Back in 2014, British newspaper the Guardian ran an article on the musical “Jesus Christ Superstar” in which the writer opined that Judas, “like the devil, has all the best tunes.” Whether or not that’s true, the show does present something like a Judas eye view of the last days of Jesus’ life, leading up to the crucifixion. Austin is the first stop on the national tour of what’s billed as the 50th anniversary production (well, nearly so; the original Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice double-album rock opera came out in 1970), opening Tuesday and playing through Oct. 13 at Bass Concert Hall. It’s from the same creative team that produced “Superstar” to great acclaim at the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre in London in 2016.
James Delisco Beeks, who plays Judas in the touring company, is a veteran performer who’s played the role before, in 2006 at the North Shore Music Theatre in Beverly, Mass. He also relates playing Simon, and understudying for Judas, in a production of “Superstar” at the Austin Music Theater; “I think it was 2005,” he says.
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When “Superstar” first came out, protests of blasphemy were leveled at the show from some quarters, but this hasn’t been the case in quite a while. “It’s one of the most redone musicals in high schools today, and community theaters,” Beeks says. “It’s really a beloved piece; the music alone, all the influences from The Who to the Beatles, the great artists of the ’60s and ’70s. All those influences are in there and you can’t deny the driving force within it.”
Beeks describes the production as a reinvented concept taking its cues from the original album.
“The intention to emulate that is what we’re going for,” he says. “Also, the dancing is incredible. I would say it’s like a ballet told through rock opera.
“The choreography is really incredible. It’s just like, (you could) put earplugs in and watch the ensemble tell the story through dance. It’s quite an amazing thing, the stamina they have to do that throughout for 90 minutes. People are going to leave inspired.”
Contrary to the conventional Biblical view of Judas as one of the great villains of Scripture, “Superstar” doesn’t view Judas that way, and neither does Beeks. Discussing his research into the role, the actor mentions the Gospel of Judas, a non-canonical Gnostic Christian text discovered in the 20th century (google Gospel of Judas if you’re intrigued).
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“It told a different perspective on Judas,” he says. “Judas was one of (Jesus’) favorite disciples, and he did what he had to do. When I studied the character, you can see there is bias — the Bible was written by men, there’s some human bias in there, but Judas had a nuanced story to tell and I wanted to get that story across. He had to do what he had to do, otherwise (Jesus’) plan of salvation would not have been achieved.”
In the end, of course, “Superstar” is entertainment, a musical diversion, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have anything to say.
“Oh, yeah. It leaves questioning,” Beeks says. “I live by the mantra of ‘question everything.’ People walk out questioning, it’s just perspective because you feel for the guy.”
One might say that we all have our roles to play in the grand design.