BWW Interview: Tommy McDowell of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR at the Orpheum
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR has been around for half a century and is still going strong. The national tour heading to Omaha in December has a new style and I'm particularly eager to see it. I spoke with Tommy McDowell who plays Peter to see what he has to say.
You've done quite a few productions. What's your story? When did you start performing?
Oh wow, let's see...I joined my first boys' choir in third grade at the request of my mother. Then after several years of developing a love for singing, I went to school for opera on a vocal scholarship. I got my degree in vocal performance at Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama in 2003. Growing up in Alabama, there's not much of a culture for choosing the arts as a career path, so I kind of fell into that mindset of, "Well, I got my degree in this, so I guess I'll go sell life insurance." And that's exactly what I did for the first three months after graduation. I quickly tired of that and then moved to Boston to join a band with my high school best friend. I also sold Steinway pianos for a living while I was there.
I was performing a little bit, but I wasn't really singing. I was really missing that in the first few years of my time in Boston. Then one night at dinner I told an old friend of mine that I missed singing. I missed performing. At the time, she happened to work as the Assistant to the Head of Entertainment at Busch Gardens in Virginia. A few months later she called me and said, "Hey, if that's still true, if you want to get out there and perform, we have a spot available for you in one of our summer shows." So I took that job in 2006 (my first professional gig) and soon fell in love with the people that I was working with and the lifestyle itself. I decided to make a go for it and I moved to New York City in 2007.
You talk about selling pianos, but I read that you also play piano, guitar, trumpet, and jazz banjo.
Yeah, I learned the jazz banjo for the Roundabout Theatre Company tour of CABARET. It was such a great experience. I had no previous experience with the banjo, so they set me up with a teacher in New York and I had about a month's worth of lessons. I took that, went home to Alabama for two weeks, and practiced it every day. I showed up on day one of rehearsals and could pretty much play the whole show. It was hard work, but it definitely paid off as I reprised my role in Ogunquit Theatre's recent production of CABARET. Also, I can now say that I come from Alabama with a banjo on my knee.
Do you play an instrument in JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR?
Yes, and I love it. It's one of the things that our director Tim Sheader wanted for this production; specifically, for Jesus and Peter to have that sort of singer-songwriter vibe. So there are moments where Jesus and Peter play guitar together, and there's another moment where Mary and Peter sing a duet accompanied by piano and me on the acoustic guitar. I actually play quite a bit in the show. I've had people come up to me afterward and comment on it. It's a lot of fun for me because it allows me to flex that muscle and practice doing that in front of a large audience every night. It's something I'm not really used to; I mostly just play guitar at home and among friends. This is a pretty cool treat.
So it's an acoustic guitar? I'm used to JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR being electric guitar in this rock opera.
There are some low key moments in the show where you kind of unplug for a bit. It allows you to sit back and release the discord and tension before they bring the electric guitars back in.
Is your singing style in the show more singer-songwriter as well?
Yeah, it's safe to say that in my solo lines I'm using a more laid back approach. What they have me singing is more on the softer side while still maintaining that cool energy of the show. I don't have to do the shredding that Jesus, Judas and Pontius Pilate all get to do. It's definitely easier on the voice, but those guys have cords of steel so they can handle it.
So Jesus in this national tour does belt?
Oh for sure! He does have a nice rock falsetto. He doesn't really pull it out but a handful of moments in the show, like the Temple scene. Definitely during Gethsemane he uses that rock falsetto. Of course he has to rest between shows to recuperate his voice. He does a lot of hard singing during the show and I don't envy him that.
I'm sure as a vocally trained opera singer you're very conscious about how to care for your voice.
If I start to get vocally tired, I go on vocal rest and I don't talk between shows. The key is to stay hydrated and warm up before every performance.
Did you watch JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR when you were young?
I was vaguely familiar with the album. I had a lot of friends who were in musical theatre. I saw a high school production of it at John Carroll High School in Birmingham. That was my only introduction to any live performance of this show prior to seeing this production two years ago at Regent's Park. I happened to be on vacation visiting friends in London. One of those friends is Declan Bennett who was playing Jesus at the time. It lined up perfectly where I was able to buy a ticket to see Declan play Jesus. I didn't know what to expect, having never really seen a professional production of this show before. I was floored! When you do this for a living, the first thing that goes through your mind is, "What can I play in this show?"
Talking with Declan afterward, I got to meet the music supervisor Tom Deering. I said to Declan, "Dude, I would love to play Peter and understudy you. If this show ever comes to America, sign me up!" You know, neither he nor I have any control over it. But! A few days later I saw a Facebook post from our producer Steve Gabriel who said he was going to see the production at Regent's Park as well. Steve and I are pretty close. This is my fourth tour with WorkLight Productions, AMERICAN IDIOT being the third, and then a couple of TYA tours before that: FLAT STANLEY and A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD. So I just reached out to him and said, "I see you're going to see JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. I just saw it and it's amazing." I asked him if he had plans to bring it to the States. He said he was working on it. I said, "Great! I'll see you in the audition room."
And here you are!
And here I am. I love that I had prior knowledge of this particular production and a love for it before even setting foot in the rehearsal room. I brought that respect for the show with me to the audition. I made sure I was prepared. It seems like they had some difficulty casting some of the other parts. It took them a long time to find just the right people. But I had the rare fortune of being offered this job about six months before rehearsals started. I guess they saw me and said, "That's our Peter." It's amazing to me.
JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR has been around for 50 years. It started as a concept album before going to Broadway. Now this tour is performed more as a concert again, right?
Yeah. It's a lot of things. It certainly doesn't lose the storytelling aspect that you would find in a staged musical. But it could also easily stand on its own as a modern dance piece. It uses movement to tell the story in a way that I'm sure no production of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR has done before. Although I will also say that I did watch the televised production and that used a lot of really cool movement. Our choreographer Drew McOnie is, for lack of a better word...a genius. He has the mind of a director but his choreography is so stylized and specific and recognizable. I didn't know that he was the choreographer for this piece when I first saw it in London. I was too focused on Declan and seeing him nail it as Jesus (no pun intended!). A couple of years later I saw KING KONG on Broadway and I was watching the choreography. It was almost like déjà vu. I thought it looked like the same choreographer as SUPERSTAR in London. Turns out, it was. Without using any of the same movements, he just has a recognizable style. The ensemble moves as a group in a way that is mesmerizing.
But aside from it being a tremendous dance performance, it still accomplishes its primary goal of paying homage to and maintaining the integrity of the original concept album. The sound of this show is breathtaking, from the killer guitar riffs to the amazing brass and woodwind section. I really can't say enough great things about our orchestra (led by Shawn Gough) and our sound team (led by Anthony Cuozzo with sound design by Keith Caggiano and Nick Lidster).
I remember the choreography of KING KONG being really interesting.
Yeah, We're not doing any of the swing style that there was in KING KONG. And I wouldn't really call what we do hip hop. It's more of a modern style. Please forgive my somewhat limited vocabulary as I don't consider myself a dancer, per se. They have me doing about half of the choreography that the rest of ensemble do, but I'm definitely not mad about it. (laughs) I'm not struggling by any means, but by the end of the show I'm rolling out my back and stretching. The choreography is tough, but it's one of my favorite parts of the show.
The costuming looks contemporary...like a lot of hoodies and sweats.
Yes, but it also features muted colors, so as to not distract the eye or the mind from the story that's being told. But then you have a costume like King Herod's, which has drastically evolved from when I first saw the show two years ago. It has gone from extremely simplistic to very gaudy. The costume that they've landed on for Paul Louis Lessard who plays Herod in this production is like...it's just so cool! Several audiences have given him an entrance applause for it. Tom Scutt is such a brilliant designer.
What would you like to say that I haven't asked?
You know, I actually spoke on the phone with our producer Steve Gabriel yesterday. He was asking how everything was going. I told him that I am grateful every day for is this group. We have a cast of 28, 11 in the orchestra, about 50 people total. Everyone in this group is super supportive, super nice, and we've really bonded well. We consider ourselves a family because you have to be when you travel and see each other every day. There can be a lot of opportunity for tension and drama and it's easy to let one or two wrong people affect the entire group. But we have a stellar group traveling with us. They did a great job casting actors who have an understanding of what it takes to be on the road and how to treat each other with kindness and respect. We as a cast gather in a circle prior to each performance, taking 6-10 deep breaths together to center us and bring us to the same space. That's where it starts. The audience will eventually be brought into that space with us, but we first need to get there on our own. We then choose one cast member to say something inspiring or something that's been on their mind to which we can dedicate the show...whether it be creativity or family or whatever that person has on their heart to say. Then once we hit the ground running there's no stopping. It's full throttle from start to finish. It's really a thrill and I'm very fortunate to be a part of it.Performances Dec 10-15.Ticket Omaha.com or call 402-345-0606