The 1970 groundbreaking musical Jesus Christ Superstarwhich Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice createdcontinues to rise in popularity to this day, thanks to a recent live version on TV and a new production at the Lyric Opera.
Set in 30 A.D., Jesus Christ Superstar opens with Judas Iscariot criticizing Jesus; the plot unfolds in song from there. There is little spoken dialogue in this story and, instead, has dynamic music that has thrilled audiences for generations while garnering five Tony nominations.
Heath Saunders leads the talented cast as Jesus Christ and brings experience from past shows like Spamalot, Les Miserables and Hairspray: In Concert.
For NBC Live, Saunders was in the ensemble and played guitar. He studied musical theater at the University in Miami and has worked with a variety of musical instruments over the years.
Windy City Times: Start off with where you are from.
Heath Sanders: I grew up outside of Seattle in Kirkland, Washington. I moved to New York about four years ago now.
WCT: What is your ethnicity?
HS: My dad is Black and my mom is white. I am super-American, as my family has been here since the beginning of America. We can track back one side to John Adams and the other to American slavery.
WCT: Was your family always supportive of you being queer?
HS: I have two moms now, so yes. My mom and dad were divorced when I was 6. My mom married my stepmom and I was raised by two women. My dad lived three blocks away.
WCT: So you could be whatever you wanted to be.
HS: Yes, and I am very interested in labels, which is why I care about "queer" as a term. For me, queer is about pushing back on labels and queering the narrative. My mantra as an artist is saying things don't have to be a certain way. We can twist those things.
Same thing with race, as I am neither Black nor white. There's a spectrum of race, gender and sexual identity.
WCT: Did you always want to be in musicals growing up?
HS: Sort of. I started as a musician. I played cello, oboe, piano and saxophone through school. My middle-school band teacher said that if I wanted to make a living as an instrumentalist that I should play in pits of musicals. We watched musicals in class like My Fair Lady and Fiddler on the Roof.
When we watched West Side Story a very white community theater was looking for Sharks. Me and my brothers, three of whom live in New York with me and are performers currently, all auditioned for West Side Story. The theater did about three musicals a year so by the time I graduated I had done 24 musicals. Some of them were original musicals and then I went to school to study composition. I accidentally fell back into performing.
WCT: What was I Am Harvey Milk, which was on your resume?
HS: Andrew Lippa wrote an oratorio situation that I did a reading of before I moved to New York in 2014. It wound up culminating in Lincoln Center with 120 Broadway men singing in the chorus.
WCT: Talk about being cast in Jesus Christ Superstar.
HS: I just finished doing Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert. I found out I got both parts the same day but if I did them I would have no day off.
The audition process for the Lyric one was hilarious because I went in as a swing cover for Jesus and Judas. I had to prepare everything in the show!
After many auditions with this show, I was called in for the Live show as the Judas understudy. They noticed I knew the show really well, but that was because I had been auditioning for it for weeks. I got the call offering me both jobs the next Monday.
WCT: Talk about Good Fridaythat was a good Monday! What are the differences between Live and the Lyric?
HS: There are similarities in aesthetic, such as the scaffolding and a beat up world. My way of dressing is actually the same in both shows. It's how I dress every day.
The biggest difference is the approach to the material as performers. With NBC Live, we were focused on the story and defining the characters. Here at the Lyric as a performer, it feels a lot less like acting and more like doing a concert. A lot of the language in the show is about going to the gig. I sing at a mic stand so it is like I am doing a show as an artist being asked to sing. It blurs the lines of reality a little more aggressively. You get a little peek of Heath the performer.
In approach, the two are opposite of each other.
WCT: Do you have a favorite song in the show?
HS: "Judas' Death" has the greatest music reprise of anything ever written. It has a beautiful moment. Musically, "Damned for All Time" is my favorite, though.
"Gethsemane" has a special place in my heart, also. The terror of having to sing that song is a moment!
WCT: What did you think of Alice Cooper being in the Live show?
HS: He is so charming and the nicest guy. I was terrified of him as a child. Little Heath had a very different impression of him.
WCT: Jesus Christ Superstar is going on tour next year?
HS: Yes, but I just heard about that, though. This Lyric production and the tour are both Regent Parks Open Air Theatre's productions but are not otherwise related.
WCT: Are you working on any future projects?
HS: I am writing a musical with my mother and star in opposite my brother. It is called Newton's Cradle. We are going to do a reading of it this summer to find a house for it.
It's about a young man who is on the autistic spectrum coping with grief and confusion about identity in life. It is a family drama taking place across 30 years, and is nonlinear. It's combining Fun Home and Curious Incident into one show, with shades of Light in the Piazza and Next to Normal.
Jesus Christ Superstar rocks now through Sunday, May 20, at the Lyric Opera, 20 N. Upper Wacker Dr., with tickets at JCSuperstar.org .