Why Fox says you don’t need faith to enjoy ‘The Passion,’ a live show about Jesus’ crucifixion

Chris Daughtry, left, will play Judas and Jencarlos Canela will portray Jesus in the two-hour musical airing from New Orleans.

Chris Daughtry, left, will play Judas and Jencarlos Canela will portray Jesus in the two-hour musical airing from New Orleans.

(Michael Becker / Fox via AP)

On Sunday, Fox is praying for a Christian miracle: that masses of viewers will tune in for a live two-hour musical extravaganza about the last week of Jesus’ life on Earth.

“The Passion” stars Cuban American telenovela star Jencarlos Canela as Jesus, with country singer Trisha Yearwood as Mary, pop hitmaker Seal as Pontius Pilate and former “American Idol” rocker Chris Daughtry as the traitorous disciple Judas.

Tyler Perry will narrate the story as a crowd guides a 20-foot illuminated cross through the streets of New Orleans. It’s Perry’s hometown, “the perfect place,” he says, because of its resurrection after Hurricane Katrina.


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The network, which earlier this year scored a critical and commercial success with a live version of a much racier tale — the teen musical “Grease” — has worked with missionary zeal to spread the gospel.

Perry, taking a break from producing other projects, pitched “The Passion” during a 54-minute conference call on March 11 with 30,000 pastors nationwide, hoping they would urge their flocks to watch.

The network aims for “The Passion,” budgeted at a reported $11 million, to appeal to everyone, not just religious observers.

“I hate using the word ‘religious’ because I don’t think this is a religious production at all,” says Daughtry, 36, during a recent joint interview with Canela for The Times. “I think of religion as rules and man-made BS.”


Fox Entertainment President David Madden is a bit more diplomatic. “I think anybody could relate to this story whether they are believers in the Christian religion or not,” Madden says. “We try to treat the show in a way where it will be as powerful for a believer as it will be for a nonbeliever.”

Whether such an approach will deliver divine ratings is another question.

I hate using the word ‘religious’ because I don’t think this is a religious production at all.

— Chris Daughtry

For its live spectacle on Palm Sunday, Fox, which is producing the program with Dick Clark Productions, has to peel viewers away from AMC’s zombie smash “The Walking Dead,” not to mention March Madness NCAA basketball tournament games.

Biblical spectacle, moreover, has a decidedly mixed record on TV.

Veteran reality impresario Mark Burnett and his wife and producing partner, Roma Downey, scored a massive hit with their 2012 miniseries “The Bible,” estimated to have lured more than 100 million viewers worldwide.

But viewers don’t always heed the call. ABC recently found that out with “Of Kings and Prophets,” its epic retelling of the Old Testament tale of King Saul, which bombed and was cut this week after just two episodes.

Fox could find it especially tough to convert young viewers, who are notoriously fickle and have drifted away from network TV in favor of Instagram, Snapchat and other social media apps.


Richard Flory, a scholar at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at USC who has written extensively about faith and young people, says he would be surprised if “The Passion” connected widely with viewers under 30. “Unless they watch it on YouTube,” he says, “they wouldn’t really be tuning in.”

Prince Royce portrays Peter in "The Passion."

Prince Royce portrays Peter in “The Passion.”

(Michael Becker / AP)

But “The Passion” producers believe they can entice a big audience with a unique mix of pop music and New Testament. Netflix announced Friday that it was picking up the show for international distribution starting Tuesday.

The Fox show is an American adaptation of a Netherlands show, also called “The Passion,” which began in 2011 and has become an annual Easter season fixture in that country. That program is an adaptation of the medieval passion plays, which dramatized and set to music the final days of Jesus’ life, including his triumphant entry to Jerusalem, trial, crucifixion and death.

Adam Anders, a Swedish music producer who has helped create hits for Backstreet Boys, Miley Cyrus and others, forged tight relations with Fox through his work on the musical comedy “Glee.” Anders saw the Dutch version of “The Passion” and thought it would make a promising prospect for a live TV event in America. Only a few changes would need to be made to the basic story — for instance, finessing the exact details of how Jesus died.

“It’s a family show,” Anders says. “We’re not going to show crucifixion on TV.”

When producers began the casting process, some actors were leery of the religious context and doubted that the live aspect would be enough to lure viewers. “We had people that didn’t get it,” director Robert Deaton admits. In the end, the multiethnic, multi-generational cast has appeal to nearly every conceivable demographic.


It’s a family show. We’re not going to show crucifixion on TV.

— Adam Anders, a Swedish music producer

Meanwhile, Anders started hunting for pop songs that could be used to accent key moments in the story.

“It’s amazing to go through hit songs [and see] how many themes there are that correspond with the details of this story, which are love, betrayal, friendship, hope, forgiveness,” Anders says. “Those are universal themes.”

The tunes that made the cut include “When Love Takes Over,” a 2009 David Guetta club anthem that will be performed by gospel singer Yolanda Adams; “Bring Me to Life,” a hard-rock ballad by Evanescence, here sung by Daughtry, who post-”Idol” has gone on to a successful career as a hard-rock bandleader, and Imagine Dragons’ rock song “Demons,” sung as a duet by Canela and Daughtry.

“The Passion,” uses “existing songs, contemporary songs, to tell a 2,000-plus year-old story,” says Canela, 27. “It puts it into the perspective of another generation that I feel has a disconnect with the story. Especially in today’s time … the word ‘religion’ has a bad name.”

As important as the music and the multicultural cast is the setting. The producers wanted a location that conveyed a sense of history, suffering and rebirth.


In his call with pastors, Perry (who was not available for an interview) extolled the virtues of New Orleans. “I don’t know of a better place for ‘The Passion’ to be told … other than in the city that was, that literally was, resurrected from a liquid grave, and to see where it’s come from and where it was.”

One downside, especially for a live telecast: New Orleans’ notoriously unpredictable weather. But the producers insist that won’t stop them telling the story of Jesus’ final hours.

“Last week I ordered 50 clear umbrellas,” Deaton says. “We’re live on Sunday no matter what.”


‘The Passion’

Where: Fox

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language)