Theater News

Blown Down Broadway By a Gale Force Wind

Gale Edwards, director of the revival of Jesus Christ Superstar, talks to David Finkle regarding aspects of musicals, classics, and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Tony Vincent (Judas) & Company in JSC rehearsal
Tony Vincent (Judas) & Company
in JSC rehearsal

“You have seen into the heart of my music,” Andrew Lloyd Webber said to Gale Edwards in a transcontinental phone conversation some seven or eight years ago. Oddly enough, Edwards, an Australian-born director, was in London at the time, and Lloyd Webber, who accounts for a healthy percentage of England’s annual gross national product, was in Australia.

He’d just seen Edwards’s production of his musical Aspects of Love because the show’s lyricist, Don Black, was insisting that someone had at last gotten the previously ill-fated show right.

Recalling Lloyd Webber’s comment, Edwards says she was worried when she was told the rich and famous composer was paging her. “Oh, my God,” she said to herself, “I’m going to be fired.”

Far from it. Edwards recounts that Lloyd Webber positively shoveled compliments toward her. “His voice was trembling,” she says. “I think he might have been crying.”

And when that was out of the way, Lloyd Webber put his conviction where his quivering mouth was. He added Edwards to the Really Useful Group (RUG) creative-team roster. This explains why she’s in New York, helming the revival of Jesus Christ Superstar and enjoying what she calls–over morning soft drinks in the appropriately theatrical Paramount Hotel mezzanine restaurant–“the greatest five weeks of my life.”

Edwards handled musicals back when she was a “baby director,” but they are not what she is known for in her homeland or in her adopted England. “I spent my life doing Shakespeare, Chekhov. I’m first and foremost a storyteller. I’m not a stager.” Storytelling is the spinal cord behind her version of Jesus Christ Superstar, which she first hammered out during a road tour through the English provinces. “The world doesn’t need another Hamlet,” she says in a fervent tone that’s typical of how she expresses herself. “It needs a great Hamlet. The world doesn’t need another Jesus Christ Superstar. It needs a great Jesus Christ Superstar.”


Aiming her direction in that direction, she says she’s eschewing “a 70’s revival with bell bottoms” and is instead putting up a JCS for today, which means she wants to underscore the show’s relevance to the here and now by stressing the themes of violence and conciliation that are blared daily by contemporary headlines. It’s why she’s armed the cast with rifles and why she’s even prepared to substantiate her tack by referring to Tim Rice’s lyrics, reciting some lines that include, “Every word you say today gets twisted round some other way.”

Should anyone question the heavy-artillery thrust, she says, “Every day people are taking up arms in the name of Christ.” Or, indeed, in the name of some religious belief. “Look at Palestine,” she goes on, “Look at the Holy Wars.”

That the show’s longtime fans may question her decision doesn’t bother her a whit. She mentions–not with any pride, understand–that she has never seen another production of the musical. She even confesses she had been so far out of the loop that when she was recruited for Aspects of Love, she was attracted because of the play’s Chekhovian quality and for no other reason. “I hadn’t heard of anyone called Andrew Lloyd Webber,” she laughs.

But she has heard of him now–and has heard from him on a regular basis. She remarks, “In England now there’s only one empire, and it’s Andrew’s.” It’s why, although she has staged Jesus Christ Superstar as a sung-through musical–which it wasn’t quite when it was written–the text remains completely intact. “It’s a masterpiece,” she says. “You cannot cut a note. Really, it is one of the great scores of the 20th century.” She delivers this little encomium with a slightly ironic tone and, when questioned about the vocal italics, doesn’t deny she’s quoting her boss. With whom, nonetheless, she gets on “like a house afire.”

While she contends that neither Lloyd Webber nor Rice saw any reason to alter a show they wrote when they were in their early twenties (introducing it first as a concept album), she asserts that the pair couldn’t have been more “generous” to her on the current assignment. She also says that the American actors with whom she’s now affiliated are as fine a troupe as she’s ever encountered. She admires them, she says, for their “spirit, courage and dedication.” About her methods of working, she says, “I bring exactly the same technique as I do with the classics.” That technique, she explains, is to focus on the dialogue. “In the rehearsal process,” she says, “we speak the words–not sing the music. My process is very much based on basic psychology. Why am I saying this to you? Why am I doing this?”


Though wrapped up in JCS at the moment, Edwards isn’t confining her local exposure this season to just one project. Come May, she’ll have her Royal Shakespeare Company production of Friedrich von Schiller’s Don Carlos at BAM. In keeping with her goal of reviving plays that seem as pertinent now as they were when they were written, she’s edited Schiller’s script into something she believes is “biting, fast–I’ve staged it as a cliffhanger.” (Rupert Penry-Jones will play Don Carlos, and of his acting future Edwards declares, “I promise you he’s the next one.”)

The production team involved with both JCS and Don Carlos is the one she’s used for years and includes Peter Davis, Mark McCullough, Roger Kirk, and Anthony van Laast. They’re a tight-knit group but, she adds, “We’re ruthless with each other.”

Edwards trained at Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NITA), which celebs like Mel Gibson and Cate Blanchett also attended, and she has taught acting there. But while she says, “I love teaching,” she probably won’t be doing much officially anytime soon. She’s now got that job-landing reputation as someone who can whip the classics into new-millennium shape–for which she gives much credit to Trevor Nunn. He’s the mentor who brought her to the RSC before he assumed the leadership of the Royal National Theatre.

As a member in good standing of the RUG club, Edwards was on hand to develop Whistle Down the Wind for its initial workshop showing a few years back in the 250-seat theater Lloyd Webber has at Sydmonton, his country estate. If she was miffed when Harold Prince was subsequently asked to do the first commercial production, she isn’t copping to it–possibly because, when that version failed to get out of Washington, D.C. intact, Lloyd Webber handed Edwards the show for its London stint, which is still whistling.

Add to Edwards’ credits The Boy From Oz, a “non-linear” musical about the life of Peter Allen she’s hoping to bring here from Australia next year. She looks forward to that as she looks forward to everything she does in any way connected with theater. And when she says “theater,” how does she define it? “It’s a communal tribal experience of people coming together to share the experience of the tribe.” She thinks over what she’s just said and chuckles and continues, somewhat abashed, “I guess that’s not what I’m supposed to say.”

Whether she is or she isn’t, she makes one thing very clear. “I love theater,” she repeats with a smile as broad as a theater marquee. “I love it all.”

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Jesus Christ Superstar

Closed: September 3, 2000