Ben Forster plays the Son of God
The perennial musical Jesus Christ Superstar has been performed across the decades. Adrian Drayton asks Ben Forster who plays Jesus in the upcoming arena spectacular why he thinks Jesus is always relevant, whenever the musical is performed.
You had a songwriting career before being selected to play Jesus on the reality show “Superstar”. Tell me about that.
I am a singer songwriter and starred in my first West End show when I was 18. So for the last 13 years I’ve been in and out of shows on the West End in London. I’d done a few international tours and things like that. It’s weird because sometimes on those reality TV shows people think you’ve been plucked from obscurity. I have always made my living from singing; I’ve never had another job since I was in Performing Arts College at 16. I look back at my career with fondness and I am grateful for everything that happened to me but obviously to do the Superstar show was a little bit of a risk because I am an established West End performer. Some people look at those kinds of TV shows as bad and some people look at them like it gives you a leg up. I’ve been up for so many parts over the years and lost out because of “celebrity casting”, when they use people that will make the audience come, which I completely understand. I get that a producer would want a celebrity in a lead role so it’s almost like if I can’t get the part and it’s going to go to celebrity I will join them [reality shows] and raise my profile. That’s one of the reasons I did it. I am glad I did it.
Was the reality show a bit gruelling?
Oh my gosh! It was a year ago now. This time last year I was in a queue with thousands of people in London, who all had to sing just one verse and then you get through to the next round and then you sing a song. We had the first auditions in front of the celebrity panel, which was Mel C, Jason Donovan, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Dawn French. We were selected to be the final 40 and then we went off to the “SuperstarIsland” and in that week they really pushed us — doing workouts, dance lessons; we were put under all sorts of tests and circumstances and working with other people. Then there was the final 20 in Majorca and then the final ten. Then I fought every night for ten nights running. It was just the hardest thing to keep going. It was gruelling. I’m not even sure now if I would do it again.
Has it opened a whole lot of doors professionally?
So much. I started Rocky Horror in November last year right after the JCS tour, which was brilliant actually. It’s gone on to tour and I just kicked it off with the first ten weeks. It was completely different from the Arena Tour and playing Jesus. Going to Brad, who is a complete American geek, and the audience interaction is insane and hysterical. It’s completely cult-followed in the UK. It was a really interesting show to do. All you need is a little spotlight on what you can do and the TV show [Superstar] and then doing the arena show — it’s lovely. I’ve got a lot more options opened to me now.
Was it daunting getting the part of the Son Of God?
Of course! I mean, even if I just look at Jesus as the artistic role within the show, it’s the hardest part for a man in any musical.
It’s also been performed by lots of different people.
Of course. People have a lot of perceptions about what the role should be and who should do it. To be cast via a reality TV show, I know there would have been sceptics. I went because my talent has grown in the last ten years and it’s always been an ambition — and, even if the TV show hadn’t existed, I would have been fighting for the role anyway.
Why do you think JCS is so popular? Is it because it’s about the person of Jesus and not about religion?
I always look at it as an amazing rock musical and the fact that what Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice did when they were 20 years old (which is just insane) is to fit the biggest story ever told, the most important story, into a two-hour musical. If I was to say to you, “Fit this whole story into these poems,” you’d be like, “What?”
The message in the musical (and the Bible) is that Jesus is very counter cultural, a bit of a revolutionary (which comes across definitely in this version of the musical). Does every generation need to hear the messages of Jesus?
Absolutely. No matter what you think of religion, Jesus’ message is positive and good and it was important for me when I was discussing with directors about how I would play him that he was human at that point. He hadn’t yet been crucified. I didn’t want it to be this ethereal sort of character from a movie. If Jesus was alive now in the London riots amidst the confusion and chaos that Britain was in a year ago, then would he stand up and say, “Let’s sort it out”? Would he want people to follow him, and would he make mistakes and would he feel attracted to Mary Magdalene and would he hate Judas at some point and would he hate God for making him go through what had to be done? And I personally think he would because he was human.
What is it like working with Mel C (Mary Magdalene) and Tim Minchin (Judas)?
Tim is like the top five of the most interesting people I have ever met in my life. He’s so intelligent and has a theory on everything. You can discuss everything with him. To spend so much time with him just on a personal level is amazing. And, working with him, he is an incredibly talented actor. Some people act and some people act from the heart and act what they feel, and he’s definitely one of those actors. I am so pleased I get to act with him on stage. I couldn’t have been blessed with a better Judas. And Melanie is just wonderful. Considering she’s a Spice Girl and could have been a diva, she’s a superstar. She gets right in there in the thick of it and rehearses with everyone, putting her heart on the table as well. She’s brilliant and I adore her.
Do you think the message is as relevant now as 2,000 years ago?
Everyone remembers the music, but the beauty of the show and the story is that it’s relevant whenever it is performed. The musical number “What’s the buzz” is a great example of how contemporary the staging is with the Twitter and Facebook feeds projected as the cast sings.
This is what proves that is an amazing piece of work. It can be related to any time and place. If you hadn’t seen the show before you could believe that it had been conceived last year. You could believe that it’s a completely fresh idea that would have been genius now. It absolutely goes to the relevance of the message of the Bible. It is an amazing story. It’s madness that a musical has been made of it and that it should work whenever it is performed. It’s 100 per cent relevant.
Have you met the Australian cast and are you looking forward to working with them?
Absolutely, Jon Stevens is a lovely guy. He is someone who has had a passion for JCS. Tim Minchin has wanted to play the role since he was a young boy. He did an amateur production in Australia. He fought for the role and emailed Andrew Lloyd Webber and lobbied to get the part. I have loved the show since I was 12. I was like a little geek pretending I was Jesus at 12 years old in the mirror screaming “Gethsemane” with my mum downstairs wondering what she had given birth to. We all have a passion for the show and Jon [Stevens] most definitely has as well. So I am really excited to start working with him. And Andrew O’Keefe. When Chris Moyles was cast in the UK show people couldn’t understand why. He’s a TV personality and suddenly people were wondering why he was going to be Herod. But Andrew Lloyd Webber is clever. The point of the show is about focusing on someone’s downfall and how Jesus could have believed his hype. It’s about how Jesus could have become a celebrity and believing his hype enough that he would arrogantly question what God had planned for him. Part of all that is him being questioned by the public on a TV show, which, if Jesus was alive today, I’m sure he would. It’s so relevant and using actors like Chris Moyles and Andrew O’Keefe is another strategy for the audience to believe in our concept for the show — it’s just perfect.
You are doing the tour again in the UK at the end of the year then?
Yes, we go back and do it all over again, which is great and then there is talk of taking the tour global.
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