Hi, Ria here…
I’ve just finished a run of Jesus Christ Superstar in Gloucester Cathedral, working with the breathtakingly talented Jon Moses, Dan Haslam and Voices Unlimited, not to mention the wonderful Queen’s Philharmonic Orchestra, among others.
To say that the experience was life-changing is not over-stating it. How often does anyone get to work with a cast of 130, plus a 70-piece orchestra, on one of the all-time great musicals, in a building as grand, glorious and gobsmackingly beautiful as Gloucester Cathedral? How often can you say “it sold out, and we experienced complete and rapturous standing ovations every night”? Not often, that’s for sure!
My “Superstar” journey began in June 2013 when I was approached by Jerry Lane (Producer extraordinaire) in my role as Musical Director for Voices Unlimited. He was looking for a large ensemble for the production – one which had the chutzpah to fill the space both in terms of vocal sound and performance. Well, JCS is one of my all-time favourites and I’d never done it before, so saying yes was a no-brainer! At that time I took my role to be that of chorus master, preparing the ensemble. In the fullness of time I knew that I would also work closely on vocal technique with some of the principals, as and when required. I began work with “The Mighty VU” as they are affectionately known, and it soon became apparent that their style was perfectly suited to the soaring, breath-taking score that I have loved since I was a child. A happy MD, I!
Towards the end of 2013 it became clear that the principal casting was not yet complete and I gleefully put forward my 52nd Street bandmate Dan Haslam for the role of Judas. Never were man, voice and role so much made for each other! Dan’s an extraordinarily powerful rock tenor with huge stage presence and serious acting chops. Like most rock tenors, he’d always wanted to play Judas and we were both delighted when he landed the role. Hot on his heels came ITV “Superstar” finalist Jon Moses. I was hand-clappy with glee, as I’d followed the whole “Superstar” thing closely (hadn’t everyone in the biz?) and Jon had been my voice-of-choice from the get-go. He was the “11th man” who was put into the finals at the last minute, and who took a nightly beating from the panel because of his holiday-park-singer background. He was also told with dull regularity that his head voice was weak. This turned out not to be true but I’ll come back to that in a bit. What he definitely had was one of the most glorious chest-voice tones I’ve ever heard. I knew that his glorious baritone chops would meet Dan’s stunning head voice fireworks and magic would be made. And so it was…
Things took a turn for the unexpected and strange in late January when I was asked to direct the show. Now, I had thought that the bulk of my work on the show was done and heaven knows I’m not an experienced director, but sometimes when the planets hand you extraordinary opportunities you just have to take a leap of faith, which is what I did. I knew the show backwards of course, and had a very clear vision for it, but that wouldn’t necessarily translate into great direction, so it was with a good deal of internal anxiety that I started out. Happily, I have spent many thousands of hours in rehearsal rooms watching amazing directors do their thing, and somehow I must have managed to absorb just enough to have a clue. I couldn’t have done it on any level without the influence of three key people – Chris Rozanski of The Birmingham Theatre School, whose utter madness has inspired and challenged me over 14 years; Tracey Street, a Midlands-based director, acting coach and friend, and John-Paul Cherrington, a writer and director whose work I have watched and admired over many years (we worked together on a graduation show production of Coram Boy in 2008 – a piece which tested me to the limit but from which I learned much)! I stole every ounce of everything I could from my experience of watching and working with them and others, and can’t thank them enough (although the day when JP rocked up to watch the end of a rehearsal was one of the most terrifying moments of the whole adventure, it has to be said…)
More strange twisty-turny-ness happened a few weeks later when I was asked to take over the role of Mary at the last minute. My first response was “no”, as by all traditional casting measures for this role I am WAY too old! But a huge amount of research and some ponderings later… I found myself stepping into Lairy Mary’s shoes. I knew I would have to find a different way to play her, because even at a distance of 500 yards, with great lighting and make-up and all the willpower in the world, I am not going to pass for a 20-something. Happily, the research yielded quite a lot of info about her, implying that she may well have been older, and was certainly a piece of work and a force to be reckoned with. I figured I could draw on that… 😉
And so with two weeks to go we arrived at the first sitzprobe. I have to tell you, the first time I heard the fanfare played by the orchestra, my heart stopped – along with everyone else in the room! – and a huge, stupid grin fixed itself to my face and wouldn’t leave. What an incredible sound that was. And d’you know, everyone in the cast (and orchestra) had exactly that same sharp-intake-of-breath response every time it was played, from that first rehearsal to the final show. There’s something incredibly powerful in those few measures, and standing in the Cathedral listening to it, I could easily understand how people are converted or drawn into religion! Genuinely awe-inspiring stuff.
I had just one week of rehearsal with leading men Dan and Jon, which is pushing it a bit for a show of this size, but we were determined to pull it all together and of course we’d all arrived knowing the score inside out and backwards. A fairly substantial problem raised its head when poor Jon came down with a Grade A case of laryngitis on the first day of rehearsals. We did everything in our power to get him back to full health, of course, because to sing the role of Jesus convincingly you’ve just got to be on it! My vocal-coach head took over and in addition to the medical and alternative treatments meted out, we worked daily with voice therapy exercises to keep the strength and flexibility in his larynx without over-tiring it. It was a very tough time but Jon worked like a trooper and kept his head; being a bit of a gung-ho boy it was difficult to keep him reined in at times because he wanted it better NOW!!! but I managed to convince him to do it my way and he was a good student, as always 😉 And so it was that we arrived at the dress rehearsal with his voice slightly weakened from where he’d have liked it to be, but more than good enough to do the job ahead. This is a remarkable feat when you realise that he’d only found his full head voice at the end of January when he first came to train with me. Now, he was up onto those daft “Gethsemane” notes within 30 minutes during that first session (take that, “Superstar” panelists!), but he’d had precious little time to work on it in the interim, because he’s a busy man with a busy gig schedule and most of it requires him to use that stunning chest voice of his. So coming into JCS with a newly-found head voice which then got subjected to severe laryngitis wasn’t ideal… but anyone who was there will tell you he sang and acted the role in great style – a testament to his courage and determination. Conversely, Dan was in obscenely good voice throughout the rehearsal and performance weeks and he just blew everyone away with what he did. That can’t have helped the Moses confidence levels either but no-one would ever have known. Huge, huge respect to them both.
For myself, the opportunity not just to sing but also to act again (it’s been a while!) was amazing. Much as I love performing, I love the development and rehearsal process more, so workshopping the scenes with Dan and Jon was for me some of the best fun that was to be had on planet earth. It was made all the more interesting by the completely different styles of the two guys – Dan’s all questions, containment, thought process and detail, whereas Jon’s all passion, fire and instinct. Equal and opposite. It was just joyful to be standing between them, firing off the different vibes that they brought. Loved it, loved it, loved it and I would happily have spent weeks working on the relationships between those three iconic characters… but we only had one! To say it was intense would be an understatement. But sometimes we do our best work under pressure, eh?
We had one short, amazing week in the Cathedral and no-one wanted it to end. We’ve had overwhelmingly positive feedback, the audiences went totally nuts every night, and even the band wanted it to carry on (now there’s a compliment)! It was one of those productions… here are links to the three picture diaries I’ve put together from the final week. Because a picture’s worth a thousand words, right? (All photos copyright Cordelia Lewis at Streamline Design – contact firstname.lastname@example.org).
Oh, “drum out the camatics”? A little Haslam-ism. Many a lyric was butchered in this way during the rehearsal process. And the wine bill was simply ENORMOUS.