They had only three weeks to put on a show that typically requires six months of preplanning and design expertise, but that didn't deter producer/director Gary Goddard, executive producer/associate director Forbes Candlish, and the members of their design team from pulling off a semi-miracle in crafting a glorious one-night onstage production of the Tim Rice/Andrew Lloyd Webber musical classic Jesus Christ Superstar at the Ricardo Montalbán Theatre in Hollywood.
The concert, which benefited the new YouTHeatre-America! arts program and the Ricardo Montalbán Foundation, featured four veterans from the original 1971 Broadway production — Ted Neeley, Yvonne Elliman, Barry Dennen, and Ben Vereen — as well as a special appearance by Jack Black as King Herod. It quickly sprouted into a Hollywood event, the kind of extravaganza that became a hot ticket for Hollywood executives and stars, including Harrison Ford and Janet Jackson.
“Now all we had to do is pull it off, and for that to happen, we knew we'd need to work pretty much round-the-clock,” Goddard says.
Goddard, Candlish, and their team decided immediately to design a spare, minimalist set and production that was easy on the frills, mostly out of necessity. “We went with scaffolding to emulate the Jesus Christ Superstar film,” Goddard says. “There were no moving sets. The idea was to have a stark, skeletal look and this sort of modified Shakespearean feel with left and right exits on the stage and a secondary entrance point.”
As production designer, Gerard Howland recalls that not a lot of time was spent on decision-making. “You just have to trust your instincts and move,” he says. “Gary and I quickly resolved how to do this and got on with it. We used a lot of existing scenery and pieces from other productions, including Starlight Express, and wound up cobbling and welding together this magnificent sculpture using people working 24 hours. It was an astonishing effort.”
“Everything had to come together perfectly, or the show simply doesn't come together,” remembers Candlish. “It really was like someone was watching over us.”
Besides any divine intervention, the producers had pros such as video designer Chris Conte and lighting designer Rick Belzer lending their educated expertise from the get-go; both had worked with Goddard before.
“I suggested two screens, left and right, for the visuals,” says Conte. “It was a traditional image magnification setup that was meant to blend in with the organic structure at the center. We used a lot of software-sharpening tools to twist and blend the image, like the Image Anywhere video scaler from Silicon Optix. It allowed us to warp the software box that goes between the output video source and the input of the projector.
“The fact this was such an old theatre that wasn't designed for sophisticated media like this made it a particular challenge,” Conte continues. “But we were able to adapt with playback tools like Dataton Watchout software that makes fading in and out and dissolving from scene to scene fairly seamless. We incorporated Panasonic DLP projectors to create the effect.”
The setting of the Montalbán Theatre proved a particular lighting challenge for Belzer, who contends that it “has some of the most archaic wiring anywhere in the world. It wasn't built for the kind of production we were doing.” Because he had only two-and-a-half weeks to make it happen, he imported a pair of Aggreko generators to handle both lighting and sound.
“For the lighting, we used standard [ETC] Source Four ellipsoidals, PAR64s, PAR64 ACL bars, and cyc lights,” Belzer notes. “For moving lights, we used [Martin] MAC 250s, MAC 2000 wash and performance S units, which have a cool effects wheel that was really useful. We also incorporated the usual assortment of smoke, haze, fog, and strobe lights. I also grabbed six 5kW Fresnels to create some big color washes to fill this huge stage, and we had four Lycian 1275 followspots — two long-throw and two short-throw.”
Belzer points out that he bathed the stage in the kind of dramatic lighting that would convey both “rock opera and good old flash-and-trash rock 'n' roll. We all did this thing flying by the seat of our pants, but somehow, it worked out really well.”
“It all just came together in a phenomenal, electrifying way,” Goddard adds. “Everything we did in the stage design clicked exactly as it was supposed to and then some. It was one of those magical events that people who were in the audience say they'll never forget. We got six standing ovations, including the one at the end. It was the kind of night you live for.”
Ray Richmond is an entertainment industry journalist based in Hollywood. He has written numerous film and TV related stories for The LA Times, Los Angeles Daily News, Orange County Register, Variety, and The Hollywood Reporter. He also occasionally appears on TV news programs, discussing new trends and controversial Hollywood-related topics.