As premiere night for Jesus Christ Superstar creeps up (March 22), Director Lee Gundersheimer answers some of our most pressing questions about the rock opera phenomenon. This will be Gundersheimer’s fourth time directing an RCT production, and it just might be his finest time yet. See what he has to say about the distinctive cast and the feelings guests can expect to experience at Jesus Christ Superstar.
Why did you agree to guest direct Jesus Christ Superstar?
I was a young boy when this album was first released and I wore the record out all the way up through college. I have always been fascinated by why conflict, good coming from bad, is at the heart of so much of our lives, even our belief systems. It has been on my list of shows I have been most wanting to work on ever since. There is no greater question than what is at the heart of this show.
Have you ever participated in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar before?
Not directly, which is what makes this opportunity so wonderful for me. I taught for a decade at NYU Drama and two of my students were in the most recent televised revival. I told them I was green with envy. They were, not surprisingly, wonderful in the production, and I was so proud of them. Now I hope they will be excited about what we are creating.
What’s your background in directing regional performances?
I have directed all over the country, but for years was based in NYC where I ran two off-Broadway theaters. For the Civic, this is my fourth production. Mauritius, August: Osage County, and Annie were before this. I am hoping RCT is a new theatrical home, and I feel very connected to the artists I am forging creative partnerships with here.
What’s the biggest challenge of being a guest director?
I would say two things are always challenging even when not a “guest director": making sure you have wonderful talents turning up and willing to participate and confining your dreams to a tight budget. RCT has helped alleviate both of these concerns with great effort to help secure artists, and some wonderful flexibility of resources.
What’s your strategy for connecting with cast and crew that you’ve never worked with before?
We spent many days just getting to know each other, chatting before and during rehearsals and exchanging ideas and stories. Here is an example from just last night:
Brent, one of our Apostles, came up to me after a long night of work topped off with five more inches of snow and he said, “Lee, I never have told you why this play is so important to me.”
I said, “No you haven’t. Why?”
“Well, when I was nine, my father bought this album, it had just come out. We used to listen to it together. Over and over. Two years later, when I was 11, he died of cancer. So, every time I wanted to be with him again, I would put on this record and listen to it, and it allowed me to be with my father all over again. Now I get to be in this play, and sing all these songs, over 40 years later. And, I get to be in it with my son (Logan, another Apostle). My father would be so happy.”
Father son duo: Logan and Brent
Have you worked with RCT Executive Director Kevin Miller before?
This is our third show together. Kevin started at RCT while I was working on August: Osage County. I am very grateful for his continued support and encouragement. He understands what a director needs and doesn’t need to be successful. He will be your fiercest advocate and kindest critic. Both are roles he must fulfill.
What makes this production of Jesus Christ Superstar special?
This cast and crew are beyond compare. We have fathers and sons, fathers and daughters, doctors and nurses, some ensemble members who are traveling a few blocks, and some driving through blizzards from the cities and beyond, all rocking and rolling. Many are first-time performers next to very seasoned talents, some like Dianna Parks, who are Rochester icons.
Our Jesus is the wonderful Chad Campbell and our Judas is a first time performer at RCT that will blow the roof off the place: Tommy Hahn. And then we have such fine technical artistry, Kevin Dobbe’s brilliant projections, Doug Sween’s amazing set, Marco Magno’s costumes that span the centuries in style and detail, and Paul Sund’s lighting that could easily be next door at a full-blown national touring rock concert. This production will be a jaw-dropping sight and sound spectacle.
Who should come to see this production?
This production will have something for folks of all faiths and ages. The music is so timeless, most have heard these songs over and over. There is a little bit of everything, from beautiful ballads to rock anthems. But, it is also a musical about the power of faith in our modern world. How do we understand the incomprehensible? And, what place do truth, love, and betrayal have throughout our history? It will be a tonic for your spirit.