Peaches Christ Superstar is not a joke, Merrill Nisker would like you to know.
The Toronto-born, Berlin-based electro-rap provocateur better known as Peaches insists that her one-woman rendition of the Andrew Lloyd Webber rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar that she's bringing to Toronto on Tuesday is 100 per cent serious.
"It's not in any way parody or irony," says Peaches, from her Los Angeles hotel. "I'm just completely letting the music speak through me."
Peaches - whose raunchy albums include The Teaches of Peaches, Impeach My Bush and I Feel Cream - has been a fan of the musical about the last days of Jesus Christ since her boyfriend gave her the movie soundtrack when she was 15-years-old. Ever since, she's sung along to songs like I Don't Know How to Love Him, Everything's Alright and Superstar in private - and she's not the only non-pop musician to do so.
"It's one of those closet rock operas that everybody sings along to," she says. "I know a bunch of rockers who love it even though they hate musicals."
Peaches had secretly mulled the idea of doing solo performance of the musical for a long time. So when Berlin's Hebbel Am Ufer Theatre asked the envelope-pushing artist if she wanted to do a show, she suggested: Peaches Christ Superstar. To her surprise, the avant-garde theatre's artistic director went along with it, and she quickly enlisted fellow Canadian, Grammy-nominated musician and producer Chilly Gonzalez - a.k.a. Jason Beck - to accompany her on the piano.
The musical's rights holders in Germany weren't so sure about the project, however - and initially denied Peaches permission a month before the show was scheduled to debut earlier this year. "They weren't really sure what I was up to," recalls Peaches. "They didn't understand why there was a production of Jesus Christ Superstar that didn't have dancers or sets or major large orchestra."
Disappointed, Peaches headed to Twitter to vent, writing in angry all-caps: "PEACHES CHRIST SUPERSTAR CRUCIFIED BEFORE OPENING NIGHT!" And through the magic of social media, her story made it into the New York Times, the Observer in London, a number of Broadway blogs and soon enough reached the computer screen of Jesus Christ Superstar lyricist Tim Rice, who wasn't so pleased that his 1971 musical - which had been condemned by religious groups in its debut and even banned in South Africa - was getting bad press for inhibiting another artist's project.
Lo and behold, Peaches Christ Superstar was resurrected. In a "test" performance, Peaches managed to win over the German affiliates - and Rice, as well. "He loved how it brought in a younger audience," says Peaches. "When [Rice and Webber]first wrote it they were [young]and wanted to be rock stars. I think they peaked with this one."
Indeed, it is often forgotten - due to Lloyd Webber's post- Cats and Phantom of the Opera middle-of-the-road reputation - that the original 1970 concept album of Jesus Christ Superstar was a bona fide rock album that hit the top of the Billboard charts. Ian Gillan, the lead singer of Deep Purple, sang the part of Jesus and New Wave singer Murray Head (who sang One Night in Bangkok for the musical Chess) sang Judas, while the band included electric guitarist Neil Hubbard who played with Joe Cocker and Roxy Music.
Peaches keeps mum about whether she's a fan of Lloyd Webber's subsequent musicals - "I really like this one," she says, after a pause - but she's clear what she doesn't like about musical theatre these days. "I'm really confused by jukebox musicals. The songs are fantastic, but I think they're just stringing stories along to get you to the next song."
What she admires about Jesus Christ Superstar is that there's no dialogue - everything is told through the music. Her experience singing it in Berlin inspired the 44-year-old musician to create her own "rock-electro opera" called Peaches Does Herself in which she strung together songs from her four albums.
But wait - wouldn't that qualify as a jukebox musical, à la Mamma Mia! where pre-existing songs are arranged into a story. "It's an anti-jukebox musical!" Peaches insists of the show she premiered two months ago, again at the Hebbel Theatre in Berlin. "The whole story is told through the songs."
In Peaches Christ Superstar - which has been on a pre-Christmas North American tour - Peaches doesn't act out the parts either - there's no "looking into the air hoping that you see the character that's not there," she insists. She distinguishes between characters by "changing timbre and tone."
Might she want to perform in a musical with more than one actor in the future? "If it's challenging and interesting, sure, why not?" she replies. Too bad Des McAnuff has already cast a Mary Magdalene for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival's production next summer.