‘Superstar’ is reborn
Boston Rock Opera resurrects signature show
By ALEXANDER STEVENS | CNC ARTS WRITER
November 3, 2000
Rock ‘n’ roll and Andrew Lloyd Webber – they go together about as well as gin and milk. Unless you ask the Boston Rock Opera.
The BRO’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” has been its signature production for 10 years, a crowd favorite that’s packed the house at all its funky venues. And along the way, it’s made actors out of some of the biggest names on the local rock scene – including stars like Gary Cherone and Kay Hanley – who have not only joined past casts, but also confess their love of Lloyd Webber.
“One thing we’ve found from the beginning is that ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ is a beloved piece,” says Eleanor Ramsay, producer of the BRO’s “Jesus Christ Superstar” revival that goes up Nov. 9-18, at the Tower Auditorium, at the Massachusetts College of Art.
“It’s a guilty pleasure for a lot of people” she says. “Valerie [Forgione] is in this band Mistle Thrush that has lots of indie cred, so when we approached her [to play Mary Magdalene], we didn’t know if she’d think it’s cool enough. But she was all over it. She said, ‘I’d love to do it.’ The same with Kay Hanley. So we more often find that they’re really into it.” Cherone, formerly of Extreme and Van Halen, is back for his third productionof “Jesus Christ Superstar” with the BRO (this time playing Judas), so it’s no surprise when he also admits the musical is one of his “guilty pleasures.”
He says people are just being elitist if they categorically snub Lloyd Webber. “How can you deny the merits of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’?” he asks. You’ve got to admire the willingness of these rockers to embrace Lloyd Webber, at the risk being arrested by the cool police.
It’s not only admirable, it’s also important – the future of some form of musical theater, or rock opera, probably depends on rockers who will takethese kinds of risks.
The audience that grew up with the music of Richard Rodgers or Irving Berlin is dying out, and the future of musical theater depends on people who can write in the vernacular of the new ticket-buying audience, and that’s rock.
And that’s pretty much the mission of the BRO, which has built its 10-year reputation first and foremost on “Jesus Christ Superstar.” (Other BRO highlights were two productions of the satirical, political piece “Preservation,” which even got a visit/consultation from Ray Davies of The Kinks, who wrote the show.)
The goal, all along, has been to bring a rock edge to the theater.
It’s tricky. Lots of people who set out with the intention of marrying rock and theater often end up with some hideous mutation of the two.
There seems to be some kind of inherent block that prevents theater from ever really rocking. That’s a criticism that’s been leveled at “Rent.” But so far the Boston Rock Opera has dodged that bullet.
“The idea is to explore the rock in theater, and the theater in rock,” says Ramsay. “A lot of times when rock music and theater combine, they sort of diffuse each other. So you really don’t have good rock, and you really don’t have great theater. We’re trying to keep that rock edge and tell stories.”
And one need has been obvious to the BRO from the start: If you want a rock sound, then get some rock blood in the band. That’s right, band – no orchestra in this production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” Mainstays of the Boston rock scene like T Max and Mick Maldonado have been bringing a rock club mentality to BRO right from the start.
“I’ve found that it’s easier to teach rockers how to act than it is to teach actors how to rock,” says Ramsay.
As a result of that raw energy, those early productions of “Jesus Christ Superstar” are almost legendary – first crammed into the little space upstairs at the Middle East in 1991, and then revived downstairs.
“I think we made a splash right from the beginning with some of those early Middle East shows,” says Ramsay. “They may have been a technical mess,” she adds with a laugh. “But there was a real raw energy that was so refreshing. The show wasn’t watered down, it went back to the rock roots of the album. Our shows have gotten better technically, but we’ve maintained that rock voice, that rock band, that rock volume.”
Now the production faces its biggest test to date: Not only does the cast have more musical theater singers than ever before, but it’s also getting staged on a proscenium stage for the first time.
But Ramsay believes the BRO’s integrity won’t be compromised by the venue.
“Our attitude is rock,” she says. “On the other hand, I think we do stuff that musical theater aficionados can enjoy. I don’t think we’re alienating the more general theater audience. If they like musicals, they’ll probably
like this show, as long as they can stand the volume.”
And maybe the best testimony to the fact that the Boston Rock Opera really rocks is the fact that a guy like Cherone keeps coming back. “They’ve become my family,” says Cherone, describing his relationship with BRO. “If there’s a role that’s right for me [in future shows], I’m in.”
“Jesus Christ Superstar” plays Nov. 9-18, at the Tower Auditorium at the Massachusetts College of Art. Tickets are $20. Call (617) 423-NEXT.