Jesus Christ Superstar
A Work in Progress
Jesus is munching on popcorn chicken in Loker Commons. This isn't your Father's Jesus: he's clean-shaven, cherubic, a genial-looking guy in a comfortable sweater--J. Crew, the official sponsor of the Second Coming. Meet Jeffery E. Fowler '01, who will play Jesus in this fall's production of Jesus Christ Superstar. Not that the two are one and the same: Fowler is the first to admit that he is no celebrity (or divinity, for that matter), and it's clear that this whole Jesus thing has not gone to his head. Getting into the character of Jesus has been the most difficult acting job Fowler has ever undertaken. "What bigger challenge is there," he says, "than to portray a character I think no one can really hope to understand?"
But could it be that Jeff Fowler was destined to play this part? He did sing Jesus' big solo, "Gethsemane," for his Common Casting audition, but there are more obvious similarities. Just as the ancients had problems accepting Jesus' teachings, so too did Harvard defer this Jesus' proposal for a special concentration. And then there's the long hair, which the then-crewcutted Fowler began growing out in the spring of this year in mental and physiological preparation for the role he hoped to take on."Growing out my hair was sort of positive reinforcement, looking in the mirror every day and being reminded of that goal and challenge I had set for myself."
Jesus Christ Superstar was set to be (and is) one of the major productions of the fall theater lineup--quite a goal for someone who had never broken a leg on a Harvard stage. Fowler has an extensive background in theater, but this is his first "official" show at Harvard. He's a singer at heart, and spent his freshman and sophomore years living it up with the Harvard Krokodiloes. The Kroks may not have been a seminary, but they sound divine (ahem) and no doubt prepared Jeff for Superstardom. His background as a vocalist also allows him to approach his role in Jesus Christ Superstar as a singer who happens to act rather than as an actor who happens to sing--a perfect match for a rock opera, which demands an incredible amount of vocal prowess (much more than most of the musicals and light operas staged on campus).
Nevertheless, most would say that taking on the part of Jesus Christ seems to require some degree of egotism (these are the same people who say "Hey, Jesus!" to Fowler when they see him around campus). The fact of the matter is that the Jesus of Jesus Christ Superstar is no walk-on-water, parable-loving "other." In Sir Lloyd Weber's version of the Passion, Jesus is a man--not da man, not the Son of Man, just a normal man who is fighting against his own Superstardom to get a very simple message across.
Like any other man, he gets angry, he gets frustrated, he gets medieval on the moneychangers. He's a human and humane Christ struggling with spirituality and faith just like any other person--Jeff Fowler not excluded. "Understanding is a big part of this show. He [Jesus] believes that He's dying and that He's dying for a reason, but the understanding of that reason is missing. Jesus is trying to build up to the reason, and it's the same with my faith: I believe, and I'm going to lead my life working towards understanding of my role in life."
Fowler considers himself a Christian, and he doesn't feel his faith is affronted by the questioning, human Jesus of the show (two other students chose not to be involved in the production for religious reasons). "As a believer I can believe what I want onstage, but as an actor I have a goal and obligation--and desire--to portray him as a character [just as I would any other character]...as a man who has this amazing secret that he wants to tell everybody. It's good news, but it's like Cassandra the prophet [whose predictions of defeat for the Trojans in the Trojan War went unheeded]: you're preaching the truth, but no one believes you."
This is not to imply that the show is some millennial tent revival. Indeed, the cast constantly jokes about Fowler's connection to his character: "If there's a scene in rehearsal when I'm not doing much, we'll play a mock game of 'paper, rock, scissors' where I win every single time. If I went to a party, and they didn't have enough to drink, they'd be like 'get over here, we've got a bucket of ice--change this into something!'...Some people say they're really reluctant to piss me off now, because any condemnation I make 'carries so much weight.'"
But the man who could be the Son of Man echoes the sentiments of the rest of the cast and crew in saying: "I don't hope to influence how people think about Jesus; I'm just trying to entertain. The idea of this show is that we want people to feel that theater can be fun, that they're holding on to a ticket that's half rock opera and half rock concert, something that'll really get them excited about theater, a real adrenaline rush."