Ever since John Legend played the title role in NBCs Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, on April 1, his wife, Chrissy Teigen, has had a new household nickname for the singer. “Shell tweet that Jesus is cooking for her,” Legend said with a laugh recently. “Its not the worst thing to be associated with.”
Though Legend is a seasoned performer (and almost an EGOT, with 10 Grammys, a Tony, and an Oscar to his name), playing Jesus Christ marked his first time starring in a live-TV musical. Until that point, the singer was perhaps best known for releasing sumptuous R&B records, collaborating with friends like Kanye West, and crooning the instant wedding classic “All of Me.” His interpretation of the rock n roll messiah was refined and quietly confident. He conveyed his almighty swagger via rich, powerful vocals and an aggressively low V-neck shirt. In some ways, Legend said, the experience was easier than his concerts, where hes onstage singing for nearly two hours straight.
“I dont ever lip-synch. I dont ever use a lot of extra backing tracks that arent live or backing vocalists. So I really expend a lot of energy and put a lot of wear and tear on my vocal cords,” he said. “Doing only five or six solos is actually a light night for me.”
While Legends workload may have seemed light on paper—Jesus actually has less stage time than wayward disciple Judas Iscariot, played in this production by Broadway star and Hamilton alum Brandon Victor Dixon—the singers voice wasnt a perfect fit for some of the vocal stylings in Jesuss solos.
“Im more naturally a second tenor or baritone,” he said of the role, which typically calls for a “rock tenor.” “The bottom line is, my voice is lower than other peoples. If you listen to Bruno Mars—Bruno Mars is a first tenor. He has a really high, beautiful voice, and he sings pop songs in the kind of range where a lot of women could sing them. I dont sing that high most of the time, and I dont have the high range that he has.”
So he worked around it, memorizing his songs, researching past iterations of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, and diving into rehearsals for about two and a half weeks in February. His prep was meant to continue through March, but Legend hit a tiny snag—he had a three-week tour planned for Asia, which kept him away from the shows New York base until about a week before the program aired. He left the East Coast the night of the Oscars and came back one week before Easter. The process, he joked, was fully rock n roll—as was his co-star Alice Cooper, a flamboyantly outfitted King Herod, who injected the set with gritty flair.
As one would hope, Legend got to hear some extraordinary stories from Cooper, including one about the singers longtime manager picking up weed for Jimi Hendrix. And, funny enough, Legend learned that he and Cooper actually have quite a bit in common. Both were brought up in the Midwest, both came from deeply religious families, and both were the children of preachers; Legends grandfather was a minister as well, as were several of his uncles. His religious upbringing served as a unique springboard for Legend to take on this role, a Middle Eastern man frequently portrayed in modern Western iconography as a white guy with light hair and light eyes—like he “came from Oslo,” said Legend.
“I probably look a lot closer to what he [looked] like than most of the people weve seen portray him in the past,” Legend said.
In the post-Hamilton world, it only seemed right for a black star to play Jesus: “I feel like thats the new reality.” Legend didnt waste time worrying about viewers who might have found his casting “controversial,” especially since NBC disregarded traditional casting conventions in favor of a diverse swath of performers—from Norm Lewis as Caiaphas to Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene to Jin Ha as Annas.
The ultra-modern musical did have its critics, predictably. Right-wing pundit Bill OReilly evidently tuned in, then expressed his disapproval with a quick tweet: “Who knew Jesus of Nazareth ran a tattoo parlor? Geez.”
Teigen, Twitters unofficial comeback laureate, happened to see the complaint and quickly fired back: “Yes the shop specializes in coverups that arent 32 million dollars,” she tweeted, referring to the gargantuan sum OReilly reportedly paid to settle a sexual-harassment suit. Legend thought it was the perfect response.
“Hes not really in a good position to be a moral authority on just about anything right now, so he might be well advised to not chime in on a lot of these issues. But he did it,” Legend said. “He threw it right down the plate, and Chrissy knocked it out of the park.”
“WE MADE JESUS AND JUDAS A LITTLE SEXIER THAN PEOPLE EXPECTED THEM TO BE.”
After the show, Legend eagerly read through the myriad tweets his wife had loosed during the performance. “Shes my favorite person to follow on Twitter, and its not because Im biased,” he said. He was particularly tickled by all the jokes about his characters increasingly sloping V-neck shirts. At one point, it seemed like Legend and Dixon were in an unspoken battle to see who could show his navel first—a suggestion that made the erstwhile Jesus burst into laughter.
“We made Jesus and Judas a little sexier than people expected them to be,” he said, after another laughing spell. “It was all part of the idea of making the show more of a rock concert.”
In the end, the cast and crew turned in a tight, crisp production, shockingly free from the sort of technical glitches and flubs that tend to plague live-televised musicals. Legend, who also served as an executive producer on Superstar, doesnt see himself getting any special nominations for his performance, as there isnt really a designated Emmys category for live-musical stars (were he to land an acting nod, it would likely be as best actor in a limited series or movie). But he does have high hopes for the show as a whole in the Outstanding Variety Special (Live) category. (Musical predecessors such as Grease Live and Hairspray Live have also won Emmys in the past.)
If Superstar was to win that award, Legend would become the 13th star in history to complete the coveted EGOT. Having won his most recent Grammy in 2015, an Oscar in 2015, and a Tony in 2017, hed also become one of the fastest artists ever to nab the distinction. (The quickest to do it, thus far, is composer Robert Lopez, who earned a double EGOT in 10 years. The slowest—but first woman!—was Helen Hayes, who completed the task in 45 years.)
If Legend does end up winning an Emmy, he plans to display it together with the other awards in his Los Angeles home. “I dont take any of them for granted, because the competitions always going to be there, and theres always going to be other people that deserve it just as much,” he said. “Im grateful every time it happens.”
Get Vanity Fairs HWD NewsletterSign up for essential industry and award news from Hollywood.Yohana DestaYohana Desta is a Hollywood writer for VanityFair.com.