiered on Broadway, so it’s hardly surprising to hear that the move to ITV was caused by the BBC’s concern over viewer’s reactions. I would have thought that after the success of the revised Toronto production, which comes to Broadway this year, the arena tour of JCS would have no trouble attracting audiences on just the basis of its name alone. I’m pretty sure that there would be a very long queue of musical theatre performers keen to audition too.
That’s not to say that Lloyd Webber won’t find some amazingly talented singer to play ‘Jesus’ using the TV format – a horde of new musical theatre stars have been created through his shows, and not just the winners: Samantha Barks played Eponine in the 25th Anniversary Concert of Les Miserables and is now touring the UK as ‘Nancy’ in Oliver; Rachel Tucker has been widely acclaimed as one of, if not the, best ‘Elphaba’s’ in Wicked; Siobhan Dillon has just taken over from Caissie Levy to play the lead role of ‘Molly’ in Ghost The Musical and Daniel Boys went on to tour with John Barrowman, as well as finding success in South Pacific and his award-winning role in Avenue Q. Those are just a few of the reality TV contestants who are now staple stars of the West End.
The main problem with using this format to cast the lead in JCS is the ease in which it could turn into a pantomime. The newspapers have already carried the headlines of ‘Lloyd Webber looking for Jesus’ or along those same lines, and Twitter has been awash with people laughing about hearing the line, ‘You could be Jesus’ on the show and voted-off contestants being strapped to a crucifix and elevated off the stage. There are so many opportunites for the show to trivialise and mock what is, at heart, a serious and deeply evocative production, something which also factored into Rice’s reluctance to see the role cast on TV. He commented that, “It opens up a lot of opportunities for spoofs and I think it would be ill-advised to have people voting for who should be Jesus,” adding that, “It sounds tacky and I really don’t think Andrew should do it.”
It’s hardly the first time the two have disagreed on something: they had early success with JCS, Evita and Joseph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat, buttheir subsequent fall-out over ‘Tell Me On A Sunday’ is well known and it is only in recent years that they have ventured to work together again. Both have admitted that their relationship hasn’t fully recovered however, and probably never will. Still, both have also been very successful in their individual projects, which begs the question of who should have the power in this matter? JCS has Lloyd Webber’s music, yes, but it also has Rice’s lyrics. The two created the musical together, but now it would seem Rice’s contribution counts for nothing as far as Lloyd Webber is concerned. Is this right though? Surely, unless both are agreed, the TV show shouldn’t be going ahead? Perhaps that’s just my naivety showing through though… Rice does have one ace left up his sleeve however:
“They can’t cast the show without my approval. I have the right to veto casting so if Andrew casts it on TV and I didn’t like the person, I could say so.”
Rice has also written a letter to ITV, stating his position on the show.
It is clear that there are both positives and negatives to casting Jesus Christ Superstar through a TV talent search. Prior evidence from the earlier shows prove that they can find some truly superb unknown talent, and the interest they draw – from new audiences, not just musical theatre fans – is undeniable. Despite Lloyd Webber’s denials about them being publicity vehicles for his production, they clearly act as a great advertisement, with millions of viewers no doubt keen to buy a ticket to see the winner of the show (the winner they chose) in the respective West End musical. On the other hand though, this latest show is likely to attract ridicule due to its subject matter and does turn what is a two-thousand year old story (with some artistic licence of course) into light entertainment for the TV masses. With Rice also having publicly spoken out against the show, it doesn’t paint Lloyd Webber in a particularly good light that it is still going ahead. In my opinion, there really isn’t a need to go down this route to cast the role. One wouldn’t be amiss in suspecting the decision has been driven by money and the chance of some great publicity, more than a desire to find an unknown star. I’m sure there are plenty of people who agree with me – but they’ll still watch the show. We all know this and, more importantly, so does Andrew Lloyd Webber.
By Julie Robinson (@missjulie25)
23rd January 2012