Broadway and film composer and music director Louis St. Louis may be best known for his treatments of 1950s and 1960s rock 'n' roll with Smokey Joe's Café, Grease and Grease 2. For the Alliance Theatre's Jesus Christ Superstar GOSPEL (opening Jan. 21), he received permission from hit-making composer Andrew Lloyd Webber to reinterpret the rock opera through the prism of contemporary black gospel music.
You're credited as the music supervisor, dance arranger and conceiver of the show. How did you get the idea to "gospelize" the material? It seems like a natural fit.
That's what everyone seems to think, but no one ever did it. I was conducting a concert for the New York League of Theatres in 2002 called Broadway Rocks. All of the women wanted to do "I Don't Know How to Love Him" from Jesus Christ Superstar. Generally, if I can up come up with a new slant on something in a half-hour, I'm excited about it. We gave the song a gospel treatment, with an African-American singer on one side of the stage and a white one on the other. It was plugged in the center of an 80-minute concert and brought the house down. The next morning, I had the revelation that I could do the whole show that way. I wrote a letter to Andrew asking permission in intentionally the worst Shakespearean language I could muster: "I beseech thee on bended knee, my lord... ." Someone told me that when Sir Andrew heard about my idea, he said, "None of you a-holes ever knew what to do with the old material. Who is this?"
For Jesus Christ Superstar GOSPEL, I imagine the Alliance's 27-member choir singing the songs and playing tambourines. Was it that easy?
No. A dream is one thing, the application is something else. I called my best friend, Darryl Jovan Williams, who is also playing Judas, and said, "You've got to do this with me." Some pieces include gospelization in them, but are otherwise done exactly like the originals. "The Temple" and "The Lepers" are very gospelized and they're some of my favorites. I live for the choir. I love solos and duets and trios, but put the choir up there and I'm out flat on the floor.
Can you give an example of how the gospel treatment alters a song?
"I Don't Know How to Love Him" has a very different approach than the original. I won't say it's more soulful, because that implies that it wasn't soulful before. It's just steeped in modern contemporary gospel music. It's a kind of music I grew up with.
What are the challenges of conducting musicals from the piano?
Five to six years on Smokey Joe's Café has busted my hands up. That's 42 songs a night, with no stopping except at intermission, and hard, hard playing. ... For Jesus Christ Superstar GOSPEL, I have an extraordinary music director who's 28 years old and an absolute monster. I like my new role, being on the side and saying, "That's fabulous – clean it up!" The choir calls me "the bishop."