“Poor Jesus,” my friend Sean said quietly under his breath.
That was when the giggles started. Normally, I did not succumb to laughter during a theatrical performance unless it was warranted. However, Sean’s comment was totally lacking context, except that we were watching a Jesus onstage. The excerpt from Jesus Christ Superstar was nearing its climax and while the performers on the makeshift stage were doing a superior job with the choreography and the character representations, Jesus was struggling. His voice betrayed his confident stature. There was something scratchy and alluring but also unsteady and fragile.
Sean and I were attending this community theater conference for the first time. We were performers too, and we were excited to be spending this weekend in the Columbus Hilton watching and sharing theatre with so many others. All of the excerpts were pieces that had to make it past regional competitions and were now competing at the state level. However, there were no programs. We could not identify actors onstage at any given time. There was a large television screen with the names of the theaters and the shows they were presenting. An announcer also introduced the pieces too. We had seen excerpts of Little Shop of Horrors, The Glass Menagerie, Same Time Next Year, and now Jesus Christ Superstar.
Everything had been entertaining and I was especially looking forward to this musical, because my dad and I used to listen to the soundtrack of this musical all the time when I was little. We would watch the 1973 movie version whenever we got the chance too. In fact, my first audition song was “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” when I started auditioning for community theatre. This Andrew Lloyd Webber masterpiece was a part of my theatrical life and I was pumped to see it live for the first time.
“They just closed their show last week,” the heavily made-up woman in front of us whispered to the guy in 1920s period clothing sitting to her right.
“I heard they had two full weekends of performances and now this conference. This was the only production their region produced because of all of the Covid-19 restrictions. It is a testament to their dedication to the arts that they are here.”
Both nodded and continued to whisper loudly so as to share what they knew with others. Then the woman spoke again.
“Did they do a Saturday matinee and an evening show?”
“Yes, and they did a Sunday matinee and a Sunday evening show too!”
Their whispering would normally be distracting and aggravating, but I was glad to hear that Jesus was a solid performer and not just an actor who looked the part. Their conversation confirmed any of the audience's misgivings about Jesus being able to carry his part. He had clearly been singing rock solidly for ten shows during the past two weeks with no breaks to rest or recuperate his voice.
“Poor Jesus,” I said to myself under my breath with no mirth at all. I truly felt sorry for him not only in the religious sense but in this theatrical interpretation too.
The audience could hear his voice stretching to reach higher and higher, but there was a limit and even the most seasoned professional would struggle to consistently hit the high notes this Jesus was expected to hit in this excerpt. I looked over to Sean who had visibly shrunk down in his seat. I felt the same way. We had giggled at first, but then the realization of how ten shows had destroyed his rockstar voice made us sympathize with him. He was pushing his boulder uphill alone with no help.
It's interesting... I thought to myself.
Community theatre groups, while sometimes caddy and unforgivingly competitive, can also be incredibly supportive. We all understand the drive to be onstage and wish for a life where all we are asked to do is learn, rehearse, and perform. However, life for community thespians includes non-artistic jobs, families, and the occasional show we get to be in to appease that inner desire to be under the lights one more time. Being in shows, directing shows, or choreographing shows makes me feel like an artist every time and I relish every second I am involved.
Our excerpt of Shakespeare Revue was scheduled for tomorrow, but it was the farthest thought from my mind. All I could think about was this actor trying his best to make it through his thirty minutes. Sean, I, and the rest of the audience were rooting for him silently from our seats. We could see the tension in his arms when his voice rose in either volume or to find a lofty note. His voice would get raspy, but it was not in the cool Axl Rose kind of way. His soul wanted to sing the glory, but his voice was not as strong willed.
“I am not sure he is going to make it to the notes in the last part of the song,” Sean said cautiously to me. His eyes looked a little misty and I felt myself tighten my grip on the sides of my folding chair.
I nodded and continued to watch as the cast changed places, spun across the floor, and even jumped over each other. The costumes’ bright colors made the movement gel together like an oceanic rainbow. It was mesmerizing to watch, and the chorus of voices helped to transfix the audience. That was until they began to make way for the son of God who was now centerstage.
All cast members were in their spots for the finale. Stage right was poised to face the center of the stage in rising levels and stage left mirrored their counterparts on stage right. The music began to slightly fade, and the voices softened. Jesus took his place and locked his feet into his final position. His arms slowly began to rise, and the lights transformed the actors into a tableau fit for a permanent space on a gallery wall.
The moment came and he sang with the last bit of voice he could muster from the depth of every part of himself. His expression was captivating, his presence was exact, and his timing was precise. However, the entire audience felt it.