What’s the Buzz? A Chat with Sarah Parker of Jesus Christ Superstar
We’ve had heaven on our minds for 50 years, and now, at last, Jesus Christ Superstar returns to Charlotte! Everything’s alright on this tour with its lean, streamlined storytelling and strong focus on dancing.
“For me, every day is kind of its own journey based on what I’m going through personally that day or that week in my life. That’s a beautiful thing about this show. You can put yourself into it so deeply, so honestly.” – Actress & Dancer Sarah Parker
If, like me, you’re lukewarm on beloved musicals reimagined for live TV (think 2013’s The Sound of Music Live! and 2016’s Grease LIVE!), then you’ll understand my trepidation when I tuned in for Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert in 2018.
Imagine my delight when I realized I loved it. And imagine my further delight when I was invited to interview the talented Sarah Parker who danced in that 2018 production. She now plays the Mob Leader in the current tour, which celebrates the show’s 50th anniversary, headed to the Belk Theater March 22 to 27. Tickets are available now.
Parker also performed in the 2015 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof and as part of the show’s cast in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, on Late Night with Stephen Colbert and at the Tony Awards.
Our wonderful, all-over-the-place conversation has been edited for length. I am referred to here as The Biscuit.
The Biscuit: Let’s talk about the NBC production. I know that show and the current tour had different choreographers. How different is it? Was there a lot to learn and unlearn?
SP: I do feel like they’re two completely different shows. The experience around them is so vastly different. For the live one, you rehearse for about six weeks, and then you perform it once and it’s over. It was a lot of adrenaline, a lot of excitement. It was a massive production in an armory with TV cameras, and it was an experience unlike anything else.
This tour is a standard theatrical production. We also had about a six-week rehearsal period, and now we’re on our 330th performance. The connection you establish with the work in those two situations is very different. I’ve been able to form a much deeper connection to this version of the show than I did that one, simply from being in it much longer.
As far as choreography, the live one was choreographed by Camille Brown. This one is choreographed by Drew McOnie. Their styles are very different. Drew comes from more of a contemporary background, so it’s a little more full-bodied and fluid. Camille’s was much groovier and very rhythmical.
But the thing that both of them do really well and that lends itself well to Jesus Christ Superstar is that the choreography feels very pedestrian and communal. The movement helps tell the story of the people. Everyone on stage is moving together. It’s not like we stop and do a big dance break or like only a couple people are the dancers. The whole community on stage is “movin’ and groovin’” and dancing together.
Both choreographers did an excellent job creating that kind of world of movement. The dancing feels completely integrated into the story. After many people see this tour, they call it a dance piece.
The Biscuit: Because the dance is not incidental. It’s integral to the show.
SP: Right. The show is 90 minutes with no intermission so we can get super warmed up at the beginning and then power through. It’s energy from top to bottom. And, then it’s done.
The Biscuit: Which I think is perfect. Because to put in an intermission …
SP: … kills the momentum. The show has such a strong trajectory. To suddenly take a pause and go to the bathroom and have a snack …
The Biscuit: I read a review of this tour that said the show has a “skid-row” edge and the choreography is “high octane” and “kinetic.” Would you agree with that?
SP: I would. The whole stage is constantly moving except, obviously, for the few numbers when it’s a solo song. Any time the ensemble is on stage, which is the majority of the show, Drew has done such a great job of keeping the entire space in motion.
There are about 20 of us in the ensemble, so the choreography is using the whole stage. We’re on the set, we’re coming down. We’re in the back, we’re coming on and off. We’re coming down the aisles. It feels kinetic because it makes you feel like you are surrounded by the movement, which is beautiful, I think.
The Biscuit: I’m sure there are cast members who are religious, who are Christian, who are people of faith. Can they just put on their work hat and say, “This is a show, and I’m here to dance”? Or does it affect them on an emotional level because of the subject matter?
SP: We have an incredibly diverse cast. Some people are religious. Some people are not. Some people are Christian. Some people are Jewish. So, everyone has their individual relationship to the story.
It is, of course, an emotional story for everyone. I’m always moved to tears at the end of the show. Whether or not it’s connected to the religious side of the story, just the experience of telling the story is emotional in itself. I think people probably get there in different ways and for different reasons.
I think there is something to be said for putting the work hat on. This is our job, and like anybody else goes to work, we’re going to work. So, there is definitely an aspect of that that plays into being able to sustain it for so long.
For me, every day is kind of its own journey based on what I’m going through personally that day or that week in my life. That’s a beautiful thing about this show. You can put yourself into it so deeply, so honestly. It’s not the type of show where you’re going to throw on some heels and razzle-dazzle people.
The Biscuit: It’s not Anything Goes.
SP: Right. That kind of art serves its purpose as well. But, there is something really special about being in a show where you can lose yourself in it – if that’s what you’re feeling like you need to do today.
We talked a lot when we were first rehearsing and creating it. Our creative team wanted to make it clear that you can find a way to relate to this story even if you’re not Christian or religious at all. People ask me all the time, “Will I get it, if I’m not religious? Will I like it, if I’m not Christian?” We try to emphasize the fact that yes, we are telling the story of Jesus and Judas. But, ultimately, we are telling the story of the downfall of a famous icon.
If you don’t believe in Jesus or you don’t even know the story of Jesus, you can substitute in so many other cultural icons who have been in a similar situation.
The Biscuit: Shifting gears, I have learned some very interesting things about you! In addition to all the other things you’re doing, you write for Dance magazine.
SP: I do! I have a story in the April issue on the mental health challenges of being on tour.
The Biscuit: And you have a master’s in journalism from NYU.
SP: Yeah, I actually got it over the pandemic. We had done about six months of this tour, and then got shut down. When we realized that it was going to be quite a while before we went back, I thought, “What am I gonna do with myself?”
I’ve always loved writing. I always knew that at some point I’d go back to school for writing, but I pictured it way down the line. Then the opportunity presented itself. I was able to be a full-time student for three semesters before we started back on tour. This past fall, I did my last semester while we were back on the road. I graduated in December.
The Biscuit: Before we go, let’s talk about the Mob Leader.
SP: The Mob Leader is kind of this abstract character who is like the physical narrator of the story. I’m the physical embodiment of this story. It’s really special because in a lot of musical theater, dance is not necessarily the main storytelling device. That usually comes through the music. If there are book scenes – the lines and the acting – the dance is sprinkled on top.
But Drew McOnie has done something really special where he uses movement. My role specifically to drive the narrative of the story forward. My job is to shepherd the mob and the characters from the light to the dark and to keep pushing them into the next chapter and the next.
It’s a real honor for me as a dancer to have that kind of role that really puts movement at the forefront of storytelling. I think it’s something that’s often lacking in musical theater. I think it’s so cool. As I said, it’s an honor to perform that. I do hope it’s something we start to see more of in theater.
SEE SUPERSTAR YOURSELF
Jesus Christ Superstar is on March 22-27 at Belk Theater. The production is 90 minutes with no intermission. Saturday and Sunday offer matinee and evening shows. Tickets start at $25. Secure yours here.
This story was sponsored by Blumenthal Performing Arts.
A portion of this sponsorship supports HUG Micro-Grants available to local creatives.
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