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NBC's 'Jesus Christ Superstar Live' shouldn't have worked. Here's why it did

NBC's 'Jesus Christ Superstar Live' shouldn't have worked. Here's why it did
John Legend as Jesus, center, and Sara Bareilles, far right, as Mary Magdalene in NBC's "Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert." (Virginia Sherwood / NBC / TNS)

The pop star raised his hands, striking a messianic pose from the stage as the adoring crowd strained to touch the edges of his flowing robe.

A savior greeting his disciples.

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Singer John Legend didn't have the presence of a theater performer, but he did know how to command a venue full of fans, which is exactly what NBC's "Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert" called for Sunday night.

Legend (Jesus), pop crooner-turned-Broadway star Sara Bareilles (Mary Magdalene), veteran rocker Alice Cooper (King Herod) and "Hamilton's" Brandon Victor Dixon (Judas) artfully walked the line between Broadway musical, pop concert and contemporary TV drama during a two-hour-plus production broadcast live from a theater space in Brooklyn, N.Y.

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The "Superstar" cast: From left, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene, John Legend as Jesus, Alice Cooper as King Herod, Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas and Jason Tam as Peter
The "Superstar" cast: From left, Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene, John Legend as Jesus, Alice Cooper as King Herod, Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas and Jason Tam as Peter (James Dimmock / NBC / Associated Press)

Black leather jackets and motorcycle boots took the place of bell bottoms and bare feet in the live television adaptation of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's long-haired 1971 Broadway musical chronicling Christ's last days.

Ben Daniels (Pontius Pilate), Norm Lewis (Caiaphas) and Jin Ha (Annas) were also among those tasked with taking a beloved musical, born in the theater far from the momentum-killing effects of ad breaks and remote-wielding audiences, and not ruining it for the small screen, where the commercials arrived in biblical proportions.

The show, which was broadcast live on the East Coast from the Marcy Armory in Williamsburg and taped for the West Coast airing, was blocked and choreographed like a theater production, where all the action takes place on one stage. But it was also like a pop concert, with a live audience reacting with claps and cheers. It featured 40-plus cast members, a large onstage orchestra and an interactive audience, which was shown and addressed throughout the production.

"Hello Jerusalem, I am your king!" said Cooper as a he greeted the cheering crowd in the theater. Like other cast members, he was clad in contemporary garb, which in Harod's case was a shiny, three-piece orange suit. He was also flanked by women dressed like Vegas showgirls.

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Weird? Yes, but also perfect in a campy, dramatic and evil "Billion Dollar Babies" kind of way. Cooper's part was small but indelible.

It was Legend, Bareilles and Dixon who carried most of the production. Lending their pristine voices to the key Jesus and Mary Magdalene numbers so many of us remember being slaughtered in our high school productions of the play were Legend and Bareilles, whose names are more akin with the pop charts than the theater (though Bareilles just finished a Broadway run as the star of "Waitress," the musical for which she wrote the Tony-nominated original score). The two singers weren't as animated as the multiple dancers and performers who shared the stage, but they brought the songs to life for a modern audience without forsaking the original charm of the numbers.

John Legend as Jesus, and Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene in the NBC production "Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert."
John Legend as Jesus, and Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene in the NBC production "Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert." (Virginia Sherwood / NBC / Associated Press)

Their melodious deliveries were complemented by the gruffer voice and more theatrical likes of Dixon. As Judas, Dixon led spectacular numbers such as "Superstar" that required athleticism and some seriously soulful belting. He nailed it on both counts.

The show was shot on one set, which was spare compared with other similar television renditions of musicals that utilized multiple locations and lavish costumery. "Jesus Christ Superstar Live" took place in front of exposed scaffolding and on a largely clutter-free stage, allowing for big dance numbers and plenty of widespread, choreographed action. Props were few — the occasional fire pit, a crucifixion cross made of metal piping.

Other modern flourishes included a cast who looked as if they were pulled out of a "Rent" revival — tattoos, piercings and funky hairdos — and moments on stage when the actors turned into a media mob and took cellphone video of Jesus being abused.

The Easter Sunday show, produced by Neil Meron, Marc Platt and Craig Zadan, was the latest in a string of other live NBC musical productions that have managed to resurrect the idea of a true TV event.

The trend started with 2013's "The Sound of Music Live," and NBC has since tackled "Peter Pan Live," "The Wiz Live" and "Hairspray Live." Fox got in on the act with 2016's "Grease: Live," "The Passion" as narrated by Tyler Perry and "A Christmas Story Live" last year.

The ads during NBC's "Jesus Christ Superstar Live" dovetailed with the production. The Christian-themed film "God's Not Dead: A Light in the Darkness" was advertised alongside a Microsoft ad in which rapper Common stood on stage like a preacher selling the tech giant's wares. It stands to reason that audiences who tuned in on Easter to see the musical might like the faith-based film, while those who love Legend might respond to an ad featuring his "Selma" songwriting partner.

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The show was a collision of religion and theater and pop culture that could have been one holy mess. But by the grace of God, or maybe a great cast and lots and lots of expert staging, a great musical became a great TV production.

Twitter: @lorraineali

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