The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts is opening its 2017 – 2018 musical theater season with the beloved “Jesus Christ Superstar.”

The show tells the story of Jesus’ rise and, ultimately, the betrayal by Judas that leads to Jesus’ death.

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Actor Randy Schmeling, who plays Judas, spoke with MNfusion about his character’s motivations and why he hopes audiences will be able to sympathize with the infamous man.

(credit: Ann Marsden)

Your director, James A. Rocco, said ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ shocked audiences when it first came out because it pushed the theater envelope. How do you think the show continues to push the theater envelope over 40 years later?

Schmeling: I think the elements of ‘Superstar’ that made it so exciting and controversial in its day continue to make the show exciting and relevant for today’s audiences. It’s one of the first to use a completely rock-and-roll score, and it’s the first rock opera to be fully staged (The Who’s “Tommy,” just like ‘Superstar,’ began as a concept album). The contemporary take on the Christ story, while no longer revolutionary, remains controversial. And, as with any James Rocco production, the staging is gorgeous, thrilling and even shocking at times.

That is a very interesting take on the show, and a statement that holds a lot of truth. In particular, I know the Ordway and Rocco will work to introduce shocking elements into the scenery and imagery of the show. In a similar vein, while it may not be shocking it certainly is popular. Why do you think this show is still so popular among audiences?

Schmeling: Well, the source material has been popular for 2,000 years, so that helps. But, really, I think it’s because Webber and Rice did a good job of humanizing these archetypal characters. I was raised on the Bible, but the message of a human Christ never really landed until I was introduced to ‘Superstar.’ And, I never thought of Judas as anything other than evil. The scriptures demonize Judas, quite literally when Satan ‘enters his heart.’ But to imagine the motivations of Judas, Peter, Pilate and even Jesus, it makes for a more compelling story that I think speaks to audiences of any generation, or any belief.

I think you make an excellent point when you talk about humanizing celebrities. This does exactly that and examines the motivations of characters many have always wondered about. Moving beyond just ‘Superstar,’ why do you think Andrew Lloyd Webber is such a popular composer?

Schmeling: Well, he doesn’t get a lot of love from the staunch musical theater community, [he’s] more of a guilty pleasure if anything. But, my introduction to musical theater was “Phantom of the Opera,” sometime around 1990. I borrowed the CDs from the library multiple times and my mom took me to the tour at the Orpheum (my first live show). I went back to the library for “Cats” and “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat.” I didn’t know any other composers and he was by far the most popular at the time, so for me I think he was just accessible. With shows like ‘Superstar’ and “Evita,” they’re such big, compelling stories to begin with, and he and Tim Rice did an excellent job of adapting them into musicals.

It’s a good point to be made that accessibility doesn’t always mean popularity! But I do think you’re right that he is a guilty pleasure! Turning back to the specifics of the show, what is your favorite thing about playing Judas?

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Schmeling: I’m excited to tell his side of the story. He isn’t totally evil in his motivation to betray Jesus. Judas loves Jesus, but he believes the movement is getting out of hand. If you let people think you’re holy, eventually they will find any excuse to turn on you. We see it all the time, just look at our celebrities. Judas recognizes what’s happening and tries to talk some sense into Jesus because he doesn’t want him to get hurt, which is exactly what happens. Judas also doesn’t want his people to be even further oppressed by the Romans, which is exactly what happens to the Jews and to the Christians — particularly the apostles. And, ultimately, Judas realizes that he’s a pawn in a bigger game, which leads to his suicide. This isn’t to say that he’s an innocent man, because his motivating factors are greed, fear, and self-preservation. But, hopefully the audience leaves feeling some sympathy for Judas.

How about a specific scene? What is your favorite in the show?

Schmeling: There’s a moment at the end of Act I where I slowly walk across the stage to take the 30 pieces of silver. It gives me chills.

Obviously, as you’ve mentioned previously, this show is Biblical in nature. What would you tell audience members that aren’t of the Christian faith, or even religious at all, about this show?

Schmeling: I hope nobody is put off by it because of the Biblical aspect. The show is not trying to be evangelistic. It’s got electric guitars! They didn’t have those in the Bible.

I think it’s important to note for wondering audiences that it is not evangelistic. So, aside from the electric guitars in the orchestra, what do you think audience members would be surprised to learn about this show?

Schmeling: It’s James Rocco’s 18th production of ‘Superstar,’ and he started by playing Judas!

Jesus Christ Superstar” opens July 18 and runs through July 30. Tickets cost $34 to $120.50. For more information, or to purchase tickets, visit the Ordway Center online.

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