Jacco Doornbos was stunned.
The CEO and creative director of the Netherlands-based Eye2Eye Media had just learned that 25 percent of the Dutch population didn’t know the meaning of Easter. They were more inclined to think about chocolate bunnies than the resurrection of Jesus.
“I felt like whether it’s from a religious standpoint, a historical standpoint or a cultural standpoint, we need to know this story because it’s part of our culture in Holland, as it is part of our culture here in the U.S. That’s where I felt I wanted to come up with something that brings that story back into the public space,” Doornbos says.
His way of delivering the story is through a musical special, “The Passion.” The Fox broadcast, hosted and narrated by Tyler Perry, is a modern telling of the last days of Jesus of Nazareth. It will unfold in New Orleans on Palm Sunday.
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Cast members include Jencarlos Canela (Jesus Christ), Chris Daughtry (Judas), Prince Royce (Peter), Seal (Pontius Pilate), Trisha Yearwood (Mary, mother of Jesus), Shane Harper (disciple) and Michael W. Smith (disciple).
Doornbos’ idea was to take the 2,000-year-old story and tell it through modern music. The long list of musical numbers includes Celine Dion’s “Love Can Move Mountains,” Creed’s “With Arms Wide Open,” Train’s “Calling All Angels,” Tina Turner’s “We Don’t Need Another Hero,” and “Mad World” by Tears for Fears.
Music producer and “The Passion” executive producer Adam Anders knew Fox was the right network to broadcast the special because of all the music. The network has embraced musical productions from the series “Glee” to the recent live telecast of “Grease.”
“Music has a way to move people that nothing else can. If you can couple the perfect song and lyric with an emotion and a moment, it can drive something home more powerfully than anything else,” Anders says. “If you take the music, a soundtrack, out of any movie, it’s not as powerful anymore.
“So telling stories through music, through those songs, just takes it to another level. I think people have realized that. They are moved much more in a musical than they are sometimes in other forms.”
The music will be modern, but the actors will only have the Gospels as dialogue.
Mark Bracco, executive vice president of programming and development for Dick Clark Productions, looks to the music to draw in an audience whether the viewer is a believer or just a fan of one of the artists performing.
The biggest difference between this live musical production and others is that the scenes will take place at key locations in New Orleans, from the French Quarter to Jackson Square to Audubon Park. The production team started meeting with city leaders two years ago to make sure the logistics of working throughout the city could be handled.
One of the biggest locations will be Woldenberg Park, on the banks of the Mississippi River. A riverboat parked there will hold the audience.
A 20-foot illuminated cross will be carried by hundreds of people from the Superdome to Woldenberg Park. Interviews will be done with those along the path to find out what drew them to the production. This procession could be delayed if emergency vehicles need to go down a street that has been blocked for the group.
Past live musicals on TV generally have been staged inside. Staging “The Passion” entirely outdoors means being at the mercy of the weather.
Anders jokes that’s why God created umbrellas.
Doornbos sees the potential weather and logistic problems as part of the entertainment value.
“That’s all part of the live excitement. Yes, all of these things can happen,” Doornbos says. “That’s what will make it very exciting to watch ‘The Passion’ because anything can happen.
“That’s what happened in Holland, too. The first four years, we had very nice weather, not a drop of rain, and then, suddenly, the fifth year, it was stormy, rainy.
“But it turned out to be great, even more emotional when it rains.”
A lot of the pressure on keeping the production moving smoothly falls to Perry, who will be stationed at Woldenberg Park. Perry has become such a force in entertainment that any production he is part of usually carries “Tyler Perry Presents …” as part of the title.
Perry was so convinced he wanted to be part of the project after seeing clips of some of the past productions in the Netherlands that he didn’t need to have his name as part of the title to be involved. It was also a bonus that the production would take place in his hometown of New Orleans.
While growing up in Louisiana, Perry got to see how important music is to the residents of the Big Easy. He also couldn’t think of a better place because New Orleans has endured great suffering, such as the rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina, while also showing great strength at overcoming adversity.
“And also, being Christian, I love this story,” Perry says. “I love the idea of it being told very modern, very updated, so that not only people who know about it and who are believers, but people who are not, who are from all walks of life, can look at this story, get it, understand it, appreciate it and have love for it, just as I do, just as it is.
“Growing up in church, it was there every Sunday. We could hear it through the walls from all the churches in the neighborhood.
“To add music to this story, make it modern day, I think it’s going to speak to so many people.”
No matter the location, host or songs, the most important part of the production to all of those involved is making sure the production is as inclusive as possible for everyone.
That’s necessary because Perry is just as shocked by the Dutch numbers, and he even hinted that the lack of real understanding in the United States would be nearly as high.
“It’s a very different day now. Even a lot of millennials have no reference of faith,” Perry says. “My hope and prayer is not only that this great, beautiful, incredible musical is moving, but that it also leaves people with some sort of hope, some sort of idea of faith and forgiveness and God.”
- 8 p.m. Sunday, March 20, KMPH (Channel 26.1)