BWW Interview: 6 Questions & a Plug with JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR's James Rocco

BWW Interview: 6 Questions & a Plug with JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR's James Rocco

Saint Paul's Ordway has been getting rave reviews from all my friends at the Twin Cities Theatre Bloggers, and for good reason. It's an explosive show with tons of talent. All that has been harnessed and used to create a fast-moving, spirited production directed and choreographed by James Rocco. I had some questions for him about the show, which you can see through July 30. In this 6 Questions & a Plug, get some behind-the-scenes info and insight on JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR.

There are so many things I want to ask about this production! I'm intrigued about the fact that you've done this show 18 times since 1988 when you played Judas in your first production of JCS. Your production notes mention seeing it through new eyes. When you do a production multiple times, what is your process for creating a new version of the show and do you try to make things different or make intentional changes to mix it up?

Every time I start a show I think, what was the author's intention, why did they write this show? Then I ponder why the show resonated with the audience when it was first produced. I do this whether it is a show that is totally new to me or a show I am revisiting. The next step is what about the show will resonate with contemporary culture. I take all of that with me when I begin with designers and cast. I share my thoughts and ask them to contribute theirs. That's how it all takes shape. I try to avoid arbitrary choices just to "mix things up" even though I love different choices. This Superstar is very different than any other I've done and at the same time it is the same.

One of the major changes I noticed was the crucifixion scene and the added jazz score and ascension of Jesus; how did that come about in your work on the show and was there something behind adding jazz to a show with such strong 70s pop sound?

Actually that is the score as first written into the rental materials. It is pretty spacey isn't it?

It is! I had no idea, and I've done this show, too! This season is really interesting with the many Ordway Originals you're doing and the opportunity for so many local actors to have leads in these high caliber productions. We obviously get to see the fabulous Randy Schmeling and Dieter Bierbrauer in major roles in this production, but you chose some unknowns to the Twin Cities for Jesus and Mary Magdalene. How did you go about casting them/finding them?

Ever since I arrived in the Twin Cities my casting process has been first we see anyone and everyone who wants to audition in the Twin Cities. Once I begin to get a feel for the chemistry of the company that emerges from those auditions I fill in the blanks. For me it is a long process that involves how everyone will fit together. Sometimes someone walks through the door and you just know they have to be in the show. I knew Randy and Dieter would be in the show after we all did the Broadway Songbook of the 70s. Of course, they auditioned just like everyone else in the cast but my instinct was they were the people who were right for this production. Jesse blew me away from the moment we met in New York and Lauren had driven to the Ordway, from Chicago, a few years back to audition at an open call. Ever since I've been hoping we'd have a chance to do something together. She auditioned in New York (thanks to Reid Harmsen) and it was obvious this was the right moment. The combination of artists is what makes every show work. We have such a potent community here and our potency is effected and changed when visiting artists are added to the mix. Theatre is a collaborative art form. We are lucky to all get an opportunity to touch each other's idea of art.

Jesus Christ Superstar logo

The choreography for JCS is super intricate and super fast (super keeps coming up in my thoughts -- probably meant to be!). Your cast gets a major workout keeping up with "The Temple" & "Damned For All Time" and most others. The show itself seemed to fly by. Was there an intentional choice to do the show faster, and how did you and your associate choreographers work to create these dances?

I could go on and on about Lisa (Bartholomew-Given) and Ashley (Selmer) and Louise (Madison). Our synergy is remarkable. Lisa has worked on every main stage show I've done at The Ordway. Ashley has become a daughter to me and Louise comes from the same world I came from. Any one of them can step in and create fabulous moments. It is a blessing and frankly at this point, I'm not sure who made up which steps. We got together before rehearsals and I shared my concepts for each number and some steps. At first I gave them 32 bars of various pieces to create their own steps and soon we were making things up together.

I have to ask this: How did you pull off Judas' hanging? That was an amazing effect -- my companion was frightened for Randy!

It was a blast passing that trick on to Randy. The effect was created by Flying by Foy. They are the people who flew Mary Martin in PETER PAN. The trick is their trade secret and I have never seen it fail. You gotta try it someday!

That would be fun! You mentioned in your notes, again, that you've learned the enemy of art is assumption. The story of Jesus Christ underscores this, of course, but also the times we're in today have a lot to teach us about how different intentions can be perceived by others. What conversations have come out of this production and have any others that you weren't anticipating happened?

I am always surprised by the conversations that emerge from art. You know I believe musical theater is a product of diversity in America. The only way for it to survive is to continually speak to the people in the community. Superstar is indeed a natural for discussion. A story that is part of our collective consciousness and still debated.

In my 6 Questions format, I always end with a chance to talk about what's next for you -- which is a whole other interview with you! We will get there soon, but can you give a little preview of what readers can expect with IN THE HEIGHTS this fall?

In The Heights will be the last show I direct and choreograph as the producing artistic director of the Ordway. It's a beautiful contemporary show written by Lin-Manuel Miranda while he was in college. It seemed a perfect blend in a season that included WEST SIDE STORY because it deals with Latin cultural traditions and the Americanization of multi generations of immigrants. It's a universal story that is built around the experience of the community of people who lived in Washington Heights who embrace traditions while also embracing life on the Upper West Side of New York City. I grew up in New York City, walked the same streets that the show is set on. I can't wait to delve into the experience of my own Italian immigrant family and the experience of the friends I grew up with.

More info:

Tickets for the remaining shows are available at Plays through Sunday, July 30 (matinee at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.).

IN THE HEIGHTS will play the Ordway stage Sept. 12-24.

Photo: James Rocco,

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From This Author Kristen Hirsch Montag

Kristen Hirsch Montag Kristen Hirsch Montag is a public relations/media rep for Meet Minneapolis, Convention and Visitors Association by day and self-professed theatre geek by night. She regularly (read more...)

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