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Shock Rocker Alice Cooper Takes On a King in Jesus Christ Superstar

Cooper plays King Herod in NBC's live concert broadcast of the Andrew Lloyd Webber-Tim Rice rock opera.

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When Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice come calling, you don't say no.

Two decades ago, Alice Cooper, the legendary rock-and-roller whose hits include "School's Out" and "Welcome to My Nightmare," answered a call from Rice, his longtime pal, to sing "King Herod's Song" on a studio recording of Jesus Christ Superstar. "Tim," Cooper remembers, "wanted it to be cynical and threatening at the same time, with a little more bite to it." No sweat for a performer who regularly brought guillotines and electric chairs onstage during his concerts.

When NBC announced that Jesus Christ Superstar would be its next live TV musical — to air on April 1 — Lloyd Webber and Rice had but one choice for their ideal King Herod. And once again, the Godfather of Shock Rock couldn't say no.

Alice Cooper plays King Herod in Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert.
(© Peter Kramer/NBC)

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What was your first exposure to Jesus Christ Superstar?
It started the same year that we basically broke out, 1970-71. At that time in rock and roll, you did two albums a year and the rest of the time you toured. You didn't have much time to notice what's going on around you. But I knew what Jesus Christ Superstar was, though I didn't quite know if it was satirical, if it was a comedy, or if it was blasphemous. When I started hearing the songs, I started getting it. It was awfully good.

What is your take on the role of King Herod? Is your performance influenced by your own personal spiritual beliefs as a Christian?
If you're gonna take it as a total theological thing, a time piece, it would be weird that they sing rock and roll. This is a much modern, sleek, much more loose version of what happened. I think Herod himself was an evil guy; he killed every male child. He was a horrible guy.

But Herod is a really conflicted character. Not only is he the actual king, he's also a puppet of the Roman government. And then comes this guy that says, "I'm the king of the Jews" and he's doing miracles. He's bringing people back to life and Herod is terrified because he can't do that. The only thing he has is paranoia and ego, and that's how I'm gonna play him.

Are you nervous?
I want to be a little nervous. I want a little bit of nervousness involved. I think getting to do something you've never done, after 50 years in the business, is interesting. I look for things that will scare me. It's a tricky song. It's got a lot of lyrics and innuendos you have to catch. I know what the attitude is, it's just getting it right.

How similar is this Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert experience to the theatricality of your touring Welcome to My Nightmare shows?
What I do onstage is very much like this. The idea of a theater piece is making music come to life visually. Being a lyricist and the director, if we try to stage "Welcome to My Nightmare," I look around to my people and go, "OK, let's give them a nightmare." We need a bed that's gonna roll down and be big enough for dancers to come up from underneath it, because, of course, all scary things are under your bed. There are no rules in rock and roll about what could and couldn't happen.

Do you still want to get Welcome to My Nightmare to Broadway?
Nightmare should be on Broadway. It's written as a Broadway show, but it's home was on the road. We did 65 cities in 72 days at one point. I'd love to bring it to Broadway. I think you would start the show off as Nightmare, let it run for its two hours, and then for the encore, do seven or eight Alice Cooper hits as a rock show, with a band onstage, at the same volume you'd hear at a regular rock concert. I think that would be very satisfying.

Alice Cooper, Brandon Victor Dixon, Sara Bareilles, and John Legend star in Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert.
(© Peter Kramer/NBC)
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