BWW Interview: Paul Louis Lessard Talks the Importance and Thrill of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at Detroit Opera House
Jesus Christ Superstar, the musical phenomenon with a world-wide fan base, is in Detroit for a short visit following sold engagements in the UK. The reimagined 50th anniversary tour has the beloved music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice and is directed by Timothy Sheader with cutting-edge choreography by Drew McOnie. The story is extraordinary series of events during the final weeks in the life of Jesus Christ as seen through the eyes of Judas. Reflecting the rock roots that defined a generation, the legendary score includes, "I Don't Know How to Love Him," "Gethsemane," and "Superstar." BroadwayWorld Detroit had a moment to speak with native Michigander, Paul Louis Lessard, who plays King Herod in the show about why this is an important piece of theatre and so much more!
BroadwayWorld Detroit: Can you give our readers a brief background of yourself and then your theatre career as an introduction?
Paul Louis Lessard: I was raised in Okemos, Michigan. I was involved in theatre in my community all through middle and high school. I spent some time at the Interlochen Arts Center in Northern Michigan. I went to camp there for a few summers, worked there in college, and I went there for school for a semester in high school. I kept up my Michigan training by attending the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor for their musical theatre program. After graduating, I've been working professionally all over the country and internationally as a performer in theatre and as a singer.
How would you describe the Jesus Christ Superstar?
Jesus Christ Superstar is a really important piece of theatre, music, and culture because it really has staying power. When the album came out originally as a concept album 50 years ago, it really utilized and highlighted the music of the times. It came out in 1971 and it won the 1971 Billboard Album of the Year, so that kind of shows it was a really important piece of pop culture. I think it has staying power because it takes a kind of prolific tale and story that the world knows about a man and his following and what happens to him in last week of his life and it sets it to these huge inspiring and thrilling pieces of music. I think the result is a really moving, electric, fresh theatrical experience that's driven by rock music of the early '70s. You know music can transcend generations and countries and it can really bring people together; so I think the combination of the classic story with the exciting rock music of the '70s and then the rock and pop performers of 2019 singing and performing the way you might hear them at a modern-day concert is a formula for an amazing night at the theatre!
What is like playing such a pivotal role as Herod?
I love playing quote bad guys unquote [laughs] because there is a lot of color and a lot of room for interpretation. I always say that no character, no person, is downright bad. Behind every bad guy is a good guy that has kind of gone wrong. I love playing Herod. It's a chance in the show where the audience can breathe a little, they can laugh. Especially in this show, I love that our brilliant creative team has kind of come up with an androgynous, genderbending, outspoken, rock kind of glam creature that gets to emote, sing, dance, and really gets to thrust into the spotlight for a few minutes. I think is really important to see that kind of representation on stage, especially in the year 2020. We have drawn inspiration from these defiant rock gods throughout the years like David Bowie, Annie Lennox, and have kind of come up with just this unique interpretation that I really do feel honored to portray every night. I feel like I can let every aspect of myself, not only as a person, but also as performer be completely out there for the world to see with absolutely no apologies. I think it's important to make every bad guy likable because you kind of want the audience on your side. No one is inherently bad, they are just misunderstood in the world. They think they are doing the best job that they can. I love playing Herod. Flashy, electric, energetic, kind of three minutes on stage, and he kind of leaves the audiences going 'whoa, what just happened?' and I kind of love having that kind of impact in the show.
Do you have a favorite moment in the show?
I always say one of my favorite moments in the show is King Herod's reveal. He comes out in this extravagant costume and then in the number is a huge reveal that sometimes it leaves the audience in shock and sometimes there is applause. I think it's a really fun moment. The action of that song kind of escalates and escalates into a kind of dramatic finale so I love being a part of that. And that's all I will say with about it. Then I love that song that follows after King Herod's song called, "Could We Start Again Please." It's sung by Mary Magdalene and Peter. It's the only song that was not in the original brown album, the concept album, which our show pays homage to, but it's from the movie and so people have come to love it. It's a beautiful song and a moment for the audience to breathe during the latter half of the show, which can get pretty intense that focus' on Jesus in Gethsemane all the way to his arrest and the trial and ultimately to the Crucifixion. It's a moment for the audience to stop, ponder, and take a breath. It's a nice tone and pacing shift that I'm not a part of - I'm getting out of Herod at the moment - but I've always listened to and I've always loved that song. I'm glad that it's a part of our production.
What makes the Jesus Christ Superstar special?
I think what makes the show special is first and foremost it's a rock opera. Rock operas are unique, as I mentioned before, because they take these massive tales and utilize the music of the generation, which they were written. So, the combination of this prolific story and then when you add in raw, electric, intense music of our time it makes for a really unique experience. Our creative team has brought in this modern and fresh vision, especially our choreographer Drew McOnie, they've created this modern from which these well-known characters and songs to live in. Again, you'll be seeing and hearing artist of 2019 come in with a modern-day rock and roll sensibility that makes it relatable to a current audience.
Describe the show in five words.
Electric. Thrilling. Fresh. Moving. Emotional.
What is like for you to come back to Michigan and perform on stage?
Honestly, I get a little emotional when I talk about it, it really is a dream come true. I feel so extremely grateful. Extremely grateful because as a kid growing up in mid-Michigan, I would go and see these big touring shows at the Wharton Center in East Lansing, the Fox Theatre in Detroit with my family, seeing shows at the Masonic Temple, seeing shows at the Detroit Opera House - I was that kid who would sit in the audience and watch in awe and wonder at these worlds that are created on stage. I would think I want to do that - that's what I want to do. It means the world to me through this journey that started ever since I was a little kid and here I am. And, I'm not exaggerating, Jesus Christ Superstar is hands down my favorite show. I listened to it with my parents growing up on their original vinyl. I've always loved it. I've always loved rock operas. So, not only am I in a show that I love, in a role that I feel really honored to be portraying, in an amazing Olivier-winning production in its North American premiere, in my home state, with all my friends and family coming from all over, it really means a lot to me and I'm really grateful for it. I'm so excited for the engagement at the Detroit Opera House for our run from February 4th through the 9th.
What would you say to a child coming to the show who has the same aspirations that you once did when you were seeing touring shows - as if you were giving advice to your younger self?
In thinking about the role that I'm playing now, I feel that it's just a celebration in all the aspects that me in myself unique. I would tell - and I do tell, when I teach high school and college students - that every aspect of yourself that makes you, you should be celebrated, should be thrust into the forefront, into the spotlight, it sounds cheesy, but it's true: there is no other you on this planet. Embracing those aspects of yourself that make you different are going to work exponentially to your benefit when you pursue music or theatre or performing. Train as hard as you can in as main different aspects whether it be voice, acting, dance, instruments, and beyond that really pursue and cultivate your interests outside of performing because that will make you a much more well-rounded person but a much more interesting performer when you bring your insights and passions from the outside world to your craft. To keep going and there's a place for everyone and to keep the perseverance going because there are ups and downs and in-betweens, but if you can find inspiration and the passion within yourself to keep going and put yourself out there, then someone else will see that and together you can celebrate it.
Why should Detroit audiences come see Jesus Christ Superstar?
I think Jesus Christ Superstar has been around and relevant for 50 years and there's a good reason for that: this production takes one of the most prolific tales ever told with some of the most exciting music of the century and combines it into a thrilling fresh and new modern retelling that audiences in 2020 will find inspirational, moving, and thrilling and if you want to know why come check us out at the Detroit Opera House February 4th through the 9th.
Jesus Christ Superstar runs until February 9th at Detroit Opera House in Detroit. For more information and tickets, visit www.BroadwayInDetroit.com.