It’s time for the next show in the Broadway at TPAC series. Andrew Llyod Weber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar is set against the backdrop of an extraordinary series of events during the final weeks in the life of Jesus Christ, as seen through the eyes of Judas. Reflecting the rock roots that defined a generation, the legendary score includes ‘I Don’t Know How to Love Him’, ‘Gethsemane’ and ‘Superstar’. It comes to Nashville doing the typical Tuesday - Sunday run.
I got the chance to speak with a member of the cast this week. Tommy McDowell, a well seasoned Broadway and Touring actor is playing the role of “Peter.” Growing up in nearby Birmingham, Alabama, he’s very excited about coming to Nashville. After some pleasantries about him being friends with my roommate, we dug right in.
O&A: So you’re from Birmingham, okay. So really where are you from? What part of Birmingham are you from?
Tommy: That's Vestavia Hills. I was actually born in Selma and then very shortly after moved to Birmingham with my mom and sister and grew up in Vestavia Hills. Or the Cahaba Heights area, but mainly Vestavia.
O&A: Okay, Vestavia. Okay, so you've been acting for a really long time in major productions. Why Jesus Christ Superstar?
Tommy: Oh my gosh. Well, my involvement with this show actually goes back to about two and a half years ago. I was touring, or I had just finished touring with Cabaret and I was taking kind of a post-tour vacation, because touring seems like a little bit of a vacation, but it's definitely a lot more work than that. You're traveling on your days off and stuff like that, and I had built up a little bit of savings, so I decided to go to London to visit some friends, and one of my friends was playing Jesus in this production at the Regents Park Open Air Theater. His name is Declan Bennett. We know each other from American Idiot circles and stuff like that.
So I reached out to him and told him I was coming to see the show. I got to see it, and loved it. I was blown away. And then a couple days later, the producer for this show posted on Facebook... And I know him because I've done three previous tours with him. His name is Steve Gabriel. He owns and operates Work Light Productions, and that's who produces this tour. But he was going to see it a couple of days after I did, and I said, "Oh wow, I just saw it and it's amazing. You'll love it. By the way, are you planning to bring this to the States?" Because you know, anytime he goes out of his way to see something, it means he's somehow involved. So I kind of deduced that that would be the case. And he said, "Yeah, they're bringing it for a national tour of the US." And I was like, "Great, I'll see you in the audition room."
Fast forward two years later, or not even two years, it was about February or March of last year that they asked me to submit my first audition tape. But I fell in love with this show as soon as I saw it in London. It's such a beautiful piece and it's unlike any... I don't have a lot of experience seeing staged productions of Jesus Christ Superstar. I've seen the movie, I saw a high school production of it in like 1999 or 2000 or something like that, but from what I do know and understand this is a very different and modern take on this classic piece, but at the same time at the heart of it, the main goal of this particular production is to pay homage to The Brown Album. So, to have all the elements of that recording, to be what people hear in the performance, that's I guess the first goal of this piece.
And then beyond that it's this amazing modern dance piece. It uses dance to really tell the story and fill in kind of some of the holes that you know are lacking. Like in any sung through musical with no book scenes, it's kind of impossible to fill in all the holes. So some of the needs and wants and desires of the ensemble and of the characters are shown through movement, which I think is really cool too. And I mean, it's just a beautiful piece. So yeah, I love it. Yeah.
O&A: That's great. So tell me about your history with Nashville. Do you have a history with Nashville?
Tommy: Yeah, a little bit. It's kind of the meeting point between Birmingham and Lexington, and I say that because my older sister moved to Lexington about the same time... Lexington, Kentucky, excuse me, about the same time that I moved away from Birmingham to live in Boston. But any time I was home or visiting in Birmingham, I would reach out to my sister and we would find a meeting place, usually Bongo Java or what's the one in that little downtown area? I think it's related to Bongo.
O&A: Maybe Fido?
Tommy: Fido, yeah. So we would always meet at Bongo East or Fido and go from there. We would go antique shopping or thrift shopping or go see shows or find a place to eat. And a lot of my friends actually from college moved to Nashville after school. I went to Birmingham Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama. So I have friends like Drew Belk who is really doing well as a dobro and guitar player and a lap steel player in Nashville, and a handful of others that live there that I like to visit now and again. But I love Nashville. It's a great town.
O&A: I bet your momma is coming to see this one.
Tommy: Yeah. Yeah, I'm going to have at least, gosh, like a dozen or 15 friends and family members coming to see the show from alabama, and maybe more.
O&A: That's so exciting.
O&A: So tell me about the role of Peter. Tell me where you get your inspiration for this role.
Tommy: Well, Peter, I guess Peter and I kind of have a lot in common, I guess. He's kind of soft-spoken. He doesn't really enjoy the limelight as it were. He's a very loyal friend. We have that in common. Until there's a certain point, which as you know, there's Peter's denial. I think just as a defense mechanism, he kind of saves his own hide by saying that he doesn't know this guy because he literally just got taken away to be killed. So he's like, "Ah, maybe not."
One thing I love about it is that he does have some really beautiful songs to sing in the show. “Could We Start Again, Please?” which is a duet with Mary, and I get to start the arrest, which is kind of a cool little moment for me because it starts so soft and kind of low and, and then it builds and builds and builds like pretty quickly. I don't know. You'll have to see. But I also play guitar a lot in the show, which is fun for me because I've been playing since I was in seventh grade, and they basically let me write or create my own guitar parts in the show. The music supervisor said try something and they liked it.
O&A: So why should the Nashville LGBTQ community come out and see a show about Jesus?
Tommy: Well I think everybody should, but it's not just about Jesus... Just from I guess a cast perspective, we have a very strong presence and acceptance of the LGBTQ community. We have people from all different backgrounds in terms of sexuality and everything, you know, religion, we just kind of run the gamut of personality types, I guess. It's an extremely strong cast and we all bonded from the get-go and we all support each other so much. But we do represent a lot of the LGBTQ community.
A lot of the cast members are in same-sex marriages, a lot of the cast members are very fluid and very open about that, and yeah, and even if even though it is a show about this major, major religious figure, it's not necessarily a religious show, if that makes sense?
I guess that was the idea, like kind of remove the religious aspect and see Jesus and his followers and the people who turned against him just as people, and not necessarily in any specific time or place, just people going about their day and doing the things that they did in the weeks leading up to the crucifixion.
That's another thing that I love about this cast is we are very, very diverse and well-represented in a lot of ways. So, as I consider myself an ally. It would almost be impossible not to be an ally and be in this business, but yeah, I definitely think that there's something for everyone in this show.
O&A: Anything that I've left off, missed, or anything that you’d like to add?
Tommy: I don't know. It's just such a really exciting show. I'm really proud to be a part of it and I think that people in Nashville would love it because it's basically like going to a really awesome rock concert, but at the same time it incorporates... It will satisfy the musical theater lover as well because we have really cool movement and our orchestra, even though they're only 11 people, it sounds like 20 something. They're just so massive and it's just such a talented cast. A lot of diverse singers. No single cast member sounds the same. It's a great show. We're really proud.
For more information on the show, visit ustour.JesusChristSuperstar.com or follow Jesus Christ Superstar on Facebook and Instagram. Jesus Christ Superstar will be at TPAC's Jackson Hall March 3-8, 2020. Tickets are available at TPAC.org.
Eric A. Patton is a seventh generation Tennessean and has lived in Nashville since 2010. He serves as the Lead Entertainment Correspondent with Out & About Nashville. He is also on the Human Rights Campaign’s National Board of Governors and is a member of Belmont United Methodist Church and active with the Reconciling Ministries Network. He’s on Instagram and Twitter at @eapatton_tn, Facebook at @eapattontn, and you can email him at [email protected]