With a huge electric cross, a cast of stars and a budget of $11 million, the Fox network is bringing “The Passion,” a live national broadcast telling the story of Jesus Christ’s final hours, to the streets of New Orleans on Palm Sunday.
Based on a successful Dutch production, the two-hour, rain-or-shine show will be narrated by superproducer and New Orleans native Tyler Perry and will feature well-known actors singing pop hits by Whitney Houston, Imagine Dragons and others.
As the story unfolds, a large group of people from around the country will accompany the electric cross in a procession from the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to a performance stage in Woldenberg Park.
Airing on WVUE at 7 p.m. March 20, “The Passion” was born when Dutch producer Jacco Doornbos learned that “only 25 percent of the Dutch population was still aware of what the story of Easter was about,” he said during TV writers’ winter tour in California. “And that really shocked me, because I felt like — whether it’s from a religious standpoint, an historical standpoint or a cultural standpoint — we need to know this story because it’s part of our culture.”
Mark Bracco, of Dick Clark Productions, who will oversee the New Orleans broadcast for Fox, began his preparations for the event by traveling to see the Dutch version, which annually delivers hefty TV ratings. It was performed in freezing rain.
The live nature of the show means it’s subject to both meteorological and man-made complications.
“There are certain streets that will be shut down for us but certain ones that won’t be,” he said. “The procession might be stopping because there’s a fire truck going by. And being live, you embrace that and have fun with it.”
Bracco said the production company has been meeting with city officials for about 18 months to prepare for the broadcast. The main stage set will be in Woldenberg Park, with cameras capturing the skyline from a boat on the Mississippi River.
Other locations will include Jackson Square and Audubon Park. Some scenes will be prerecorded, and there will be just two days of rehearsal in the city, on the Friday and Saturday before the broadcast, Bracco said.
The production’s budget, according to a filing with the state, tops $11 million, more than $9 million of which will be spent locally.
Country recording artist Trisha Yearwood will star as Mary. The actor who will play Jesus has not been announced.
The performers will be dressed in contemporary attire (Jesus will be costumed in an orange jailhouse jumpsuit at one point late in the story) and will cover pop hits that fit the context of the story. The songs will be arranged by Adam Anders, who, in addition to serving as executive music producer for Fox’s “Glee,” has written and produced for the Jonas Brothers, Miley Cyrus and the Backstreet Boys.
“It’s incredible, when we start looking through the U.S. pop catalog, how many spiritual undertones there are, because most artists have a spirituality to them, and the songs are written from those moments in their lives,” said Anders, who said he plans a “surprise” nod to New Orleans’ musical legacy during the broadcast. “It’s incredible how you can tie those songs into the moments.”
Bracco said several cities were considered for the U.S. premiere of “The Passion,” but New Orleans’ recent history made it the best fit.
“The story of New Orleans and the tragedy that it resurrected itself (from made it) the perfect place to do the first year,” Bracco said.
The production may travel to other U.S. cities in future years if it’s a hit. The Hague, Gouda and Rotterdam have been among the host cities for the original production.
Perry said he’s seen clips of the Dutch version and “thought it was just amazing.”
“When I heard that (the Fox version) was going to be in New Orleans, which is my hometown, a place that had endured great suffering but also knows about triumph and overcoming, I thought (there was) no better place than there to tell this particular story, using the landmarks that I grew up with and around the people that I know so well,” he said.
“The Passion” is Fox’s bid to capture the “event TV” audiences won by live musicals produced by NBC. The network’s own live musical, “Grease,” airs on Jan. 31. Dick Clark Productions oversees live awards shows, beauty pageants and the annual “New Year’s Rockin’ Eve” broadcasts.
Live broadcasts “in these days of DVRs and delayed viewing” are intended to compel viewers to sit in front of their sets for a rare communal experience, Bracco said, and then participate via social media commentary.
“For this one, our hope is that people are going to say, ‘I’ve got to be there to see what this is,’ ” he said. “As we reveal more things and people hear about Judas and Jesus singing ‘Demons’ (by Imagine Dragons) and about Trisha Yearwood singing a Whitney Houston song (‘My Love Is Your Love’) as Mary singing her goodbye to her son as he’s being dragged away, they’ll say, ‘I’ve got to tune in to see that live.’ ”