3 min

The oldest story in the world

Jesus Christ Superstar

PLAYING EVIL. For Lawson Skala, being a bad guy comes naturally to him. Credit: Capital Xtra files

Not everyone can lead a foxhunt for the Son of God and then crucify him tirelessly night after night – but it’s just a day in the life of Lawson Skala.

The Chicago-born actor sweeps onto the NAC stage this month in the greatest story ever told, Jesus Christ Superstar. Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s wildly popular hit chronicles the last seven days in the life of Jesus as seen through the eyes of the famed traitorous disciple, Judas. Skala, whose imposing size and impressive bass voice make him a force to reckon with on stage, heads the witchhunt as Caiaphus, the man who ultimately decides that Jesus has to go.

“I’m the quintessential bad guy,” gushes Skala. “It was all my idea. I’m the one who sets the wheels in motion to get rid of Jesus.”

Skala, who also took stages across the country in Phantom of the Opera for eight years, says playing evil comes naturally to him.

“I have a wonderful time doing it,” he says. “It takes a certain kind of actor to do it. The bad guy thing, I think, is in my pocket for the rest of my career. I love doing it every night.”

The high-energy musical hits its turning point early in the play, thanks to Skala’s ungodly Caiaphus. While the cast is on stage, wailing in angst over the dilemma of this inconvenient Jesus character, Skala steals the moment. In a vociferous feat that could compete with the likes of Mariah Carey, Skala wails the line “No! Wait!” then barrels down the vocal range for a deep – and bone-chilling – “We need a more permanent solution to this problem.”

The scene tickles Skala pink nightly and he revels in being told his performance is “hair-raising.”

“At the end of it you can hear a pin drop,” says Skala, who was once told that he “frightened someone to death” on stage.

Webber and Rice’s ground-breaking “rock opera” changed the face of musical theater when it debuted on Broadway in 1971 and has stayed a top grossing musical for nearly 33 years – the age Jesus was when he died. Skala says that despite everyone’s familiarity with the plot, they manage to keep it fresh for each audience.

“Everybody knows the story. You know how it turns out. You give the audience the means to justify the ends,” he explains. “The way we tell the story is a challenge for us and a delight for the audience.”

Skala’s 28 years in theatre have left him with a very important knowledge – it’s opening night for every audience, even if the story is the oldest story in the world.

“We’re kind of a unique animal,” says Skala of the cast. “We do this and make it fresh. It has the staying power and production, it has amazing actors, amazing singers, a beautiful set.”

Whatever the cast is doing, it must be right – of the 20-odd major productions on the road in the States right now, Jesus Christ Superstar is still hovering at the top.

Skala credits some of this production’s success to the visuals it presents. Towering over six feet, white, with a shaved head, Skala finds himself face to face nightly with another character played by a 5’2″ black actor, to whom he delivers his favourite, frightening line – nose to nose.

“It’s visual beserkness,” Skala admits, then laughs, recalling a time he accidentally spit on the other actor during this scene. “He might as well have screamed, ‘Ooh, cooties.'”

While the cast has fun with the show, Skala concedes that it ends on a depressing note.

“We want to make the audience leave on an up note but the final scene is the crucifixion. It’s powerful and realistic. The show is heartbreaking.” He adds that many of the actors leave the stage in tears after every performance. “It’s heavy.”

In spite of Skala’s terrifying role, he says his partner of 25 years, Don, has never feared him, only applauded him.

“I give him so much credit because he’s been so supportive,” says Skala of Don, with whom he lives in Palm Springs. “I owe a lot of our success to him. He’s candid and astute.”

While the pair is often separated for long periods, Skala says his excitement over the show hasn’t waned. “This is the most enjoyable performing experience I’ve ever had,” he says. “We’re honestly thrilled to be coming to Ottawa. I’ve never been.”


Jun 25 – 29.

National Arts Centre.