This past Sunday night, nearly 10 million viewers tuned in to see the latest in network TV’s broadcasts of star-studded popular musicals. Somewhat appropriately, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s iconic “Jesus Christ Superstar” went live on NBC from Brooklyn to the nation on Easter night. Superstar John Legend took on the iconic role of Jesus, with Hamilton’s Brandon Victor Dixon as Judas, Waitress’ Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene, and the legendary Alice Cooper as King Herod.
With the production taking on more of a live concert feel than the average TV musical, it stood to reason that the band had to be made up of some of the industry’s best available players. Who better than Prologix artist Jamey Tate, then, to man the drums?
Jamey was gracious enough to give us some great answers to our questions about the entire production, process, and pranks (?!) involved. Here’s his email exchange with Robert Brandt of Prologix.
RB: This show happened in Brooklyn, and as far as we could tell featured nearly an all-Broadway company. You’re an L.A. guy; how did you come about getting the gig?
Jamey: That’s actually an interesting story… In 2014, they were set to do a national arena tour of JCS. I had worked with the musical director, Nigel Wright, on the show X-Factor in LA and he hired me for the tour. About 2 days before we were set to begin rehearsals in New Orleans, the promoter backed out and the tour was cancelled… we all lost a lot of work that summer. Fast forward to this past summer, I was on a short tour in Europe and met Nigel for a quick drink in London to catch up. He mentioned that they were going to do this production and asked if I would be interested in doing for real this time… of course the answer was yes.
RB: Were you all that familiar with JCS or a fan growing up?
Jamey: I was definitely familiar with most of the main songs when I was growing up. I didn’t really know the show top to bottom, but things like Gethsemane, or I Don’t Know How To Love Him have really become ubiquitous, even for those that don’t know theater.
RB: The production was announced nearly a year ago with the main cast not completely announced until February 2018. This seems like a heck of a lot to put on the stage in under two months! Can you share anything about whether or not smaller group rehearsals were taking place longer than that (with just the musicians, or just some the musicians with some of the singers, etc)?
Jamey: Well, as with anything, the more pre-production you do, the less rehearsal you need. The cast rehearsed with a rehearsal pianist, Mary Gatchell, and rehearsal drummer, Jared Schonig. They held down the fort till the band all convened a couple of weeks ago. Then it was off and running at a very fast pace till show day. Interestingly, John Legend was on tour in Asia through most of the rehearsals. He rehearsed with the cast early on, but then didn’t join again until the week of the show. I kept thinking “How is he going to do this?”, but speaking to his level of professionalism, he showed up prepared and nailed it!
RB: Speaking of rehearsals, what was the average rehearsal schedule like for you on any given day?
Jamey: It was a lot of very long days… Most days were 9am till 10pm with a few exceptions. And, honestly, I was thankful for that… the production was so huge, with so many potholes to navigate, the more rehearsal time the better as far as I was concerned.
RB: JCS productions have always stayed faithful to the original, but have never been afraid to take chances/be more contemporary as to be more suited to the times. This production was no different! Were you given new arrangements to learn just for this show?
Jamey: Originally, this show started out following almost exactly the arrangements that had been prepared for the arena tour. However, that all began to change as Andrew (Lloyd Webber) began to hear recordings of what we were rehearsing. He really wanted to have the show reflect the original album as much as possible, and I loved that. That album is so soulful, and the grooves are deep. It was nice to feel like we could really reach for that feeling in this production.
RB: We were really happy to see a few glimpses of you during the broadcast. Can you tell us about the kit you were using for the show?
Jamey: The kit was far bigger than I generally use, but there were so many styles of playing that I felt required specific sounds that I just kept adding pieces (much to the dismay of my amazing drum tech, Martin Yee)! I used:
Sakae – Almighty Maple – 22×18 main bass drum, 20×16 satellite bass drum,12×8 rack tom, 14×14 floor tom, 16×16 floor tom, a custom 14×4 main snare that I designed with Sakae, a 13×6” snare, and another custom 14×7.5 snare.
The cymbals were: Zildjian – 23” A Sweet Ride, 20” Constantinople Renaissance Ride, 20” K Sweet Crash, 19” K Sweet Crash, 18” K Special Dry Crash, 19” K Special Dry EFX, 15” K Sweet Hats, 22” A Swish Knocker, and a Flash Splash.
Oh, and of course, my ProLogix pad 🙂
RB: This was one of the coolest and most unique “pit band” setups we’ve ever seen. Being such a large production, who was watching who for cues?
Jamey: They set up individual monitors for each person all linked to a camera focused on the MD. I actually had 2 monitors, one for each side of the kit. A lot of cut-offs and such had me rolling either on floor toms, or down the kit where I would finish on the right side, so I needed one there, and also one above my iPad with the charts on it. Additionally, he had talkback to us through in ears if he needed to count something vocally.
RB: We noticed that a few tracks were streaming before the show even aired. Can you tell us anything about the recording sessions (at what point did they take place in the process, how long did it take, etc)?
Jamey: The session for the 4 pre-releases took place just a few days before they came out, and we did them on the set, no studio session. The vocals were done later at a studio in Manhattan, and Harvey Mason, Jr., the music producer for the show, mixed them, mastered them and delivered them within about 2 days. Blistering speed… Everything you heard was either one or two takes. Good band!
RB: Soundtracks being available before a show happens are not only a great marketing tool and something for immediate enjoyment afterwards…but also a pretty good insurance policy should anything go haywire on live television. Were there any small crises, nail-biters, or slightly scary moments with anything in the production in the hours leading up to air time?
Jamey: So, we ran the show in it’s entirety on Saturday night to an invited guest crowd. They actually recorded that performance and had it running along side our live performance on Sunday in case anything went terribly wrong. Thankfully they didn’t have to use it. By Sunday, most of our kinks were worked out… during the dress rehearsal on Friday, we had some funny/scary moments. At one point, during the 39 lashes scene, as John is “flogged” by the onlookers, he is tied to these cables that are attached to the scaffolding on either side of the set. As he lurches and pulls, the scaffolding rocks a lot. Well, in that run through, the rocking knocked over someone’s cell phone and it fell onto the computer that was controlling the click track… the click reset to a different position in the show and we just had to completely ignore it until they could shut it off.
RB: You’ve worked in just about every corner of the entertainment industry, including stage and TV. This production is the rare example where those worlds collide. In this case, who is ultimately driving the bus: the TV director, or the stage director?
Jamey: Truthfully there were a lot of drivers that all worked beautifully in tandem. The one we as musicians heard the most was the stage manager as he was in our in-ears the whole show. But the director, David Leveaux, was definitely running things – and he did so gracefully. Once Andrew arrived a few days before we aired, he contributed a lot as well. It really was a team effort, which in my opinion is why it was so good. Everyone from the director, to the cast, the ensemble, the MD and writers, everyone was respectful and worked incredibly hard to make a great show.
RB: In an era where people can’t agree on much, it’s been incredible to see the near-universal praise this production has been getting. Did everyone involved know this was something special as you were putting it together?
Jamey: Well, I know I did. Although, I don’t think I could have been prepared for the amount of praise it has received. At no point was it “just another gig”… but how could it be? John Legend, Sara Bareilles, Alice Cooper, Brandon Victor Dixon, et al… you put that much star power in a room together, brilliant things are going to happen. I was talking to Norm Lewis, who played Caiaphas, and he commented that the casting was so incredibly well-done, and that every person on that stage is leading lady/man caliber. He was right.
RB: We’re contractually obligated to ask if you could share any cool moments with John Legend? Alice Cooper? Brandon Victor Dixon? Did the likes of Ted Neeley descend on the proceedings at any time to dispense sage advice or give their blessing?
Jamey: On the morning of the show (Sunday), Nigel woke up early and had a voicemail message from Andrew saying “Nigel, I have decided that in the priests scene where the chorus sings the Superstar theme, Id like to change the melody there, its boring we’ve heard it too much. I want to have them sing different parts” and proceeds to play the parts he wants them to play over the phone on his piano and then says “so you’ll teach them these new parts for tonight, right? Thanks…”.
Nigel freaked! He rushed to get ready and hurried into work to start putting it together. He called Andrew to confirm all this and voice his opposition to the new parts, to which Andrew responded “Yeah, you’re probably right… I mean, it is April 1st, after all.” The whole thing had been an April Fools joke… Ha! Turns out ALW is a prankster!
I should say, the cast were all incredibly gracious, genuine, and easy to work with. Not a diva in the bunch. Nice to know that artists of that caliber can also be great people.
Thanks for these questions! This was fun to answer!!
Visit Jamey’s site at www.jameytate.com