Jesus Christ Superstar, the controversial rock opera by Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, makes its 50th anniversary tour stop in Oklahoma City this month.
It runs Feb. 14 through 19 at the Civic Center as part of the 2023 OKC Broadway series.
A reimagined account of the Christian gospels told from Judas’ point of view, the earthly Jesus is painted as a rockstar with hordes of crazed fans in his wake in lieu of pious followers. The show remains polarizing and has been criticized for being blasphemous, offensive, and even antisemitic. The show’s creators remained ever faithful, backing their intentions to create a relatable, humanized version of the deity. The original run was nominated for five Tony Awards, and a Broadway revival in 2012 introduced Jesus Christ Superstar to a younger generation of theatre goers, one that is more tolerant of religious controversy than their grandparents were. The 50th anniversary tour remounts the original show and puts a modern spin on it with a vibrant, diverse cast as well as striking costuming and staging choices.
This touring production is of particular interest to Oklahoma City, as one of our own steps into the iconic role of Judas. Oklahoma native Elvie Ellis graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2014 and went on to perform first in the national tour of Waitress. He joined the cast of Jesus Christ Superstar in October as part of the 45-city national tour.
“This show is really special because it’s celebrating the 50th anniversary of one of the most iconic musicals in theatre history,” Ellis said. “Jesus Christ Superstar has such a long-standing history and dedicated following, so it’s awesome to be a part of that legacy on this scale. Playing Judas has been so rewarding because this is a true dream role of mine. When I first fell in love with musical theatre, I never thought I would be able to sing this role or perform at this level, so it’s been fulfilling and affirming to be able to do this.”
When a local performer swings back through town on a national tour, it’s a rite of passage and performing at the Civic Center is a full-circle moment for performers and audiences alike.
“There’s nothing quite like returning to Oklahoma to perform. I was born and raised in Oklahoma City, and this is where I first experienced theatre and became obsessed with the artform. It’s surreal to be able to come back home in a production of this scale and to be performing at the OKC Civic Center where I’ve seen countless touring shows, in hopes that one day I would be performing on that stage. I’ll be dedicating each performance to the place I call home and all the people — family, friends, and teachers — that have helped me get here,” Ellis said.
Performing the show in his hometown in the buckle of the Bible Belt added to the full circle moment for him.
“I’m most excited for Oklahoma City audiences to just experience this story. Jesus Christ Superstar is a story many people know, love, believe, and identify with. I think we tell it in a way that makes people think about these characters as real people with full feelings, fears, hopes, and doubts. They’re not portrayed as just ancient, one-dimensional beings. I hope people come see our show and leave asking themselves who they might be in this story, what decisions they might make if faced with the same circumstances, who the real villain is in the story, or if there is even a villain at all. Telling this story, the way we tell it, has given me the opportunity to see these two characters in particular (Jesus and Judas) as people first and epic Biblical figures second. It’s allowed me to see them both as whole people with their own questions, hopes, and anxieties. And, I must admit, it makes me want to live out my Christian faith in a more authentic, people-oriented way,” Ellis said.
It also is a chance to bring the magic of a Broadway show to audiences who otherwise wouldn’t have had a chance to see it.
“My favorite thing about touring with this production is bringing high quality, Broadway-caliber theatre to people across the country. Traveling to New York City to see a Broadway show can cost a lot of money, and the unfortunate reality is that many people don’t have the resources to make a trip like that possible for them or their family. I love that we get to bring that special experience to people right in their hometowns (or close to it). We get so many people at the stage door that tell us this was their first live musical experience ever, and so many young people in high school or college who come to be inspired and fulfilled. It’s a real honor to be a part of that moment for so many,” Ellis said.
But the role itself is incredibly demanding, he said.
“Judas is known as one of the most vocally demanding roles ever written for the male voice, and people who come to see Jesus Christ Superstar always have high expectations for the actor playing that role. Being disciplined outside of the show, getting enough sleep, resting my voice when needed, and taking care of my body so that I can give my best performance has been the biggest challenge,” Ellis said.
His favorite moment comes from the opening number “Heaven on Their Minds.”
“I think it beautifully captures all the complicated emotions Judas must have had leading up to his betrayal of Jesus. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice masterfully captured Judas’ love and fear for Jesus, and what he believed was to come. It’s exhilarating to try to bring forth all those feelings in a four-minute song each night,” he said.