When you haul a 20-foot, 285-pound electric cross down Bourbon Street, folks tend to notice.
During rehearsals for Fox’s live broadcast Sunday night of the musical “The Passion,” revelers filed out of bars to stare. Musicians stopped playing. Others broke into gospel songs.
“People were drawn to the cross,” said “The Passion” executive producer and showrunner Robert Deaton. “We hope that happens (on Sunday night). It’s important for us to represent New Orleans as what and who it is.”
Other real-time TV musicals — Fox’s “Grease: Live!” and NBC’s “The Wiz,” “Peter Pan” and “The Sound of Music” — were staged within the controlled environment of a closed soundstage.
But most of “The Passion,” a contemporary retelling of Jesus Christ’s final hours, will play out for millions of national TV viewers outdoors in New Orleans, prey to the whims of weather, traffic and curious, possibly intoxicated bystanders.
Starting at 7 p.m. at Woldenberg Park, entertainment mogul and New Orleans native Tyler Perry will narrate the two-hour show from a massive, space station-like stage in front of the thousands of spectators who snapped up free tickets.
Meanwhile, a procession of preselected marchers will set out from Duncan Plaza near City Hall with the giant cross. Cameras will periodically cut to the procession as it makes its way down Canal Street, turns onto Bourbon for three blocks, then heads for Jackson Square en route to Woldenberg Park.
Rolling street closures will temporarily block traffic along the way, as if “The Passion” were a religious-themed second-line parade.
Given the project’s multimillion-dollar price tag and technical challenges, the producers have taken some precautions. The musicians on the main stage will play along to prerecorded parts. Some dramatic segments at locations around the city have been pretaped. And a final rehearsal is scheduled for Sunday afternoon, hours before the real thing.
But as the producers and stars of “The Passion” acknowledged Friday during a round of speed dating-style interviews at the local Fox 8 studios, they can’t account for every possible scenario — especially in a setting as unpredictable and dynamic as Bourbon Street.
“We have no idea what’s going to happen,” said executive music producer Adam Anders. “You can’t control everything in life. This is just a free-for-all. It’s daunting, but it’s fun. We’ll do our best.”
In addition to supervising dozens of musicians and singers on the main stage, Anders must consider other variables. Staffers will ask street musicians and cover bands on Bourbon Street to play only public-domain songs as the cross-bearing procession passes. Otherwise, Fox must pay licensing fees for copyrighted material that bleeds into the live broadcast.
So where will Anders be as the complex production unfolds live? “I will be panicking somewhere in a corner,” he joked.
Rock singer Chris Daughtry, who plays the treacherous disciple Judas, predicted that “the odds are real high of something crazy happening.”
Perry, for his part, was optimistic: “There’s a lot of moving parts. But it’s going to be awesome.”
‘A resurrected city’
In addition to Perry and Daughtry, “The Passion” stars Latin pop singer and “Telenovela” co-star Jencarlos Canela as Jesus, country singer Trisha Yearwood as Mary, and singers Seal as Pontius Pilate and Prince Royce as the disciple Peter.
Fox’s version of “The Passion” is based on a popular Dutch television special that has aired annually in the Netherlands since 2011. Anders partnered with Jacco Doornbos, the creator of the Dutch “Passion,” to introduce the show to America.
New York was considered as the host city, but New Orleans ultimately won out, in part because of its own resurrection after Hurricane Katrina.
“New Orleans just made sense,” Anders said. “It’s a resurrection story in a resurrected city. That’s what connected with us: the suffering the city’s been through, and how it’s come back from that.”
That, Deaton said, “relates to our story of Jesus and the pain and suffering he went through.”
New Orleans “is its own character in the story,” Deaton said. “Not just the French Quarter but all of New Orleans. Once we scouted locations here and understood what the city is, it was an obvious choice for the first (live telecast).”
For Perry, the setting was “absolutely” one of the reasons he got involved. “When I heard New Orleans, I thought, ‘I’m in.’ It’s my hometown, and a town that literally rose again from a liquid grave.”
The producers also were drawn to the city’s cultural history, especially its music. New Orleans “checked every box,” Anders said. “It’s a music city, it’s a spiritual city, it’s culturally iconic. And nobody does parades better than New Orleans. A procession makes perfect sense here.”
“The Passion” is a musical dominated by contemporary rock and pop songs that relate to the narrative. The core band on the main stage consists of session pros from Los Angeles. But local musicians and vocalists, recruited by Anders during auditions at Loyola University, fill out the string section and 40-member choir.
Traditional New Orleans music will make cameo appearances. The song “Home” features a brass band, and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band is part of a surprise at the end.
“I couldn’t do (New Orleans music) throughout, because this show is for the world, and I wanted it to relate to everyone,” said Anders, whose résumé includes overseeing the music for Fox’s “Glee” and writing the theme song for the short-lived New Orleans crime drama “K-Ville.” “But I mixed it in wherever it made sense. I had to tip my cap to some of my favorite musicians in the world.”
For technical reasons, viewers will hear the live musicians blended with prerecorded parts. “Because it’s outside, you can’t just go live with the strings,” Anders said. “It wouldn’t sound right. They’ll be playing, but we’ll have tracks, just like a concert.
“And there’s no way we could cover everything we have on these arrangements — we’d have to have 100 people up there and rehearse for three months. It’s complicated. There are a lot of sound effects.”
‘Real, raw emotion’
For his part, Daughtry said his vocals will be live. The singer, who launched his career via the 2006 season of “American Idol” and his eponymous band’s multimillion-selling debut album, has toured for a decade, but “The Passion” will be his first New Orleans performance. He’ll sing the Evanescence song “Bring Me to Life” and Imagine Dragons’ “Demons.”
“There will probably be some moments where I cringe when I watch this back on DVR,” Daughtry said. “But I think the whole point is to capture that real, raw emotion and not focus on perfection. That’s hard for me, because that’s all I focus on in my day job — trying to hit every note and do it like the record or better. This is a completely different animal.”
Fellow rocker Sebastian Bach infamously portrayed Jesus in a touring production of “Jesus Christ Superstar.” But Daughtry’s inspiration for Judas was Hugh Jackman.
“I’m not really drawn to musicals; it’s not my genre of choice,” he said. “But when I saw (Jackman’s) performance in ‘Les Miserables’ and forgot that he was singing because it was so powerful visually, I was like, ‘If there’s a way to accomplish that, then I’m game.’ ”
Daughtry likes “The Passion’s” modern portrayal of Jesus: “It’s not anything resembling what we see in our head when we hear the word ‘Jesus.’ For that reason alone, it’s going to be more appealing to our generation.”
During rehearsals in New Orleans after Mardi Gras, Daughtry made his first visit to Bourbon Street in the company of Jesus — or at least the person who will play Jesus in “The Passion,” Canela.
Asked if, given his role, Bourbon Street made him uncomfortable, Canela noted that the biblical Jesus “actually did go to those places, with prostitutes. He was involved with everyone; social class didn’t matter.”
That said, “I, as a human being, did walk down Bourbon, and I had a fine time. We saw some pretty interesting things. And I did not feel Jesus was absent at all. I thought he was with us every step of the way.”
A fresh perspective
“The Passion” combines elements of a musical, a dramatic feature film and a reality show in a way that Deaton says is “unique to anything that’s ever been done on American television.”
The march with the cross is the reality-show aspect. Coming in and out of commercial breaks, “we’ll be checking in with the cross to see where it is,” Deaton said. “It’s woven throughout the entire show. That will be such an iconic image, of the cross going through New Orleans.”
In a case of art imitating life, “Entertainment Tonight” correspondent Nischelle Turner — who spent five years in New Orleans at Fox 8 — will interview bystanders and participants in the processional. She was offered the role after traveling to New Orleans for “ET” to interview “The Passion” cast during rehearsals.
Perry, narrating on the main stage, will “toss” to Turner throughout the show.
“I’m calling myself Little Tyler Perry — Li’l TP,” Turner said. “I’m kind of his sidekick.”
She’ll select interview subjects on the fly for unscripted, spontaneous questioning.
“And we know with New Orleans, anything can happen, and anything can come out of folks’ mouths,” Turner said. “My favorite interviews in my entire career have been here. Sometimes you don’t know what the hell folks are talking about, but it’s just good. I anticipate that, I welcome it, and I will revel in it when it happens.
“Everybody has a story of loss, love, renewal, redemption, rebirth that will connect to this production. So I’m actually anticipating some pretty amazing moments out there.”
Turner also hopes to show a side of the city that many outsiders may not know. “People equate this city with such debauchery and wildness. But New Orleans is a city that is deeply rooted in faith. I’m excited for people to see that picture,” she said.
Like Turner, Perry hopes “The Passion” gives viewers a fresh perspective on its host city.
“A lot of people are still left with the images, believe it or not, of 10 years ago, of Hurricane Katrina and the Superdome, and people being in despair and miserable,” Perry said. “So when this cross leaves the Superdome headed to us at Woldenberg Park, there’s a whole new memory to have in your head, of hope and curiosity and excitement. That’s a much better image.”
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter@KeithSpera