photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade
In some ways, Elvie Ellis has been preparing for his role as Judas his whole life. From discovering Jesus Christ Superstar in college and recently singing the opening track on a weekly basis in hopes of joining a production of the show, it’s safe to say this show was meant to be for Ellis. Below, he talks about why this show is so special and beloved over 50 years since it began, and how he prepares to be a part of the experience each night. Philadelphia can witness this one-of-a-kind Broadway rock opera in Philadelphia through May 7th.
Q: Tell me about your initial experience with Jesus Christ Superstar, when did you first discover the show or the music?
A: My first encounter with Jesus Christ Superstar was my sophomore year of college at the University of Oklahoma. The College of Fine Arts did this huge production called The Music of Andrew Lloyd Webber and “Superstar” was the opening number. While I had solos in the show, I sang in the choir on that number, and I remember being in awe of my classmate who sang the Judas solo. At that time if you would have told me that years later I would be singing that song 8x a week I would have laughed in your face!
Q: This is the 50th anniversary tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, why do you think the show is still going strong after half a century?
A: Jesus Christ Superstar is one of the most iconic pieces of work in the musical theatre canon, and in contemporary music in general. Because the show was originally a rock album before it was staged, there are so many people who identify with it, even if they don’t consider themselves “theatre people”. Add to that a tale as old as time, some unbelievably high singing, and a splash of controversy depending on the viewers’ interpretation, and you’ve got yourself an instant classic.
Q: How do you prepare for a role like Judas?
A: Pray, drink water, sleep 12 hours a day, and pray some more. In all seriousness, Judas is known as one of the most difficult and demanding vocal roles for the male voice in musical theatre. I had been preparing to do this role long before I got the call that said I had booked the show. For at least three years I sang “Heaven On Their Minds”, the opening number of the show and one of the hardest songs for Judas, on a weekly basis hoping and praying for someone to do a production of JCS that I could be a part of. In terms of the character itself, I really had to rethink everything I thought I knew about Judas. Growing up in the church I had always seen him as the big bad guy of the gospel story, but in order to bring something deeper to the character I had to ask myself what were Judas’ motivations for his actions, and try to imagine Elvie the actor in the same set of circumstances to see how I would react. I also did a lot of research – I listened to podcasts and read articles that helped me see Judas the person, instead of just Judas, the betrayer.
Q: As a rock-opera, how does Jesus Christ Superstar differ from other musicals we may have seen this season?|A: JCS is a fast-paced, 90-minute, rock musical concert that starts at a 10 and pretty much stays there the entire time. There is no intermission in our show, and the show is sung-through, meaning the story is told through music alone with no spoken dialogue. Inspired by the 1971 concept album, commonly referred to as “The Brown Album”, it’s as if our show starts by putting the needle down on the vinyl record, and we don’t stop until the very end. Audiences can expect all of the drama of a stereotypical opera, and the glitz and glamour of rock concert, all rolled into one.
Q: What’s your favorite song in the show?
A: Easily, I’d have to say my favorite song in the show is “The Last Supper”. Without giving too much away, it features an argument between Jesus and Judas, and every single time Jack Hopewell (who play Jesus) and I get to this part of the show, it feels like it’s happening for the very first time. The music and staging of that song evokes such a raw and present emotion almost every time I leave the stage I have to really catch my breath and remind myself that it’s all make believe.
Q: Jesus Christ Superstar last played Philadelphia in 2009…why do you hope musical theatre fans come back to see it again?
A: I hope people come to see Jesus Christ Superstar because this telling of the story is truly unlike any other that has been done. Brilliantly crafted by Olivier Award winning director and choreographer Tim Sheader and Drew McOnie respectively, this production for JCS will leave the audience reeling and questioning just about everything they thought they know about the Gospel Story. There’s no strange interpretation on display (not set in the modern day on Wall Street, or in a post-apocalyptic society), but the audience might leaving wondering if what they saw took place in 1st century Judea, or yesterday on TV. This production is timeless, and the focus is on the music, which illuminates the relationships between the characters and the true human nature of every person involved. I hope people come see the show to see a fresh take on an old classic.