On Easter Sunday, John Legend will take on the role of a lifetime. In short, he’s top-billing (and executive producing) Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, which airs on NBC, at 8 p.m. Based on Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s 1971 rock opera, the story chronicles the last week of Jesus’ life and will be performed at Brooklyn’s Marcy Armory. Rounding out the live telecast are Brandon Victor Dixon (of Hamilton fame) and legendary rocker, Alice Cooper.
ESSENCE.com caught up with the Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award-winner during a quick break from rehearsals to chat about his burgeoning acting career, how he feels about being one award (an Emmy!) away from achieving E.G.O.T. status and anticipating the birth of his second child with wife, Chrissy Teigen.
ESSENCE: Most recently, you played Frederick Douglass on Underground and now, you’re playing Jesus. Those are big shoes to fill! How did you prepare yourself for this role?
JOHN LEGEND: Well, this is a lot! My role on Underground was a cameo, but with this one, there’s obviously a lot more work involved.
I started by focusing on learning the material. Once you learn it, then you start to see where you want your character to be and how you want to deliver the performance.
ESSENCE: And what do you bring to the role?
LEGEND: I bring myself. I bring voice, my energy…my personality. It’s hard for us to know what Jesus was like as an individual and how he carried himself. All we’re doing is kind of interpreting the work that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice did to create a character that was based on the bible, but [there was] also a lot of poetic license in the way they imagined him. So, it’s about taking that character and trying to embody that character.
ESSENCE: How was the project presented to you and why did you want to participate?
LEGEND: Well, it was [brought] to me through my management team and my production company, Get Lifted. We’ve done a lot of projects and we’ve worked with Marc Platt before, on LaLa Land. He’s one of the show’s producers. So, when he reached out for us to be involved, it was already something that was appealing…and how do you turn down playing Jesus? It’s the kind of role that you don’t really turn down. [Laughs]
ESSENCE: What does it mean to you, as a Black man, to play Jesus on network television, for the masses to see?
LEGEND: I think it’s a great thing and I believe that the bible said some things about what Jesus looks like and we know where he was from. A lot of times, I think that people want to kind of imagine a Jesus that looks like them or looks like their idea of what they are. [For instance], European societies have seen him looking more like them than like someone from the Middle East, as he was.
So, it’s probably more accurate that he has bronze skin and curly hair…as the bible said.
ESSENCE: Having performed before live audiences forever, how do you feel about performing this show – a rock opera – for television audiences?
LEGEND: Well, it’s all about the music. Right now, we’re rehearsing music for “Gethsemane,” which is a big song for Jesus. There’s no dialogue in [the show]. It’s all about the songs, so as live performers, our job is to deliver the best performances that we can. That’s something that I’ve been doing since I was a kid, so I feel like I’ve been preparing for this my whole life.
ESSENCE: So, what was Chrissy’s response when you told her that you were playing Jesus?
LEGEND: She was excited. She knew of the musical and thought it would be cool, so she’s really excited to see it.
ESSENCE: You’ll be going live on Easter Sunday! Will you do a special ritual, like drink hot water with honey or eat chocolate eggs?
LEGEND: I’ll do all of the things that I normally do before my shows, but I definitely won’t be having any chocolate or dairy – that’s a no-no! Afterward, I’ll eat and drink all of the bad things I want to eat and drink, but up until then, I’ll be focused on trying to do a great show.
ESSENCE: So, you’re one letter away from being an E.G.O.T. How do we get you that Emmy…for your “E?”
LEGEND: Let’s see, to get the “E…”
I don’t know how it’s going to happen. I’m not going to try to call it, but we’re involved with a lot of things and some of the projects are on television. Hopefully, I’ll end up getting one with something I do over the years, but it’s not really about that, though. I think it’s about making quality work. If you make quality work, it eventually gets recognized.
ESSENCE: Well, when it comes, it will be amazing. You’ll be our generation’s E.G.O.T.!
LEGEND: Yeah, it would be amazing, but there are some other really talented people who are one letter away that are friends of mine – like Common and Cynthia Erivo, who I performed with at the Grammys. She’s one letter away, too!
ESSENCE: We’ll keep our fingers crossed for all of you. So, what’s next?
LEGEND: Well, we’re going to have a baby this spring! We’re excited for that and then, we’ll take a little time off to get adjusted to baby number two. Then, there will be new music and lots of other good stuff happening, hopefully, too.
ESSENCE: So, you’re just going along your journey…
LEGEND: Yeah, and I’m having a good time. Actually, I’m having a great time!
Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert airs on Easter Sunday at 8 p.m (Eastern Time) on NBC.