When Jesus Christ Superstar opens Friday at Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carre, the theater will be full of fresh faces. The cast features many young apostles who might otherwise look like youthful rock fans. But it's also director Augustin Correro's first production at Le Petit, and the theater's new leadership, announced in December, will attend opening night.
Correro signed on to direct the show last summer, after meeting with Le Petit board members Bryan Batt and Leon Contavesprie and former artistic director Cassie Steck Worley, who resigned in September following the run of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike. Over pizza, Correro pitched them his concepts for an update of the rock musical account of the last week of Jesus' life.
"I don't want to do dusty streets of Jerusalem with people swaddled in robes," Correro says. "I want a contemporary rock show. When you take it that far back and shellac antiquity onto it, it's not as readily accessible in the audience's language."
Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice created the musical in the early 1970s, following the release of a surprisingly popular album. The show's concept was to view Jesus' following through the pheno- menon of rock stardom. Correro is updating the modern take.
"[Superstar] has been done continually (since the 1970s) and gets updated often," Correro says. "I have jumped forward in time — not 2045, but at the rate we're going with social media and advances in fashion and expression."
These apostles and followers have smartphones, and they aren't above taking a selfie. Some don some fashionably conspicuous footwear — a man in heels, women in lace-up boots. The crowds of Jerusalem also are noticeably diverse, in both race and gender, including women apostles. The show is not as varied in age. Jesus (Nick Shackleford) and Pontius Pilate (Joseph Furnari) are the only two who wouldn't pass for teenagers at first glance.
The music also has been updated, though not by millennia.
"We're taking the '70s classic rock sound off," Correra says. "We're getting away from the 'Hotel California' kind of sound."
Musical Director Kyle Aucoin assembled a 10-piece band including electric guitars and bass, and he also plays keyboards in the show.
But at the core, the question of Jesus' fate drives the show.
"If Jesus came back in five years, who would you be?" Correra asks. "One of the people tearing him down or supporting him, saying, 'What he's saying speaks to me.'"
The widely known story and Superstar's long-running popularity are why it was put on Le Petit's calendar, Correro says. But he also expects the rock music sound and updated take to appeal to young audiences.
Rock star appeal was not enough to sell tickets to a national tour of Jesus Christ Superstar featuring former Sex Pistol Johnny Lydon, JC Chasez and Michelle Williams. It was canceled a week before opening at New Orleans Lakefront Arena in June 2014.
Incoming Artistic Director Maxwell Williams says building Le Petit's audience is going to be his top priority. He doesn't officially start his job there until the beginning of March, but he's already working on the 2015-2016 season and hopes to share it with audiences at Le Petit's final two shows this season. He'll attend opening night and meet with the board of directors this week.
Williams grew up in Los Angeles, attended the Hartt School at the University of Hartford in Hartford, Connecticut, and began working at Hartford Stage as an intern to director Michael Wilson. Williams spent 10 years in New York working on productions there and at regional theaters, and he joined the staff at Hartford Stage five years ago. He's directed Dying City, Boeing-Boeing, The 39 Steps and other shows at Hartford, and he'll finish at the theater with a production of Reverberation.
Williams says he hopes to meet all of Le Petit's subscribers in coming months, and he'll develop his vision for the theater as he familiarizes himself with the community.
"I know all the tasks (of an artistic director), but in terms of getting to know the audience and the talent base (in New Orleans), that's what I am really eager to do," Williams says via phone from Hartford. "I have to find a way to cast a wide net. Hopefully, it will feel like a welcoming place. People of New Orleans should feel like it's their theater. ... It has had a long history as a community theater, but that term has developed a strange resonance. All theaters are community theaters. We need to put in place repeatable practices. The past several years have seen some upheaval."
Williams will work with new Managing Director Katie Hallman, who formerly directed concert operations for Manhattan Concert Productions in New York. She began working at Le Petit in December and oversees day-to-day operations, the box office, contracting and budgeting.
In his directing career, Williams has focused on mid-20th-century American playwrights, including Tennessee Williams and Horton Foote. He expects to start with a five-show season, including one or two musicals, and he likely will direct three of the five. Le Petit will add other programming, possibly readings, programs with visiting authors and concerts, he says. But Williams adds that his central focus is clear.
"I am 36, and I want to go to the theater and have fun and be moved and experience art," he says. "That begins with programming. A lot of companies are afraid to admit that programming has everything to do with whether people want to come to your theater."