INTERVIEW: Robert Tripolino chats the impact of Jesus Christ Superstar & the challenges of taking on such an iconic role

Robert Tripolino in Jesus Christ Superstar at the Barbican Centre. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Robert Tripolino had not long made the brave decision to leave his native Australia for London when he landed the iconic role of Jesus in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s epic rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar. Following two sell-out seasons at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, Robert stepped into the role of Jesus as it transferred to the Barbican Centre for a limited season. We caught up with Robert and Ricardo Afonso (who plays Judas) for a chat before the show as they tell us what a profound impact the show has had on them and why they are bursting with absolute pride at the continued success of this adrenaline-pumping revival.

Describe this production of Jesus Christ Superstar in one sentence – A modern retelling of an epic musical!

How did you come to get involved with the show and what was the audition process like? I’m from Australia and moved over to London in August last year. I was auditioning for a few shows when the opportunity for JCS came along and the process was quite intense. It began with me singing with my guitar and at the time I didn’t know I was going in for Jesus. I was just really hoping to be a part of the show in some way shape or form. Then suddenly I got the Jesus material thrown at me (Gethsemane, that simple classic) so the next four/five rounds were basically a Gethsemane marathon. I think there was one week between practising and singing in front of the panel and I had to perform it a good ten/twelve times. Naturally as an actor by the fifth or sixth round you’ve sung it so much it’s like you own the song and it’s ingrained in your body. You’ve gone from “It doesn’t matter if I don’t get it” to “If I don’t get this I’m going to be devastated”. The show is very musician-led, particularly with Jesus playing the guitar and I think my skill set really aligned with what they were looking for. So in a nutshell that was my process, it was gruelling, intense and petrifying but so rewarding and I was so fortunate to get the role.

JCS has been recreated for stage numerous times, what differentiates this version from all the others? As actors, we use handheld microphones and stylistically the show has much more of a concert feel which is a major departure from previous productions. So it really is its own beast in comparison to the ones that have come before it. Of course, the narrative remains through the lyrics and through the natural progression of the music but we all carry it through. In fact, our drummer closes the book, the lead guitarist has no book and the wonderful thing about this show is the band is there for us and they are as prominent as the actors.

You and Ricardo have taken incredibly different paths in the lead up to JCS, how have your experiences informed your performance? This has been such a high point of my career as I have never taken on a role of this scale before. I think the challenge of rising to the required level, rather than drawing on my previous experiences has informed my performance the most.  That’s why it’s so amazing working with someone like Ricardo; I came into a production where the bar is set so high. Everything was fresh and new and I was able to use my experience of moving to a new country and channel both the positive and negative feelings associated with that. You have the joy and excitement and the first day of school feeling, but conversely, my anxiety was through the roof because this is such an epic show. There’s no easing into it, even narrative-wise, you just hit the ground running. It’s an hour and a half so it’s quite short yet in that small amount of time we achieve so much. Of course I draw from my past in terms of work ethic and I do feel very proud of myself as to how I have stepped up to the demands of what this production requires. For me I think it’s that real sink or swim moment that has really informed my performance, it’s been a real learning curve.

Is there a common quality that you feel you’ve given to or taken from your role? I think for me it’s always finding the calm amongst what can potentially become a storm. I always make sure that I am centred before even stepping on stage and also constantly during the show. For both me and Ricardo, it’s a fine line between approaching it in the wrong way which can so quickly knock you off centre. So I think it very much aligns with the narrative and the character of Jesus in that he remains calm even though there’s this huge storm coming. So that is definitely something I draw quite literally from, you have to be calm before you run on that stage and hit that brutal physicality that comes from playing Jesus.  

How do you prepare and take care of your voice when delivering such a demanding rock-opera score night after night? Water and rest has been the key and are absolutely essential. There have been times when family and friends have come over from Australia and I’ll be speaking during the day and at night I’ll be thinking gosh why is this hard. It sounds stupid but talking is essentially using the tool you need to do your job all day long. It’s like a dancer constantly boogying throughout the day then having to do a full-on routine at night. I also do quite a gentle vocal warm-up because the more relaxed I can get my voice the easier it is. There are moments where I am quite low, then moments where I’m up in the heavens it’s technically challenging to control the ability to switch quite quickly. Otherwise, you get what I like to call ‘Tesus’ which is teenage Jesus and no one wants that! Also, no two shows are the same as my performance is very much dictated by what my body is capable of doing that day and working it accordingly. It’s a demanding eight-show week schedule and it really does push us to our physical and emotional limits. We’re five weeks in now and I always say this to Ricardo, a lot of people think the singing must be so tiring, but actually for me, it’s the emotional demands, particularly in Act Two when you are effectively witnessing the demise of a physical person. That blending of emotion and physically inevitably has an impact on your voice. Going back to the last question, you have to walk into the performance calmly otherwise it’s a hard road to go down.

Do you have a favourite moment in the show and if so, why? Any moment where Ricardo and I have any contact is very special as we naturally feed off each other. We’re listening to each other constantly so I think we are all each other’s favourite moments! There is a moment with the trio of Mary, Jesus and Judas where we sing Everything’s Alright, which is quite early on in the piece. It really sets the scene of things starting to unravel and the bubbling of the eruption to come – I do enjoy those moments. The show goes by in such a flash so it’s an entire favourite moment! It’s also fun, we never forget how much fun we’re having, even though people regularly ask me if I’m ok after! I’m actually having a ball.

What has been your biggest career highlight to date? I know that my answer to this is probably boring, but it’s this show! I took a huge risk placing a big red stop button on my Australian career. It was starting to build but I had a sudden urge to go overseas and I just felt like there was an opportunity for me. It was just bizarre how I came here and Tim was looking for a Jesus in JCS and I just happened to walk into the room. I never knew I wanted to play the role, unlike Ricardo who has coveted the role of Judas his whole career, it wasn’t a target of mine and I didn’t think I could sing it! I’ve always been a fan of the style but I’ve just never had the guts to go for something like this and because of that it’s been a really emotional journey for me. It’s one of those roles that you do have to treat with such respect, commitment and a complete lack of ego and I am really proud of how I have approached it.

Just off the back of Ricardo’s answer to this, I have never seen someone put such a stamp on a role. I know I am sounding a bit sycophantic right now, but I have never seen such emotion. All of your questions will be answered when you see the show. The passion that this man puts in is incredible, it really is his show. He’s very quick to say it’s a team effort, but it’s such an inspiration to see someone really tick off something that they have fought so hard to achieve.

What do you consider your profession’s greatest challenge today? I think for me, I’ve had to learn not to take what people are saying about me or my performances to heart. Learning to do it for myself and run my own race has been a big thing for me and that’s inclusive of auditions and performances. I think there is huge pressure to be in work and don’t get me wrong I don’t claim to be some kind of Yoda, dishing out wisdom but whenever people say I haven’t booked a gig in so long, it’s almost like it’s ok, it will happen, just run your own race. It’s the same when you are in work with the temptation to become complacent. There has to be that trained hunger during the downtime, which I feel may be a challenge for younger people. It’s so important to make hay while the sun shines so that way when you are in your ‘funemployment’ you are not constantly stressing that you have no work. Work-life balance is also so important, we go so hard for such a short amount of time then suddenly it gets taken away and it’s dealing with the effect that has on your mental health as well.

What was the last thing you saw at the theatre and what do you wish you had seen but missed? I saw The Jungle which was one of the first shows I saw in London. I have never walked down a street crying after a show! It blew me away and was actually quite inspiring because of the story that is told and how they told it. It was one of those moments when I thought, yep, I am meant to be in London right now. I wish I had seen Hades Town – I missed it here and I really wish I’d seen it because I heard such amazing things.

We then asked Robert some Dress Circle Antics quickfire questions…

Who would play you in the story of your life – Robert DeNiro!

Dream Role – I actually don’t have a dream role, my dream is to originate a role – that is a bucket list career goal for me

Favourite musical number – I was blown away by the opening number of the Lion King when I saw it growing up

Go to audition song – Mine is a song called So Beyond which my singing teacher here in London gave to me and it’s from a show called Marilyn which didn’t run for too long. It’s such a great piece and always sparks a bit of a conversation as to where it’s from

Dream Superpower – Flying!

Favourite musical – I really loved Come From Away, I got to see it in New York and I really connected with it

If you could play the lead in any other musical (regardless of gender) who would it be? – Eva Peron – I feel like that is a role I would love to take on!

Top 5 fantasy dinner guests – Jeff Buckley, Matt Bellamy, Marcus Aurelius, Tim Rice, Philip Quast

Tell us something no one knows about you – Not many people here know this but back home in Oz they do. I actually trained for 18 years as a ballet dancer, unfortunately, nothing came of it so I ended up turning my feet in Fosse style and going into musical theatre.

Jesus Christ Superstar is playing at the Barbican Centre until 24 August 2019.

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