UCF theatre alumnus Justin Sargent ’08 is on a first-name basis with Academy Award, Golden Globe, Grammy and Tony Award winner John Legend thanks to his role in Jesus Christ Superstar, set to air live Sunday, April 1, on NBC.
As a priest in the ensemble and the understudy to Legend, who is playing Jesus, Sargent has spent the past six weeks rehearsing and shaping the network’s latest concert special, which also features Sara Bareilles and Alice Cooper.
Sargent, from Trinity, Florida, has played the lead roles in Broadway productions of Rock of Ages and Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, so he is no stranger to performing on a big stage. But the magnitude of this one is starting to hit him.
“Even though there’s all these amazing celebrities and people popping in and out of rehearsals, the scale of it never hit me until I saw an interview that John was doing and he was talking about it,” Sargent said, “and I realized, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be seen by millions of people. This is going to be filmed live. How are we going to do this?!”
Sargent shared details from rehearsals, what it feels like to have super powers and why Cooper yelling in his face for two straight hours was one of the best moments of his life.
Q: How did you get your first big break into the industry?
“After college, I worked in the theme parks and at a singing-waiter Italian restaurant in Fashion Square Mall. A new Spider-Man musical was going to Broadway and an open-call audition was going to be held in Orlando. I was the 180th person to audition. U2 wrote the music for the show, so when the casting directors asked what I was singing, I said, I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For by U2, and they said out of 180 people, you’re the first person to sing a U2 song, so already you’re off to a great start!’ My audition went really well, so I got a call back. Eventually, I was asked to travel to New York to audition for the creative team. They asked if I had plans of moving to the city, and when I said eventually, they said I should do it sooner than later.
“So six months later I moved to New York. I emailed the casting directors from Telsey + Company that I had met in Orlando. They brought me in for Rock of Ages, and about nine months after I moved to the city I was doing my first Broadway show.”
Q: After your stint on Rock of Ages you did end up taking over the role of Spider-Man. What’s it like to be a superhero?
“I was a huge comic book fan and a huge fan of Spider-Man when I was a kid. I remember [during the play] being in the costume every night and looking down at my hands with the red-and-black webbed gloves and thinking, ‘This is crazy, I’m Spider-Man. I’m being hooked up to wires and flying around, this is the best!’ It was amazing.”
Q: What’s been the coolest moment for you in working with the celebrity cast of Jesus Christ Superstar?
“When I was 14 years old, my mother took me to see Alice Cooper on his tour. We sat in the second row of Ruth Eckerd Hall (Clearwater, Florida). Alice Cooper did his whole show in front of us – I could reach out and touch him if I wanted to. At the end of the show, they roll out this giant guillotine and ‘decapitate’ him, and his bass player picks up his head and drinks blood out of it and spits it all over my mom and I. I was hooked as soon as it happened. I was like, ‘Oh. My. God. That was the most amazing thing in the world!’ He came to our rehearsal one day, and he watched us do a run-through of the show. I was singing the Jesus role and he came up to me afterward and gave me a big hug. He was very complimentary and very kind, and I got to tell him that story.
“There’s a part of our show when Jesus is brought in front of King Herod, and he does this big flashy number in front of Jesus and taunts him quite a lot. So after I told him my story, for about two hours, I was just on my knees pretending to be Jesus while Alice Cooper screamed in my face. And it was one of the most surreal, amazing experiences. I’ll never forget it.”
Q: NBC has produced several of these throwback live productions. Why do you think they are so popular?
“I really believe that entertainment, in general, is cyclical. Back in the earlier part of the 20th century, the movie-musical was a huge part of the entertainment industry. Going all the way back to Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers and then of course with Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye and all these musical performers, these things were part of our industry from the start. And it’s been a long time since that’s been represented in pop culture. NBC took a risk with Sound of Music (2013) being the first one that was done on TV in 56 years, and it really hit a chord with people. This is so nostalgic. I think it was one of those things that people realized, ‘Oh yeah, this is a thing! This is something that we all enjoy!’”
Q: When you look back on your involvement with Jesus Christ Superstar, how do you think you’ll feel about the experience?
“I am having the time of my life. I’ve starred in Broadway shows. I’ve done work that I’m proud of. I’ve done work that I’ve been challenged by and that I’ve enjoyed. But nothing has felt quite like this. This means a lot to me. This musical, this score, this rock album is something that’s been in my life since I was a child. My parents introduced me to this when I was young, so it feels like home to me. To be part of the process that creates this thing for a new generation is so extremely special, and I honestly cannot believe I’m getting to do this. Just going to rehearsal every single day is exhausting and challenging for so many reasons, but it never ever, ever, ever feels like work.”
Q: How did your education at UCF help prepare you for a career in theatre?
“The Bachelor of Fine Arts track in musical theatre at UCF accepts a certain number of students every year, so it’s a very hands-on program. You become very involved with your professors and your fellow students. Having that personal touch be my introduction to the art form was a pretty unique experience. It was wonderful and helped shape the way I look at what I do. I try to look at everything as if it’s a cohesive family unit. Each project has its own family and we all have to work with each other and for each other in order to make things happen. I think that’s one of the great things about going to a program like UCF. It’s so personal.”
The live broadcast of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ will be 8 p.m. Sunday, April 1, on NBC.