(Omar Lopez-Cepero, Aaron LaVigne and the company of the North American Tour of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR. Photo by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade.)
By Jerome Langston
“This is a role that I’ve been hoping and praying for—for years and years,” says actor Elvie Ellis, who portrays the meaty role of Judas Iscariot in the Broadway touring production of Jesus Christ Superstar, which begins its eight performances at Norfolk’s Chrysler Hall, later this month. Ellis, along with the rest of the touring cast, is currently in Philadelphia, having just begun their run at the Miller Theater, as part of the show’s current North American Tour which launched last October. This production is being marketed as the 50th anniversary tour of Jesus Christ Superstar, in celebration of the classic album musical which topped the main Billboard album chart in 1971.
Ellis grew up in Oklahoma City, where he attended a performing arts high school, before eventually completing a degree in music education at the University of Oklahoma. “I grew up really immersed in the arts,” he says. “There’s a lot of artistic things going on in Oklahoma City—which people are usually shocked to find out.” The acting bug came from watching his older brother, actor Michael Preston, perform in well-produced high school musical productions, when Ellis was still attending middle school.
“The stage has become this place where I can be authentically Elvie Ellis,” remarks the actor, who moved from Oklahoma to New York City in March of 2020, unfortunately right at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which shut down all theatrical productions in the Big Apple. That period of lockdowns and shutdowns kept Ellis in his apartment with a new roommate, performing remote work for 2 years…till new work in professional theater became available again last year. The Oklahoma City native had landed a role in the touring production of Waitress, as a swing, when he auditioned for Jesus Christ Superstar, eventually winning the role of Judas, a character that he’d wanted to play for years.
Back in 2019, Ellis performed as a soloist in a rock musical revue performance in London, where he got to perform songs that Judas performs in Jesus Christ Superstar. And even more serendipitously, the iconic songwriter Tim Rice, who of course wrote the lyrics to the classic show, hosted the London event that Ellis performed at. “When I finally got it, it was very much like an answered prayer, and a dream,” he recalls.
When Jesus Christ Superstar first opened on Broadway in October of 1971, the rock opera was already well known to the American public, due to the huge success of its same named musical album that preceded it. That concept album, released in October of 1970, became Billboard magazine’s top album of 1971, even finishing ahead of the Carole King classic, Tapestry. And the popularity of its music even led to many unauthorized productions of the show, prior to its Broadway debut. Starring Jeff Fenholt as Jesus, and the great Ben Vereen as Judas, the Broadway production, featuring music and lyrics by the legendary Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice, was a success—running till June of 1973, and earning five Tony Awards nominations, despite its rather mixed reviews. Its West End production, however, was a much bigger success in London, as it ran from 1972 to 1980, which was a record for a West End musical at the time. Since then, the show has been performed throughout the world, and has spawned numerous adaptations, for both television and film.
In its exploration of the final weeks in the life of Jesus Christ, as seen through the lens of Judas, who infamously betrays Jesus in the scriptures—the two-act musical has courted controversy from its inception, in large part due to its intentional exclusion of Christ’s resurrection, as well as its sympathetic portrayal of Judas. For its time, the rock opera also incorporated modern themes and sensibilities in its lyrics, which was also offensive to some religious audiences. Overall, Jesus Christ Superstar, despite some of its campiness, is largely regarded now as a theatrical classic. This current version of the show, which will soon hit Norfolk, is directed by Timothy Sheader, with new choreography by Drew McOnie. It won the prestigious 2017 Olivier Award for Best Musical Revival.
I ask Ellis how he regards Judas as a character. “Surprisingly enough, I think Judas does everything that he does in the show from a motivation of love for Jesus,” he remarks. “He believes that everything that he is doing is an effort to save Jesus from himself…” The actor listened to many podcasts from religious scholars, and read articles about Judas, to prepare for his portrayal. He also says that, as a person who comes from a Christian based religious background—he always felt that the teaching about Judas was largely one-dimensional. “I just kind of always felt like there has to be more to the story.”
The actor and singer’s favorite musical number to perform in the show is “Heaven on Their Minds,” which launches Act I, and is a solo by Judas. He also enjoys “The Last Supper,” which is in Act II, and features the argument between Jesus, portrayed in this production by newbie actor Jack Hopewell, and Judas. “It feels new every single time we do it,” remarks Ellis.
The actor who plays Jesus is from this area, according to Ellis, so the cast is particularly excited to perform for Hampton Roads audiences. He also remarks towards the end of our chat, that East Coast audiences tend to be rowdier—which they enjoy. I laugh in response to that. He later says, “We’re just excited to spend a week there, to bring this story to life, and to share this story with people…and hopefully it impacts them in a special way.”
WANT TO GO?
Jesus Christ Superstar
50th Anniversary Tour
May 30-June 4