Taking a musical to Broadway is a lot like pro sports, judging by all the baseball and hockey analogies that were being thrown around at Jesus Christ Superstar's opening on Thursday night.
The main subject of discussion among those in attendance at the Neil Simon Theatre and the after-party at the nearby Hilton Hotel: What's been the effect of having Josh Young, who has played Judas since the show's premiere at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, out of the lineup with a respiratory infection much of the opening week?
Paul Nolan, the sunny Saskatchewan native who plays Jesus, said it had been tough to go on without his long-time betrayer. "With Joffrey Lupul gone from the Leafs, look at what's happened," he said. "My God, they've just collapsed – and it's breaking my heart."
(Nolan wasn't suggesting his show has collapsed, it should be noted – he's just a Leafs fan who got carried away by his metaphor.)
Des McAnuff, meanwhile, compared Young's understudy, Winnipeg-born Jeremy Kushnier – who also covers for Nolan and has even gone in as Pontius Pilate – to a utility infielder. "We have a guy who can go on and play shortstop or third base and win the game for the team – to stretch this metaphor a little too far," he said.
Most of Thursday, Young was a wait-and-see situation – and the stakes were high. Young had already missed many of the critics' previews, but opening night is another matter – if you don't perform then, you're not eligible for a Tony Award nomination. (And many see Young as the production's best chance at an acting one.)
At 3:30 p.m., director Des McAnuff and musical director Rick Fox listened to Young sing and – after checking with a doctor – decided to put him back in the show.
"Eligibility is certainly a factor and we would hate like hell to see him miss out on that," said McAnuff, as he arrived at the theatre just a few hours later. "On the other hand, I wouldn't be putting him at risk under any circumstances."
Also at the Neil Simon were a smaller province's worth of visiting Canadians, who entered through the usual door, and an eclectic assortment of celebrities who passed through a gauntlet of photographers to get in. Megan Hilty and Jaime Cepero, stars of Smash, the just-renewed NBC series about Broadway, got the paparazzi snapping away wildly, while English comedians Eddie Izzard and Tim Minchin – why not? – answered questions from a New York magazine journalist: Jesus or Judas?
Last but hardly least, entered composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, celebrating his 64th birthday, and lyricist Tim Rice, who was around in rehearsals last week making tweaks to the words he wrote 43 years ago.
Inside, during the opening number Heaven on Their Minds, Young could be heard struggling, particularly in the middle part of his vocal range. But, with his back against the wall, he took it one song at a time and gave his 110 per cent all the way to curtain. (Sports language is contagious.)
Afterward, at the Hilton, Young seemed relieved the ordeal was over – but was happy he had gone on. "It makes it really hard to play Judas when you can't breath," he said. " I hope to be back in again tomorrow."
A roundup of New York reviews
What's the buzz? The Stratford Shakespeare Festival's production of Jesus Christ Superstar opened on Broadway Thursday night – and the New York reviews were mixed.
Saviour: Chris Jones, The Chicago Tribune. "As he did in Stratford last summer, Des McAnuff embraces one of the musical theater's most unusual, famous, bizarre, historically audacious and, in this instance, thoroughly enjoyable properties with a production remarkably in sync with the material."
Betrayer: Charles Isherwood, The New York Times. "If a musical were to be judged by the amount of time its characters spent gazing meaningfully into the audience, this production would be trumps.… Las Vegas, where Mr. McAnuff's Jersey Boys has recently reopened, might be the ideal destination for this slick production of a show that turns martyrdom into a splashy pop spectacle."
Saviour: Jeremy Gerard, Bloomberg. " Jesus Christ Superstar recaptures a moment more precisely than the weak-kneed revival of Godspell a few blocks away. It got under my skin."
Betrayer: Mark Kennedy, The Associated Press. "'I've been living to see you. Dying to see you, but it shouldn't be like this,' sings a lovely Chilina Kennedy as Mary Magdalene, with lyrics that might as well refer to this production. 'Could we start again?'"