TORONTO – It will be a bittersweet Canada Day for the largely Canuck cast of “Jesus Christ Superstar” on Broadway.
As Canadians belt out the national anthem during July 1 festivities, those in “JCS” will be singing the show’s tunes for the final time on the Great White Way, marking the untimely end of the New York run of the show that has evoked a sense of homegrown pride amongst cast and fans.
“I think we had hoped that we would be able to get deeper into the summer and that we would really take flight, which may have been the case,” said Des McAnuff, the show’s Tony Award-winning director who hopes to one day do a tour of the show.
“But of course, if you’re having weeks that are costing money eventually it just becomes very difficult to sustain.”
McAnuff’s production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice rock opera was an instant hit when it debuted last summer at Ontario’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival, where he’s marking his final year as artistic director.
Critics and audiences on this side of the border had high praise for the show that tells the secular story of Jesus. Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice also praised it and many observers felt it was just a matter of time before it would wind up on Broadway.
That time came on March 1, when “JCS” began previews on Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre after a run at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse.
For many cast members it was “a dream come true” as it was their first time performing on Broadway, said New Brunswick-born Chilina Kennedy, who plays Mary Magdalene alongside Paul Nolan as Jesus. Some, like Ontario-raised Aaron Walpole, even subletted apartments there through the winter thinking the show might last until then.
But “JCS” has faced stiff competition from dozens of shows playing on Broadway at the same time, including McAnuff’s smash “Jersey Boys,” and critical reviews there have been mixed.
Given such obstacles, McAnuff said he wasn’t surprised when producers recently announced that “JCS” would be closing on July 1 “unless business improved,” which it did, but obviously not enough to keep it open.
“It’s not like these things ever come out of the blue. It’s been very challenging … on Broadway,” said the theatre impresario, noting about 13 shows are closing on Broadway around the same time.
“I think when we opened, there were 40 shows on Broadway. I can never remember, in my whole career, 40 shows playing at the same time on Broadway.”
The cast wasn’t surprised either.
“It’s a much tougher market in New York and it’s a tough time of year,” Kennedy said by phone from her New York apartment.
“We’re competing with a whole bunch of other shows for people, for audience, and there’s just so many of us and so few tourists at this time of year.”
Of course, everyone involved with the show is saddened and disappointed, added Kennedy.
“Because we all really believe in the show, we all love the show, and once we get people into the audience they love the show — it’s just a matter of getting people there to see it.”
Just why people weren’t going to see it in droves on Broadway as they did in Stratford is something that McAnuff finds “mystifying.”
After all, everyone involved in the production were “seasoned professionals,” including McAnuff (as a director, he’s had 14 shows on Broadway).
The show also recently got awards recognition, landing Tony nominations for best revival of a musical and for Josh Young, who plays Judas.
Then there were the Drama Desk and Drama League nominations, and the high-profile audience members, including Ivanka Trump and actors Eddie Izzard, Ben Vereen and Eric McCormack.
“Audiences have reacted just as enthusiastically in New York, cheering, leaping to their feet, as they did here in Stratford or in California,” McAnuff said down the line from Stratford.
“The problem is simply arithmetic. We just haven’t been able to get enough of them in the theatre and I wouldn’t even want to hazard to guess as to why. I think most of it is the fact that there’s just a glut of shows.
“Sometimes it takes, on Broadway, a while for word-of-mouth to kick in, and when there are a lot of shows running that process is slower than it normally is. I think even with ‘Jersey Boys,’ it was by March — we started in November — that we finally started doing 100 per cent and had a substantial advance. But it took several months there.”
McAnuff, who’s directing a production of “Henry V” at the Stratford festival this summer, planned to fly to New York on Friday to say farewell to the cast and let them know that just getting to Broadway was a great feat.
“We made it there and people have great respect for Canadians,” he said. “I can’t even begin to tell you the kind of mail, letters I’ve been receiving from seasoned theatre professionals throughout the industry just absolutely loving it, including, by the way, the authors.
“I just got a lovely letter from a very gracious Tim Rice, who is as mystified as we are.”
Kennedy said she’s negotiating a couple of career options for after the show ends but can’t talk about them just yet.
Before she leaves New York, she wants to see some shows, visit museums, catch up with friends, and do one final loop around her favourite hangout — Central Park’s Great Lawn.
“There’s sort of a sense of ‘Chin up, move forward’ for everybody, so I don’t think there’s very much bitterness or any of that going around,” she said.
“We’re just sad that it’s coming to an end because I think it’s been quite a journey for all of us, and an important one.”