A relative newcomer to the small screen known for his portrayal of Terry Silver in Power, Broadway veteran Brandon Victor Dixon made a huge splash this season, earning his first Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert. Signaling the prospect of a major crossover career for the three-time Tony Award nominee, Dixon’s nomination recognized one of the most visceral and commanding performances seen in NBC’s time turning the live televised musical into ratings gold.
Effortlessly handling the logistics inherent to the format—performing powerfully for an in-house audience of 1500, while communicating equally to those 9.6 million watching at home—Dixon held his own against Grammy winner John Legend and five-time nominee Sara Bareilles, artists coming to the stage from different musical disciplines.
For Dixon—so well versed in stagecraft 15 years into his career—those aspects of the production that would seem most daunting on paper are not those that proved problematic. The actor’s challenge with Jesus Christ Superstar was to put his own stamp on a classic character—a character as old as time—finding Judas’ humanity by closely examining his words and questioning his own assumptions of the material. “I tend to focus on that and then let the notes go where they’re going to go,” Dixon explains. “For this show in particular, I kept going over Tim Rice’s words, exploring [Judas’] relationship with Jesus.”
How did Jesus Christ Superstar come to you? What made you want to take on the live televised musical?
Bernie Telsey is the casting director, and I’ve had a relationship with him for over 10 years now. He cast me in my first Broadway show, The Color Purple. I just think when they were putting a team together, he reached out to a couple of people he thought would be interested and maybe capable of doing the work. I never knew the show, but I did know the song “Heaven on Their Minds,” and I’ve always loved that song. So when it came up to go in for it, I was kind of like, “I’ve always wanted to sing that song for some people, so let me go sing the song for some people.” [laughs]
What did director David Leveaux communicate early on, in terms of his interpretation of this classic rock opera?
It all happened I think pretty organically. When it came to the material, David talked to John and Sara and I really specifically about the relationships between Jesus and Judas and Mary, making sure that we were very clear about communicating the love that is shared between these three people. It’s that love that pushes and pulls them in various directions, and as we tap into that, then hopefully people will really engage with us as the characters, and engage in the story.
What did the rehearsal process for this show look like?
The rehearsal process was interesting because it happened in pieces. The first two weeks, it was about half the apostles, myself, John and Sara. Then John, Sara, and I left to go finish up some other things, and they brought in the other half of the ensemble, and Camille Brown began to build some of that wonderful choreography on them. Then they began to feather in John, myself, Sara, and the rest of the principles.
Oftentimes as we were shaping the show, it was about the principle characters, but it was really about their interaction and their relationship with the community. So everything we did with the apostles was always very key, how we moved them and how we created the space, and how we told the story, how we lined up the sightlines. Then Alex [Rudzinski], the camera director, would come in to work with David, just to make sure that both the live audience and the audience at home was able to get what we were trying to communicate.
It seems like it would be challenging to handle the logistics of a live TV musical, where you’re required to negotiate your place between the camera and the live audience.
It is certainly a unique situation, but I think our creative team, our technical team, they were all so good at what they did that it felt very natural. It didn’t feel cumbersome or too high-pressured for all of us; we really built and designed the show like a live theatrical show. I think that the cast also—even if they weren’t Broadway veterans—they were largely live concert performers, used to live performance. So I think the way we were playing the audience and engaging with the stage was very comfortable for us all.
Our technical team and our creative team, they really shaped the nuances of how things came through the camera, as well as how they came on stage. Our final Friday and Saturday, we taped our dress rehearsal so we were able to tweak certain things to make sure that the story got told properly, to make sure that the dancing was highlighted properly, and to make sure that everybody was really able to engage with the level of excitement that we felt in the space at home in their living room.
How did the experience of going out on stage compare to your previous stage endeavors, knowing the kind of audience you were going to reach through NBC?
I think the only difference is when you do it live on stage, it’s only these 2,000 people who are going to see it that night, and you’re going to get a chance to do it better the next night if something goes wrong. It’s an impermanent thing. But there was a unique awareness of, “This is really a one, one-and-a-half-shot deal. It’s live right now; this is what they’re going to get.” I think that level of awareness heightens things a bit, but I think the important thing is to think about that before the moment comes, so you’re ready.
What was it like working opposite Legend, Bareilles and the rest of your exceptional cast?
We had a really good time. [During the rehearsal period], Sara was finishing Waitress, John was doing a tour in Southeast Asia, and I was finishing shooting Power. We didn’t get to spend as much time outside of the specific workspace, so I think we all really dove into the material. The thing that was really wonderful and engaging was seeing the passion and the commitment with which they approached their own material and seeing them bring that into this theatrical space—to see them be as giving of their hearts and their minds and their creative intelligence in this collaborative space as they do with their own material. That was a fantastic energy that they brought into the room, and that we were all able to tap into.
Of your songs in Jesus Christ Superstar, which was the most challenging to perform?
The most challenging number for me personally is “Judas’ Death,” for a couple of reasons. It is a nuanced, emotional point of the show, and really if anybody’s going to begin to understand Judas, this is a key part of the show for making that connection. It’s also vocally strenuous, but you can’t over-sing it because you’ve got to come out and do “Superstar” after that. So, I did have to think about, first and foremost, the emotional storytelling that I was trying to convey and the tools I had to use to do it. I couldn’t use my voice in certain ways because I was going to need my voice later on, so it was about finding the right tools to still tell the kind of story I wanted to tell, and still share the heart of Judas, the human heart of this person struggling with the decisions that are before them. That was the thing I really wanted, to make people maybe feel a little bit differently about a character they thought they knew.
It must have been very physically challenging to take on that number while climbing level upon level of scaffolding, on the way to Judas’ demise.
It was, but what’s interesting is those kinds of physical exertions, they actually help you engage in the moment. They help you engage in the character. Those kinds of things help put you there.
Why do you think Jesus Christ Superstar has continued to resonate so strongly over the 48 years since its inception?
I think the show has resonated because whether you are Christian or not, the Christian mythology is just deeply embedded in the fabric of our global society. This piece, in a unique arena, took such a dramatically unique view at the storytelling, at the mythology. It stripped these allegorical figures of beatification and brought them closer to the ground, to the heart of human beings. I think the piece, in some way, gave us permission to do more with our ideology, and I think that’s what art’s supposed to do. Art gives us permission to do more with our emotions, do more with our politics, do more with our ideology, do more with our spirits.
When I talk to people about the show, I’ve said the material allowed me to search for something in it and within myself, and I think that when you’re able to do that—find material that allows you to do that—and when you’re able to reveal that search to people, that’s when acting or performance can begin to take on another level of connectivity. And that’s what you look for; that’s what you hope for.
Following a November 2016 performance of Hamilton, you memorably addressed Vice President-elect Mike Pence from the stage, imploring him to work on behalf of all Americans. What do you view as the responsibility of the artist when it comes to political engagement?
George Wolfe said to me one time, “Plays and theater and art, we have them because it’s just so difficult for us to say things to one another, and to share things with one another.” Art gives us permission to make these connections where we have difficulty making them, I think—right in front of one another, sometimes.
I was having this debate yesterday with somebody: Can you create art for art’s sake? Or is it important for the art to be not just accessible to the people, but to be a message to the people? Have our times called for the elimination of frivolous entertainment? Have things gotten to the point where it’s like, “No, it’s not enough for you just to be doing that. It’s got to mean something because there’s enough going on that the things we do need to mean more”? Those are important questions that we ask. I think art plays an incredibly important role in our politics, in our society and how we communicate with one another, specifically because of its incredible power to bridge divides, whether those divides are intentional or not. Art makes it more difficult to ignore our similarities.
Would you be excited about the prospect of doing another televised musical? At this point, is there any particular musical you’d love to take on?
I would definitely do it again. I think what NBC managed to put together this time was something really special that took the things that they had built on before to a new level. Not every show lends itself to the format; it’s very difficult to translate theater to television or to film, unless you really reattack it. You need to choose the right material, and I think you have to retain the fact that it is a live event. I think that helped our production, and helps the audience at home to receive it as a certain way.
But not every show lends itself to that. I’d be hard pressed to come up with something off the top of my head, but I think Hair is coming, and Rent is coming, and those are very topical shows. Even though they’re old, they deal with issues that are still very present. We see how cyclical life is.