A Conversation with Morgan James, Torya Beard, & Richard Amelius
Walking into St. John the Divine to meet with the three masterminds behind the upcoming one-night-only female centric Jesus Christ Superstar concert felt epic. While I’ve never been religious, St. John always felt like a sanctuary to me. I first started visiting the cathedral as a young art student, sketching the Gothic interior architecture for hours on end, while visiting Tibetan monks created Mandala Sand Art in an adjacent chapel. As years passed, I would often return for New York Philharmonic’s free concerts, and often stopped by to light candles for loved ones and their families during challenging times. This conversation was Stage & Candor’s first scheduled exchange since the election, and it felt like the quiet revolution I’ve been craving – to meet in a space that’s built and held so many representations of the patriarchy. We sat down with actor/singer Morgan James, producer Torya Beard, and director Richard Amelius to discuss the conception of this concert, the timeliness and timelessness of the material, and what it means to be an artist during the incoming administration.
Michelle Tse: Let’s start with the obvious. Why Jesus Christ Superstar?
Richard Amelius: Morganza?
Morgan James: Right around Christmas of last year, I had a dream that I did Jesus Christ Superstar with Shoshana Bean as Judas. I didn’t know Shoshana very well at the time – I didn’t even have her number. [Richard and Torya] were coming over for Christmas dinner, and when they came over, I said, oh, I had this dream, and they both immediately said, when are you doing that? That needs to happen. So I asked a friend for Shoshana’s number and I texted her: It’s Morgan James. I had this dream. She said something to the effect of WHEN ARE WE DOING THAT? and I thought, ok, there’s three people that I like a lot who don’t think I’m insane.
Michelle: I was certainly looking for tickets the second I heard.
Morgan: We started spitballing immediately and went into production mode. We didn’t know how hard it was going to be to get the rights, who else would say yes, if anyone, but we started putting together an idea of what we could feasibly make happen.
Michelle: Right. Our mutual friend had mentioned something in passing a few months into this year.
Morgan: We initially wanted to do it in April. We thought around Easter would be interesting. We didn’t end up getting the rights in time. We encountered a lot of red tape because I don’t think it’s been done this way, ever, maybe. Certainly not in New York.
Michelle: Assembling a cast must have been a fun challenge as well.
Morgan: Everyone we wanted or ended up getting, I reached out to personally because I figured that’s the best way to communicate with someone that you’re asking to do a lot for very little. So first of all I called my friends [laughs] – that’s always my rule of thumb.
Michelle: Why one-night-only if it’s so much work?
Morgan: If it’s a nightmare, or a terrible idea, then i’ll go down with the ship. I would love this concert to serve as the start of the development process.
Michelle: So the evening is billed as a ‘female centered concert of Jesus Christ Superstar.’ The two leads, typically played by male identifying actors, will be portrayed by two women. The role of Mary will be portrayed by Alex Newell—
Richard: Ninety percent of the cast is typically male – there are two female roles in the whole show: Mary, and there’s an ensemble member named “Maid by the Fire.”
Michelle: Would you say the event is more about challenging the spectrum of gender, a gendered or role reversal, or more the idea of casting people as characters they’ll typically never be able to play?
Morgan: I want to say that I don’t love concept-y things generally. I don’t love the ‘all-Asian this,’ or the ‘all-Black this,’ because that defeats the purpose of being inclusive or ‘color-blind.’ If something is not completely based around race, then any person should be able to play them. So I hate when people say, well, they wouldn’t have been there back in the day. We get it. We’re smarter than that. So I think to reverse it completely defeats the purpose of inclusion. I don’t want to be gimmicky; I initially just thought that women don’t have these good roles to play, period. There’s no other show that has this many great female roles, but there are plenty of shows with this many great male roles.
Michelle: I just saw a production of it that our contributor Gina Rattan directed. I forgot how high the voices that are required are.
Morgan: That was one of the things R&H was worried about – the keys. We aren’t changing the keys. Richard can probably speak to the concept on a greater scope.
Richard: I think what [Morgan] said is very important. The majority of the names [Morgan] was throwing out in terms of who would you like to do this with were female. So it was bound to be female centered. But we were always open to possibilities.
Michelle: And Alex? I love his work.
Richard: Morgan had met him and he said he’d love to do something with her. She asked me, what do you think about him? I said I think he’d be great. At the time, Mary was sort of a question mark. Ironically, of the roles, once you do cast women in the roles, Mary is the lowest, vocally. Alex happens to have a high voice, and he’s going to sing that role with no problem. He is interesting because as you said, this is on the spectrum of femininity. He is what makes it female-centric as opposed to all-female. His point of view adds to the inclusion; it doesn’t detract from it.
Michelle: Were there any female names attached to it before Alex came along?
Richard: There were many women that would sing the crap out of it and be awesome. Then the idea of him came up and it was a game-changer.
Morgan: I also had a conversation with him because we were teaching together. We were getting to know each other and finding out what the other person likes to do. He said that he was having trouble because his agents would say, well, what roles could you even play on Broadway now? He goes through every show and he can’t list one, because he has a female voice and wants to sing female roles. It’s not as black and white as oh, are you this? Are you that?
Michelle: It’s more about the vocal range.
Morgan: He would say, I am an actor and this is the voice I have. I don’t have a traditional male voice, why can’t you understand that?
Richard: This was written 40 years ago. I think that the men who wrote it were trying to say something provocative. And I’ve seen many productions where it is a robe-and-sandal passion play – Jesus is a beautiful white guy with abs and a great wig, who wears linen and you think to yourself, that’s what you heard? We know what white people think Jesus looked like in 4BC, but I don’t think that’s what they were trying to say.
Michelle: What’s your interpretation of the material?
Richard: To me, they were talking a lot about celebrity. Jesus, today, would be a rock star. Today, people would follow him because of his celebrity, which Judas warns about in the first song. Jesus had an incredible ability to communicate with people and people were drawn to him. It is a story that will always be relevant because there will always be people that… I’m not comparing Jesus Christ to Donald Trump in any way, but look what just happened.
Michelle: That’s kind of my next question. Go on.
Richard: Christ was speaking to politics and people thought that was dangerous. They thought he was anti-government, which he certainly was, and so this narrative is not hard to imagine. It is something that’s very relevant.
Michelle: Right. So my question is, to be putting this concert together post-election, to be performed four days before the end of Obama’s administration—
Torya Beard: On MLK Day.
Michelle: Has your idea of the production shifted in any way, in terms of somehow amplifying exactly what you’re saying?
Torya: I don’t think it shifts the way we’re thinking about it, but it validates [Richard’s] point – shines a light on it. A multigenerational, diverse group of mostly women telling this story gives you a multifaceted prism through which to view it.This is a story that everyone is familiar with on some level. If you examine it from all sides, informed by our current climate, it becomes a new story in some respects. Different things bubble to the top.
Morgan: I agree with that. I’m in depression mode right now, so I don’t think I’ve really thought about how I’m going to tell anything differently, but like [Torya] said, all the more reason to tell this story with a diverse group of people. I definitely want it to represent every color, shape, size, voice, and otherwise. I called my friends that I love and people I wanted to sing with, and there are so many great female singers that we can cast it 12 times over. We have a burden of riches. Theoretically in an administration that would look out for this faction of people… what better time, I suppose.
Richard: Tim Rice is a brilliant guy. He had a lot of really important things to say. But music is so cool, you get lost sometimes in the points he’s trying to make. The great thing about doing it in a concert setting is that the audience will be listening more than watching. It was our responsibility to cast it in a way that your ear would automatically tune in. I think by having the first voice be Shoshana singing, “Heaven on Their Minds,” it’s going to be an unfamiliar sound. [Shoshana] is very creative and she’s going to do things with it, and I think it’s going to set the absolute right tone. When each of these roles you’re used to hearing a certain way is taken over by a female voice, you’re going to hear the words in a new way.
Morgan: It’s also going to be an all-female band. We’ve all been trying to bring as many women into the fold as possible.
Michelle: Have all the roles been cast?
Michelle: It seems you’re selling well without any promotion. The VIP tickets are already gone despite the fact that you haven’t even done a press release.
Torya: We’re finding that it’s very popular, which is good.
Michelle: The three of you are educators, artists, dancers, singers, and entrepreneurs – all things that are considered ‘elitist’ in this post-truth new climate that we’re living in. Moving forward, how do you think these roles you all occupy inform and intersect with each other? How does it affect your ways of storytelling, if at all?
Torya: It helps to see people who believe in racial equality, gender parity, and inclusion for all people speaking out, advocating for themselves and others. As it relates to telling stories, I am even more committed to maintaining a No Bullshit Policy. For me, that means working harder and more truthfully – saying what I mean and doing what I say. I am not interested in work that is self-serving. I want to put things into the world that change it for the better, even in the smallest ways. It’s hard to even scratch the surface without accountability partners. I have an incredible crew [Morgan & Richard, the artists at Siena Music] and because of them, I feel strong. I am leaning into possibility.
Morgan: I find solace and comfort in the community. Everybody keeps talking about how divided we are, that the two sides of the country don’t understand the middle of the country. We definitely learned that. But the middle of the country doesn’t understand our side of the country, and they don’t see it. The way we work, the way we see our working class. They think we are elitists. They’re not the only part of the country that has a working class, a middle class, or people who are disenfranchised… they think they’re the only ones who are. They don’t see it and they’re in a bubble, too. Now obviously the reason we got into this mess is because neither side wants to talk to the other, but I take solace in the community that I have here. We’ve survived worse, and people have still made art.
Michelle: Has it, in this way, here? Not since—
Morgan: We have to go further back. My father was drafted, during Vietnam…
Michelle: Right. I’m in a fascinating position, having been born in Hong Kong at the beginning of the Tiananmen conflict. I get to hear first person accounts from differing sides of a lot of conflicts.
Morgan: We’ve survived things. God forbid it turns to that, but we have to press forward. We have to surround ourselves with like-minds. We have to understand we both live in bubbles. There’s no way to solve it by getting further apart.
Richard: There is that great Nina Simone quote…
Morgan: “It’s the job of an artist to reflect that time they’re living in.”
Richard: Right. When this was written in 1970, Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber were talking about the present. If you listen to the music, it’s 70’s vernacular. Now, it feels like a period piece, but what they were doing was telling a very old story in a very modern way. So the best way to approach any project is from the truth. When you read it, what does it say? Not what you want it to be, not how you’re going to decorate it vocally, not making your stamp as a director, but what is the book in front of you telling you? The works that have existed the longest still speak to you and they’re honest. It doesn’t matter who you cast, how you dress them, or what set they stand in front of. If the material is good, and people relate to it, it’s a home run before you even start. Sometimes you just have to do the show. You have to tell the story that’s been told before you. We didn’t write our own version of Jesus Christ Superstar, we’re doing the one that’s always been done. The point of view is different, but we didn’t have to rewrite the material in the process.
Morgan: The other thing is – and I hear this from a lot of younger singers – that idea of oh, I want to make it my own, or let’s change everything! It really made me come to this idea that, do you really think you’re better than someone who has done it before you, better than something that’s classic? We’re not trying to make something better. It sounds cheesy, but it’s already great. All we have to do is put in the hands of great people, and great ideas. We add value to things by being there.
Richard: And working together, listening to each other, and collaborating.
Morgan: I didn’t have to call Richard or Torya to convince them of something. These things happened organically.
Richard: I think you come to that realization in any discipline when you reach outside of your bubble. When you start writing songs, you have a great appreciation for the songwriter. When you start directing, you have a greater responsibility for telling everyone’s story, not just one person’s.
Morgan: I can’t speak for Shoshana because I didn’t know her back in the day, but there may have been a time ten years ago if you’d asked me to do this, you’d get a very indulgent performance. I think you’re getting us at a time when we’ve been through our particular struggles, and I have an appreciation for where I am, and I think she does too. There’s this humility and grace about Shoshana, and I’ve always loved going to see her sing. I’ve always been blown away by a grounded wisdom in her instrument.
Michelle: She’s great.
Morgan: I basically forced my way into her life. We didn’t even know each other! I tricked her into being my friend.
Richard: She’s going to betray you. I can feel it.
Michelle: I want to go back to a point made earlier because I usually end with asking what kind of advice you’d have for future generations. As it was brought up earlier, Nina Simone has said that our job as artists is to reflect the times, and it seems so now more than ever. We’ve been standing on the shoulders of Nina, of Ethel Merman, Josephine Baker…
Michelle: What I’m interested to know is, other than continuing to tell the truth, make art, and exercise your constitutional rights, how do we as a community keep fostering our support for one another during this hostile time, and assure for the generations to come that art is ‘worth it’ to devote your career to? How will we continue to grow the platform the way giants before our time have done for us?
Torya: Recently, I assisted a friend, Brian Brooks, with choreography for the opening number for the BC/EFA benefit Gypsy of the Year. It was a condensed version of The Wiz, maybe 15 minutes long, and members of the original cast were performing. We sat in the room with them, and they shared stories about their experiences working on the show. It was an incredibly powerful moment. As our society continues to obsess over youth, beauty and all things fleeting, our elders can often fade into the shadows. Interaction with the people whose shoulders we stand on is essential for sustaining our art. We need to hear those stories. It provides an opportunity for us revel in the joy of being a part of a legacy. I have joy, so just by having this experience with you now, [the joy is] being multiplied. The communities that we are building are largely virtual: we share, comment, post, like, and love on social media and that’s fun, but having face time with people, spending time sitting at the feet of our elders while they are still alive, sharing our combined joy, and multiplying that joy is really what’s going to keep it alive.
Morgan: I love that. Whenever I am about to sing a cover of a song – which I often do – I say, I’d be nothing without Nina and Aretha. You’re only as good as what you listen to. Artists that come along and think they’ve just invented something – it’s just mind-boggling to me, you know? I think what happened at Hamilton the other night is amazing. I don’t think we have to worry about kids finding music or theater, but we have to hope that they pass through their tumultuous 20s and discover that they need to feed themselves with everything that came before them. We need to lead by example, lead with humility. If I get to make a living doing what I do, it is with a greater sense of humility everyday, because I did not understand what that meant ten or fifteen years ago.
Richard: I’m asked this question a lot because I work with kids often. I feel that young performers want the chance to play the lead, so they end up at places where they will get the lead. My advice? Don’t do that. Find the best place, and get in any way you can, because you’re going to learn a lot more being in a show with really quality people. A healthy ego is great for any artist, but if you think you’re the most talented person in the room, go find another room, one where you will learn something.
Michelle: Pay your dues.
Richard: I know that when I was 20, I thought, I can do this! Just give me a chance to do this! As I grew up, people would always be like, you’re good… but I think it’s a lot harder than you think. So I said to myself, fine, I’ll direct, and I’ll choreograph, and I’ll write. I want to see how hard it is. It’s horrible! Just to have the guts to sit down and write something, you realize how much courage it takes to ask, ‘will you read this?’
Michelle: I’m still struggling with that.
Richard: Do it all. Learn everything. Keep your eyes open. When someone invites you to be a something experimental, don’t ask, what’s in it for me, you will be rewarded, even if it’s not a success. Do you want to learn to drive from someone who has been doing it for 20 years, or do you want to get in the car and go? But at the beginning of Stephen Sondheim’s career, they said, you need to write the lyrics with established composers and he said, I don’t want to do that. I want to do my own thing and I have my own ideas. But what would West Side Story or Gypsy be—
Morgan: And what would he be!
Morgan: I was teaching high school kids, and they all just wanted to do new music, which is great, but I wanted to teach a class on Sondheim. They love him, but they don’t want to sing it. (Frankly, they hadn’t put in the time to learn the rhythms). So I went in, and I told them, “you like Hamilton? There’s a reason Lin-Manuel exists. He idolized Sondheim. Who did Sondheim idolize? Hammerstein.” These things don’t exist in a vacuum. You can’t understand one without the other. You just can’t.
One more thing about what we’re telling, and how divided our country is – we’re going to tell a story that a lot of people think ‘elitists’ don’t understand. I’m not a religious person; music is my church. Now it’s my job to understand this story. Maybe it’ll bring me closer to the middle of the country, and maybe them hearing it done this way will bring them closer to us.
Jesus Christ Superstar – In Concert is playing one-night-only at the Highline Ballroom on January 16, 2017. Tickets can be purchased at highlineballroom.com.