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Posted on Tue 24 Oct
Midlands actor Ian McIntosh doesn’t have a religious background, but playing the lead role in a critically acclaimed production of Jesus Christ Superstar has made him curious about the stories that inspired Tim Rice & Andrew Lloyd Webber’s classic rock opera...
Two years after its 50th anniversary, Jesus Christ Superstar remains one of the best-known and most controversial rock musicals of them all.
Telling the story of the final weeks of Jesus’ life through the eyes of his betrayer, Judas Iscariot, the hit musical, written by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, was only intended as a concept album - until, that is, unexpectedly huge sales prompted a concert tour and eventually a stage production, which opened on Broadway in 1971.
The show has gone on to enjoy five decades of global success, but no one expected it to turn out that way. In a recent interview, Lloyd Webber recalled a potential investor knocking it back as ‘the worst idea in history’, not least because their version of the story drew the ire of Christians and Jews alike. The former accused the producers of blasphemy - omitting the resurrection and portraying Judas as a hero, among other charges - and the latter of antisemitism, with Jewish leaders fearing the show laid the blame for Jesus’ crucifixion at their door.
None of which sounds like typical musical fare, but the quality of the show and its iconic score - which contains classic tunes such as I Don’t Know How To Love Him, Gethsemane and the title song - has made it a global phenomenon, with countless productions all over the world.
The latest version, a gritty reimagining by Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, more than keeps the ball rolling, winning critical acclaim as well as an Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival. And if the original took liberties with its biblical source material, then the latest version could be seen as an even riskier venture, making the story about the idolisation of a rock star rather than a religious figure.
Coventry-born actor Ian McIntosh plays Jesus as “the idolised lead singer of an indie band”. Ian accepts that while it might not be to everyone’s taste, there’s nevertheless a truth, honesty and even reverence to the endeavour, much like the original.
“It’s difficult not to offend anybody nowadays, but I think Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice have created a story that holds some sort of fundamental truth,” he says. “Suffering is what life is, and being courageous through the suffering is what it’s about.”
Ian says he’s witnessed virtually no adverse reaction to the show - there’s been one protestor outside one theatre so far. Indeed, if anything, he thinks it has opened people’s eyes to ‘the story behind the (new) story’, particularly for those who had little or no interest in the religious element in the first place.
“I think people are grateful that the message is being translated in a way that brings curiosity about the story of Christianity. Even though that might not have been what they were going for, it’s an amazing stepping stone - especially for me, who doesn’t come from a Christian or religious background; I’m curious now to understand what all these stories mean.”
Ian also thinks making Jesus the leader of an indie rock band - Judas and Mary are fellow members, Pilate an ageing rock star - gives the story a contemporary relevance and resonance as well as metaphorical connection to the original.
“The versions that have gone before might not have been exactly cheesy, but they were quite camp in how they were performed, whereas this one is more gritty and down to earth; a modern retelling of the story.”
A publicity image of a blood-spattered Jesus being crowned with thorns definitely supports his claims.
“Yeah, it’s pretty gory, but we want it to be real and hard-hitting. We tell the story of the pressures of somebody who is an idol but who’s about to give it all up while he’s right at the top, and no one understands why. He’s giving up his voice, his instrument and his artistry, but the idea is that he’s been promised that he’ll achieve legendary status.
“That’s how we’ve worked it. In the same way that Jesus died for our sins on the cross, he did it for us and we didn’t understand why, but his legend is still going 2,000 years on. Plus, there’s also the conflict, as he doesn’t want to give it up - he wants to enjoy it while it’s going so well.”
Although this all sounds like it might be diluting a tale that so many revere - especially as the show ends with a crucifixion but no redemptive resurrection - Ian thinks that the lack of resolution adds a power and depth which some audience members find quite involving.
“It’s really surprising to see how well audiences are taking a show that isn’t just escapism. It’s making them question themselves. I think they really appreciate being treated like adults.
“I had an Instagram message from somebody who said they were at the show with their mum, dad and brother, and that they all sat in silence in the car on the way home, as it had affected them so much. It feels really good to be a part of something that does that to people... They also said it was the best version they’d ever seen, so although it affected them, it didn’t traumatise them or anything.”
The show itself has plenty of laughs too, largely in the shape of comedian Julian Clary, who plays King Herod - although sadly not in Wolverhampton and Birmingham.
“He’s very, very funny - he’s got naturally funny bones - and comes on stage in this enormous gold cloak, which adds to the bizarre nature of the show! We try to play on the absurdity of everything - even Jesus being put on a cross to die while people are singing Jesus Christ Superstar.”
Ian admits “the audience clearly knows it’s Julian Clary dressed up” when the comic is on stage, but says Timo Tatzber, the alternative Herod when Clary is unavailable, puts a totally different, edgier slant on the character.
“Timo comes from a musical theatre background and has his own quirky take on it - a lot more energy. His ‘bizarre’ is different, but it’s still very bizarre.”
Bizarre works in this context, of course, and Ian, who’s been in more than a dozen musicals - including We Will Rock You and The Commitments - admits he’s in awe of so many elements of the production.
“This isn’t just me doing a plug, but I’ve never been in anything that’s so complete as far as choreography, staging and music goes - musical supervisor Tom Dearing is a genius!
“The lighting is ridiculously good - in a touring show you sometimes lose that, but with this show the structure is a solid piece of apparatus, so the lighting can be recreated perfectly every night.”
This sounds suspiciously like the rock concert his band are recreating?
“That’s it, yeah,” he agrees, before tragically falling at the final hurdle, telling me the show is performed in the style of a Mystery Play, without knowing that his home city is famous for having its own version (“Really? That’s amazing! I must check them out!”). In his defence, he did leave Coventry at the age of 16 - a successful audition for Masters Performing Arts College in Essex put paid to his plans to be an electrician - so I let him elaborate all the same.
“We run on stage and you can see the whole structure being set up, ready to tell this story to the audience. I won’t give the end away, but the idea is that we’re immersed in the story but it starts with us being a mystery-play touring group that sets the stage up in the first place - it’s really cool.”
Jesus Christ Superstar shows at Wolverhampton Grand Theatre from Tuesday 14 to Saturday 18 November; Regent Theatre, Stoke-on-Trent, from Monday 19 to Saturday 24 February; and Birmingham Hippodrome, from Monday 22 to Saturday 27 April
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