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DEBUT OF THE MONTH: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR's Paul Nolan

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Actor Paul Nolan is currently making his Broadway debut as 'Jesus' in The Stratford Shakespeare Festival's production of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice's Jesus Christ Superstar. The show, directed by Des McAnuff, opened on March 22 at the Neil Simon Theatre. Nolan originated the role of Jesus at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and most recently at the La Jolla Playhouse. Jesus Christ Superstar is loosely based on the Gospel and recounts the final days in the life of Jesus Christ.

Nolan's other Stratford Festival credits include As You Like It (Orlando), The Grapes of Wrath (Al Joad), West Side Story (Tony), Cyrano de Bergerac (Valvert) and Cabaret (Bobby). The actor has also appeared onscreen in The Gospel of John, Shapeshifter, Strike!, Cruel Intentions 2 and On My Mind. 

In a recent chat with BWW, Nolan shared his thoughts on what it is like to portray the famed biblical character in this iconic rock opera. 

I'm interested in hearing about your early years. I understand you grew up in a very small farming town in Saskatchewan.

Yes I did. In a town called Rouleau - about five hundred people big, or small. My graduating class had seventeen people in it. I mean it was a really, really, really small town. You know people in the U.S. talk about their small towns and I'm like 'how small was your town?' and they're like 'oh 45,000'. Technically now I come from Stratford and that's considered a small town, but that's still 35,000. Rouleau is your very stereotypical type of farming town.

In a town that size, how did you get involved in performing?

I got into performing when I was 13. That's when I did my first show. But I wasn't totally thinking I was going to do it as a career at that point. I just really liked it. I liked the community of people. And this was just small community theater at that point. In Regina, which is the capital city of Saskatchewan, there was a pretty substantial theatrical community and I loved the people. I played hockey my whole childhood and the people were great, but with the people in the artistic community, it felt a bit more where my home was.

Was there an actual turning point when you knew that theater was what you wanted to pursue professionally?

There was actually. It was when I saw 'Les Mis'. You know I was pretty runty as a kid. I was a small guy for a long time and I'm not a particularly girthy guy by any means now, but at fourteen I was maybe 5' 3" so I was late to grow. But when I saw 'Les Mis' I was like, 'I got to play that part of 'Gavroche'. My voice hadn't changed either at that point. It was the first time I realized that people did that as a way of making a living.

I read that you were offered an audition at the Randolph Academy of Musical Theater because a Board member from the school heard you singing in the shower.

Yeah that was simply luck. Complete and utter luck. I was hanging around in Toronto, working at a Starbucks and trying to get work as an actor. I was living with my sister who had broken her ankle so she had to hold meetings out of her house. She was having a meeting to plan a professional fundraiser and a board member was over, and he heard me singing in the shower. He didn't stick around to meet me but he told my sister he'd call later and talk to me about the school and that they were having auditions and that I should go. So I did. Before that I had been enrolled in University of Toronto's music program. I went there for a week and I dropped out for various reasons. First of all, I didn't have some of the academic background that they required. They had somehow overlooked that fact when they let me in the program. I liked to tell people that I was a prodigy, but I doubt that that was true. (laughing) I could have stayed but I would have had to take a lot of remedial classes and it would have been hard academically to do well. And in the meantime that kind of program wasn't my way of learning. I'm a pretty hands on person. It was just a lucky thing and Randolph was exactly the kind of school I wanted to go to but I didn't know that it existed. And they ended up giving me a full scholarship. I was very lucky.

While you were at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Canada, Des McAnuff (director of Jesus Christ Superstar) approached you about playing the role of Jesus without even having you audition for it. 

Yeah, I had been at the Stratford Festival for five years and Des was the artistic director of the festival. He was my director for 'As You Like It' in my fourth season so we had a working relationship. In Stratford they do a lot of planning ahead for the next year's schedule, so I don't know at what point he knew he would do Superstar. He actually just told me recently that I was one of the reasons why he selected that show - which is pretty flattering. And one of the reasons he thought of me for it was when we had a meeting earlier on in his tenure as the director there, I guess I had told him that my dream show to do in Stratford would be Jesus Christ Superstar, playing Jesus. So it's pretty flattering to have been an influence on some of his artistic ideas. Des is a pretty visionary guy.  I'm really lucky to have worked with him. The funny thing was, I think I was in the second or third preview for "As You Like It" when he told me about his decision to do Superstar just before the show was about to start, which was kind of distracting! (laughing) But it was my dream role.

You've taken on this role several times before this current production. Do you feel you approach it differently each time? DEBUT OF THE MONTH: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR's Paul Nolan

No I don't. There were some things I got right the first time and I'm very different from the first time I put it on. A lot of people say I've grown a lot, even since we did it in La Jolla, and that's true. I'd be sad if I hadn't, because that's my job. You have to dig deeper and explore more and to be present as an actor means you are present with yourself. And you know we change. So essentially the seed that started to grow when I played it the first time is continuing to bloom and grow and bloom and grow. And I'm much more confident now as an actor. I'm much more skilled, partially from working and partially from the training I received from the Stratford Festival.

As I was watching the show I was wondering if you feel a certain responsibility portraying such an iconic figure who has such an important historical and religious significance to so many. Does it influence your acting at all?

I'm not aware of that when I'm doing the show. When we rehearse it comes into your mind. I don't feel pressure to be everybody's Jesus because obviously that's not possible. But I do feel a sense of, I don't think responsibility is the right word, more a sense of privilege playing him and I do respect that I'm playing him. There's no part of me that would ever set out to be irreverent ever. I think I'm responsible first of all to the show and what this show actually is - how it's written musically and lyrically, because that's what we're doing. We're not actually performing a passion play, we're performing a passion play within the context of the musical theater genre along with the creator's embellishments. So the responsibility I have is to what it is I'm trying to say and how does that feel for me. And then of course you go to the source material and you look at where they took it from and you slowly and surely use it with as much of your own imagination and heart and experience as you can.

I believe the part is so well written. They've done a very very good job of leaving certain things ambiguous. That is much more interesting to me than unambiguous and I think what's much more important is leaving the theater having questions and conversations. So I hope that's happening. It's a really great rock show and you can just sit and listen to it and enjoy it, but there are so many layers there and hopefully the audience will allow what we're doing to help them see those under layers and ask questions.

Along those lines is that powerful scene where needy people are reaching out for your help and you ultimately yell at them, "Heal yourselves!. For lack of a better term, it almost seems that Jesus was 'burnt out' by that point in his life.

Well there actually apparently is a technical term or a medical term for what we call 'burn out'. I forget the name for it at the moment, but it almost happens when you have so much compassion that you just burn out.  And possibly that happened to Jesus. I don't remember reading about that specifically in any of the bible materials but so much of the show is like that scene you described. As I said, a line like that has so many layers. The show goes by so fast and of course you're not going to get everything the first time or the tenth time, but "heal yourself' is such a wonderful thing to say. I mean it kind of comes out from being overwhelmed. The first layer is that I can help you. But it's more than that. It's a wish for them to not look externally for the answers. To not constantly be looking outwards. So that scene is not just about leprocy and being poor. It's about so much more than that.

And perhaps he also knew his days were numbered  and that soon he wouldn't be able to help them. He wanted to know that they would be okay without him.

Well of course, that's the thing I talk about a lot just because all of us want our lives to have meaning and feel like we accomplished what we set out to accomplish. How many people actually wind up feeling that way, I don't know, but of course he was really trying to finish what he had started out to do.

I know that you have taken on Shakespearean roles as well. Do you have a preference for that versus musical theater?

You know what I'd have to say is, I'm not particularly comfortable with Shakespeare yet. I haven't done a ton of it. I find it... well it's like taking that cough medicine that tastes bad but it works! It really, really is a very good litmus test for an actor. And it doesn't mean that all good actors do Shakespeare. I don't think that's true. There's a lot of good actors and some of them can't do it. I'm my worst critic and I would say that I'm still one of those actors. I'm much more comfortable with musical theater.

But you know, doing Shakespeare, I'd have to say is a very good way to work at your acting. There are not many options. You just have to be really clear about everything that you're saying.  And musicals are not that much different than Shakespeare. I never understood what people were talking about when they said that, but I do now because I'm working on musicals and Shakespeare. You come to recognize that there is a rhythm to Shakespeare and you can't take it at your own pace. It's kind of like Jesus Christ Superstar, it doesn't stop. The score just keeps going. If you stop singing, the orchestra is not going to follow you. And while Shakespeare doesn't have music underneath it that's audible to the audience, if you stop speaking, the audience will feel it. For me, it's a lot harder because you don't have a conductor. You are basically playing your own conductor You really have to do a lot of work to play that part. 

DEBUT OF THE MONTH: JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR's Paul NolanWhat was Opening Night like for you last week?

Oh my God  - it was crazy. This town is so unlike any place I've ever been. I didn't want to put a lot of energy toward Opening Night because I need every ounce of my energy for the show and so I didn't want to do a bunch of running around, but I ended up doing a bunch of running around all day and I don't really know how that happened!

We had a short rehearsal and all that and a pep talk from Des and did the show and the audience was crazy and awesome. The show was a pretty good show. I always think that Opening Nights are a little bit not like the show you've rehearsed, even though all the critics have already been there. It somehow gets elevated to this gala night. You know, I'm not one to bask in the limelight of what I'm doing and I have to say that I haven't always been that way. There probably would have been one time in my career, maybe even as early as five to seven years ago, where I would have loved all the attention. But honestly I was pretty overwhelmed that night because there were so many people congratulating us and pulling us in every direction. It was pretty overwhelming.

First of all you can't really afford to be talking really loud. Secondly, it's really nice of people to care so much to say "hey, good job" and all of that. So yeah, it was wild and wonderful Pretty crazy to talk to the press. And you get dressed up - I don't think I've ever looked better! (laughing) I wore a suit that was kindly given to me by Calvin Klein. Yes, made a friend at Calvin Klein - Chris Martinelli, really - stepping out! So thanks to them I looked great and probably didn't look as tired as I felt because of them. It was good. It was good. It was crazy but obviously a lot of fun.

Well best of luck with the production. It is truly an electrifying theater experience. 

Well thank you. I know the audience loved it and I hope that's enough that it keeps the life going. You know, we're in a very actor driven version of this and yes, we sing the hell out of it. Some of the reviews celebrated us as 'just great singers', which of course is a compliment, but we aim to make it so more than that. It's an expression of what's going on inside of us and the acting is always first. For me, it always has to be the most important thing. Of course the show has the razzle dazzle but the substance is definitely there as well.

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR is now playing at the Neil Simon Theatre, 250 West 52nd Street. Tickets are available through Ticketmaster at www.ticketmaster.com or by calling 877-250-2929, or in person at the theatre.

Photo credit: 2012, Joan Marcus

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