For its latest one-night-only Broadway musical event, NBC is bringing "Jesus Christ Superstar Live!" to our television screens on Easter Sunday, April 1 — and they're going big. The latest update on Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's 1971 rock opera classic stars 10-time Grammy- (and Tony-) winning John Legend as Jesus of Nazareth, six-time Grammy- (and Tony-) nominated singer-songwriter Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene and shock-rock legend Alice Cooper as King Herod. Behind the scenes, the pedigree is just as impressive, with direction by five-time Tony nominee David Leveaux and costumes by Paul Tazewell, who, in 2016, won an Emmy for "The Wiz Live!" and a Tony for this one musical — maybe you've heard of it? — called "Hamilton."
Fittingly, the production — chronicling the last week in the life of Jesus, as told through the point of view of Judas Iscariot — is also ambitious. Instead of, say, taking place on a sound stage in Burbank, "Jesus Christ Superstar Live!" will actually be an epic rock concert going down in a stripped-down, very industrial and slightly dystopian set in the Marcy Armory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Approximately 1,500 audience members will be screaming and rocking out to the televised musical from their arena-style seats. (I also cannot wait for Legend's wife, model, cookbook author and social media goddess Chrissy Teigen to live-tweet the entire experience.)
Throughout the nearly four decades of "Jesus Christ Superstar," the production and costumes combine both the biblical era and anachronistic elements referencing contemporary fashion, as well as socio-political and cultural issues of the times. (Example: peak disco; hippies in clothes I'd wear now; Vietnam War references for the 1973 film version.) For the latest production, Leveaux wanted to reflect the grit and streetwear aesthetics of urban living today.
"People that are walking down the street or riding the subway," explains Tazewell, who also designed very different costumes for a brighter, glitzier "Jesus Christ Superstar" revival in 2012. This time around, he looked to moody, darker and gothic designers, like Rick Owens and Ann Demeulemeester, to help inform the overall palette and "patina" of worn-in black leather, rugged suedes, slashed tees, distressed denim and deconstructed detailing.
To create costumes for the priests who advocate for Jesus's eventual fate, Tazewell looked to eastward to Japanese fashion and based their hooded cloaks on Issey Miyake's geometric Bao Bao bag. "It crunches into a faceted shape, as opposed to staying smooth and drape-y; keeping it fashion-forward and somewhat austere," explains Tazewell. "The idea of the design is to keep them in some ways untouchable." He also custom-designed wide-legged Japanese Hakama-style pants to complete the "edgy" interpretation of the priests' uniforms.
The imposing outfit helped "M. Butterfly" star Jin Ha immerse himself into his priestly character. "With a character like Annas, who's present, but is in the shadows, there has to be some kind of inner life," says the former "Hamilton" cast member during a press junket (and rehearsal sneak peek, which was pretty amazing). "I was thinking, 'The costume that I have is going to do, like, 75 percent of that job because it's stunning. It's just badass."
To play Jesus of Nazareth, Legend wears a minimalist, layered and almost streetwear-inspired interpretation of the iconic white robes: a tank, jeans, unbuttoned shirt and slip-on sneakers. "We're not trying to recreate biblical clothing," says Tazewell. He imagined Jesus and his Apostles as a wandering Bedouin tribe living off nature, and interpreted the concept through a contemporary lens with rough and deconstructed fabrics. "There was something about his textured linen coat that could be reflective of robes or a large shawl or cloak or whatever our collective idea is of what Jesus would have worn in his time," he says.
As Mary Magdalene, Bareilles matches Jesus's spare aesthetic in a dress with a straightforward silhouette, but with distressed details and a deconstructed, uneven hem. "She is represented as one of the simplest of figures in the production," explains Tazewell. "She has a natural-ness, a simplicity, and that's the attraction for Jesus. That's how they are connected." The gold-to-rust ombré colors of the dress, which contrasts the dark hues of the ensemble cast and of Jesus's stark whites, were inspired by Barreilles herself: her personality and her beautiful singing voice.
"It allows her to feel like a beacon, like there's warmth," he adds. "There's a quality of hearth and home."
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the understated Jesus and Mary, King Herod wears one of the musical's flashiest costumes, which was inspired by Alice Cooper himself. "He has the charisma," says Tazewell. "He performs in the style that he does, so we wanted to make the most of that." The costume designer custom-created an impeccably tailored, gilded yellow three-piece suit, perfect for Herod to headline his Las Vegas-glitz-meets vaudeville "Try It and See" number. But there's more than meets the eye when it comes to Herod's suiting, so consider hitting pause on his close-ups.
"The tailored suit is digitally-printed with all this horrific imagery," explains Tazewell. "It's very expressive: mangled faces and bodies that are descending into hell; John the Baptist's head being chopped off by Salome. We used all these classical paintings as imagery and printed it onto the suit fabric, which is a really interesting juxtaposition, and it's keeping with who Alice Cooper is — all of the skulls and bones and eye makeup he is known for — and the silhouette helps to make him more of a royal being or a leader within our contemporary eyes."
Judas, played by "Hamilton" alum and Tony-winning producer Brandon Victor Dixon, starts out in a pared-down, but rocked-out leather vest and trousers outfit, but later unleashes his own, erm, superstar moment. When he re-appears during the always-sensational performance of "Superstar," Judas is wearing a slashed tank and moto-pants that are "completely pavé-ed and covered in rhinestones and foiled in silver."
But there's a deeper meaning behind the luxe bedazzling. "It ties to the silver he's been paid to betray Jesus, and then everything else that's surrounding him becomes this glittery silver, spectacular world." He's also backed up by three soul singers in coordinating mini-dresses that would be right at home in a sell-out mega concert tour.
"We go into this blown-out Vegas number," continues Tazewell. "Like your huge Beyoncé concert — or John Legend concert, if you will."
Jesus Christ Superstar Live! airs at 8 p.m. on April 1 on NBC. Follow Paul Tazewell on Twitter at @paulgtazewell.
Homepage photo: James Dimmock/NBC