Tyrone Huntley on Returning to London's Jesus Christ Superstar & Working with Amber Riley in Dreamgirls

Tyrone Huntley on Returning to London's Jesus Christ Superstar & Working with Amber Riley in Dreamgirls
Tyrone Huntley in "Jesus Christ Superstar"
(Photo: Johan Persson)

Tyrone Huntley won an Olivier nomination and the Evening Standard’s Emerging Talent Award for his seismic performance as Judas in the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre revival of the celebrated Andrew Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar and is back with the show this season for an encore engagement. In between, the slight-of-build performer with the stratospheric voice appeared on the West End as Effie White’s brother C.C. in Dreamgirls at the Savoy, so there was plenty to discuss when Broadway.com phoned the fast-rising performer for a chat.

How has it felt returning to the production, and the part, that took your career into lift-off last year?
It can pretty cold out there in the open air, but it’s also absolutely amazing. I went back into The Book of Mormon in the West End earlier in my career, but this is the first time I have revisited such an epic role that changed the trajectory of my career. This production essentially changed my life, so to come back to it was an opportunity that I couldn’t let pass. 

What sorts of demands is the piece making on you?
It’s a big sing, there’s no doubt about it. “Heaven on Their Minds” is a pretty intense number to start with: Judas’ vocal journey starts at 90% and doesn’t really drop much below that, so it’s about remaining vocally healthy.

How did you get the part?
I had auditioned for various parts, including Judas, and hadn’t got them so was actually going to be one of the priests when I got another call and three or four auditions later—and three days before rehearsal—they offered me the role! 

Was that as wild as it sounds?
I did feel at first as if I was spending a lot of time trying to catch up with everyone else, but it was also absolutely incredible. Here’s this show that is now 47 years old that had been handed to a creative team who were able to strike a balance between finding a new interpretation while also honoring the original concept album.

How did that work in practice?
Tim [Sheader], our director, was all about us finding the truth in the music. It helps that we have this incredible onstage band up there with us every night!

What’s your view of Judas, as presented in this musical?
Judas is there as Jesus's right-hand man —his second-in-command—who has this dilemma. He’s at the point where he has to decide whether or not to sell Jesus out in the final week before Jesus is crucified.

Had this role been on your actual radar?
Absolutely not. When I was at drama school, there were very few shows I thought I’d be castable for, probably because of my race. There weren’t that many roles for black actors, and I never in a million years thought I’d be playing Judas in a high-profile revival of Jesus Christ Superstar. Also, I’m not your strapping and tall leading man, so I thought I’d have to push through that as well.

Have Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice—the show’s composer-lyricist duo—offered support along the way?
They have been absolutely incredible. They’ve been so trusting and have always come backstage and congratulated us and said how proud they were; it means a lot to have these two men coming up to you after a performance and shaking your hand. 

How heartened have you been by this experience?
Judas has been played by black actors before but it’s not written as a black role, and that’s the important thing: it’s about finding roles where race is merely incidental and where the emphasis is on human relationships and having a story you can tell. 

What did it feel like doing the West End premiere of Dreamgirls in between your two Superstar runs?
It was a relief, to be honest because there was less pressure. That [production] was all about Amber [Riley, as Effie]: could she hit the notes? Is she a theater actress? It was also about bringing one of the most brilliant shows of a generation into the 21st century, which I hope we did. 

How was Amber Riley to work with? 
In every way, Amber is just the most wonderful human being. She's a hard worker and a team player. She could have been a selfish presence to share a stage with but she wasn’t at all; it was an honor appearing alongside her.

How do you think back on the Olivier Awards this past spring? [Huntley was up for best leading actor in a musical, the category won by Groundhog Day’s Andy Karl.]
It was a really long day! We had to get to the Royal Albert Hall for about 9 AM for rehearsal, which was important because we hadn’t performed the show in months, and then we had a run at about 1 PM to get a sense of how epic the space is. During the actual ceremony, we closed Act I, and It was just the most exhilarating experience to see those thousands of faces staring back at me—it was really crazy and so cool!

Was musical theater part of your growing up?
It wasn’t, actually. As a kid, I didn’t listen to musicals. Our household was full of the Jackson 5 and Stevie Wonder and R&B. It was really through theater school, where everyone was singing show tunes all the time and belting out their “Gethsemane” [the Jesus Christ Superstar showstopper], that I got into musical theater. I remember loving songs like “Mean Ole Lion” from The Wiz because it had such a funky R&B feel. 

Do you see this production returning yet again to Regent’s Park next year?
It would be hilarious if it did, but I think this is it. We don’t want to be flogging a dead horse, really. We’ve had a great time so the thing now is to let it go and let it live in the memory.

What’s next for you?
As of yet, I’ve got nothing to go to, but I’m happy for a break at the minute. Hopefully, something exciting will come along but I’ll be quite happy to have a break for the time being.