The Walking Dead close in on Dieter Bierbrauer as he mourns the death of Jesus (Jesse Nager) to Walker bite in Jesus Christ: The Walking Dead. Photo by Rich Ryan.
Planning on a musical theatre zombie apocalypse? Don’t hire a focus group. That’s one of several lessons gleaned from a review of internal Ordway documents obtained by the Twin Cities Arts Reader.
The Ordway Center for the Performing Arts is one of the Twin Cities’ largest arts presenting organization. Along with the Schubert Club, Minnesota Opera, and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, it co-manages the Ordway building as part of a unique Arts Partnership. The Ordway’s Music Theater opened in 1985, but since the opening of the new Concert Hall in 2015, company officials have been looking for ways to shake up the musical theatre status quo by presenting musicals that gnaw at the boundaries of art, while still bringing in the large crowds needed by any big-budget producing organization. This is, more or less, how a mashup – or bite-up – of a beloved Andrew Lloyd Webber musical and one of television’s hottest phenomena ended up on the drawing boards at the Ordway for its 2017-2018 season.
Before an external focus group vetoed the project, the Ordway commissioned a series of production designs filled with zombies and violence intended to attract the key under-35 demographic cherished by performing arts companies across the country.
The centerpiece of the season was to be Jesus Christ: The Walking Dead, a new version of the Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice classic Jesus Christ Superstar in which the Roman occupation of Judea and the last days of Jesus Christ are heightened by a zombie apocalypse. According to a production email, “This update will bring JCS in line with recent updates to Les Miserables and Phantom of the Opera on Broadway – and the revised version of Paint Your Wagon we did earlier. Since we have to rewrite the book to remove problematic passages, we might as well give them some zombie problems and kick-ass action scenes.”
Jesus Christ: The Walking Dead, like last year’s attempted White Christmas dinosaur update, soon ran afoul of logistical problems. At the first rehearsal, the zombie ensemble was scheduled to bite into a pair of hunky Roman soldiers; half of the chorus turned out to be vegan and uninterested in chowing down on the prop flesh, which was made from pork ham. Non-plussed, director James Rocco sent his assistant stage manager down to The Herbivorous Butcher to obtain vegan-friendly hams – only for a group of visiting VIPs to mistake the new props for the catering table and consume them. “I don’t want to name names,” said Rocco in an email obtained by the Arts Reader. “But please do not ever eat other people’s props, no matter how delectable they look!”
Other problems arose in the numerous fight scenes, which often were choreographed to coincide with high-octane songs. While Randy Schmeling soon mastered the art of headshot-ing zombies while hitting high notes, not all of his co-stars did as well. James Ramelt (Caiaphas) complained to Rocco in an email that “D [hair and makeup designer Robert A. Dunn] needs to seriously cut back on the gore in ‘This Jesus Must Die'”, noting that it was difficult to keep clear vocal tone and a priestly demeanor while killing zombies and having jets of stage blood literally fountain-ing into his face.
An under-35 test audience praised a mid-rehearsal workshop as “transformative” and “showing Jesus Christ in an entirely new, kickass zombie hunter way”, but not all of the changes in Jesus Christ: The Walking Dead rested well with the Ordway’s more conservative patrons, who were brought in for a final focus group test. In one of the comment cards, a patron noted, “I always thought that there was more to the story of Mary Magdalene, so having her save the rest of the disciples in ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’ worked really well. I had more mixed thoughts about ‘Peter’s Denial’ being a denial of having been bitten by a zombie – wouldn’t Jesus have healed Peter before being taken away by the guards?” Another comment card said, simply, “Jesus Christ!!! [sic] What is this show?”
Ultimately, the plans for Jesus Christ: The Walking Dead were shelved after a heated production meeting in which the team watched Season 7 of AMC’s The Walking Dead. Shell-shocked by the death of a favorite character, the creative team agreed with the focus group recommendation that it was in all of their best interests to move in a different creative direction. Plans for an ambitious update of Annie, tentatively titled Annie Warbucks: Vampire Hunter, were also discarded in favor of a traditional show treatment.
At press time, Rod Kaats (the new producing artistic director at the Ordway) was reportedly exploring concert presentations of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: The Musical and an updated version of South Pacific featuring updated songs like “I’m Going to Wash That Zombie Outa My Hair” and the heartbreaking “This Nearly Was Mine (But I Was Bitten)”.
A promotional video created by the Ordway to recruit potential angel investors for Jesus Christ: The Walking Dead.
Basil was named one of Musical America's 30 Professionals of the Year in 2017.
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