BWW Interviews: Breaking Bread with GODSPELL'S Hunter Parrish
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by Joseph F. Panarello
A careful look through the New Testament indicates that Jesus Christ liked to eat. In addition to the notable Last Supper, he dined at the home of Martha and Mary; grilled fish at the seashore; multiplied loaves and fishes; was a guest at a friend's wedding at Cana; and ate with friends on the road to Emmaus. After healing Peter's mother-in-law, she got up and prepared a meal for Him and His coterie. It's a small wonder then that Hunter Parrish, who plays Jesus in the Broadway revival of GODSPELL, chooses to be interviewed over lunch at one of his favorite Chelsea eateries.
Parrish, who appears in the Showtime series WEEDS, doesn't exactly fit The Common concept of what Jesus looked like. He doesn't have long hair, a beard or scars on his hands and feet. Rather, the actor has stylishly feathered blond hair, azure blue eyes and a complexion so clear that it's ready for any close-up that a Hollywood director might request. Oddly, he's a tad shorter than one might expect because he seems to tower over his on-stage cohorts in the Stephen Schwartz musical. He is, however, outgoing and intelligent. After a few minutes of conversation, it becomes apparent that he's also quite spiritual and considers himself a "liberal Christian."
Born in Richmond, Virginia and raised in Plano, Texas, Parrish is the son of an occupational therapist and an engineer. The actor/singer got his start at a very young age performing in church cantatas, where his parents recognized his budding talents and got him involved in many local productions; invaluable experience. As he matured, he studied with two coaches, Kathryn Hart and Nancy Chartier, who he credits with guiding him in the honing of his skills.
It was in 2003 that Parrish began his television career with a role in THE GUARDIAN and sometime thereafter he did a tape that consisted of "making out with a beautiful girl". He soon forgot about it and was filming an independent movie in Montana when he got a call telling him that it had gained him a trip to meet the creator and the executives at the Showtime Network. "In television jargon, that's called 'going network' and it was after that meeting I was told I had the job," the actor remembers As he recalls the moment, Parrish still seems to experience some incredulity about its reality. The television series will soon begin its eighth season. The young actor has since appeared in guest shots on such series as CSI: CRIME SCENE INVESTIGATION and CLOSE TO HOME. He's also appeared in feature length movies, most notably in IT'S COMPLICATED, the 2009 comedy starring Meryl Streep and Alec Baldwin. In that film, Parrish is seen as Luke, Streep's youngest son. Currently in release is the movie LAKESHORE'S GONE.
WEEDS gave Parrish quite a bit of exposure and it was at that time he did a live, in-person audition for a Broadway-aimed musical entitled SPRING AWAKENING. Again, the actor pretty much forgot about doing the tape when he was called upon not for the first cast, but as a replacement in the role of Melchior. It turned out to be an experience he treasures to this day. Still he has some regrets. "You see, as an actor, one of the things I enjoy most is the rehearsal process. As a fit-in, I didn't have the opportunity to explore the character in the studio before facing an audience. I ultimately did get to explore Melchior, but that was in performance. It's a little different."
His run in SPRING AWAKENING made Hunter Parrish a familiar topic on theater message boards and he became very popular at the stage door. When this topic is broached, Parrish chuckles in an abashEd Manner that reflects the pride and embarrassment he experienced by being so popular with the audiences that the musical attracted.
Now he finds himself playing Jesus in a show that is very popular with the same demographics that SPRING AWAKENING attracted. When Jeff Fenholt played the title role in the original 1972 production of JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR, he was quoted in Ellis Nassour's book Rock Opera as saying, "Sometimes I dread walking out the stage door. You know, I think they forget they are only seeing an actor on stage…I have gotten letters from women asking me to find their lost husbands, from others asking for a miracle cure. It's terribly frustrating because they want desperately to be helped, and I can't do anything." Parrish hasn't experienced anything like that at all in this GODSPELL. "People seem to appreciate what I've done in the performance and I've gotten many letters thanking me for 'the journey' that they've been taken on. They seem very eager to share their appreciation for that. In my opinion, I'm just the person who gets up there and says the words. I feel that God moves in the way He wants to move. I don't think anyone would look at me and think I could change anything in their lives. I truly respect people who have appreciated my performance. Audience members have written to me about that and it's nice…but there haven't been any requests for miracles," he adds with a laugh.
It seems a bit incongruous for a young man with a religious background and solid Christian beliefs to be appearing on a television series in which marijuana sales play a strong and repeated role. After all, Parrish's Playbill bio concludes with a reference to Matthew 7:13 ["Go in through the narrow gate, because the gate to hell is wide and the road that leads to it is easy, and there are many who travel it." GNFMB] How does the actor reconcile performing in WEEDS with his spiritual nature?
Parrish becomes pensive before responding and he exhales slightly before verbalizing his thoughts. "It's difficult. I chose to do WEEDS eight years ago and that was a time before I had any spiritual maturity. It's my belief that we, as humans, have the choice to pave our own paths and that God's going to use us as best He can regardless of the path we choose if we are so willing. It may not have been His choice for me to do WEEDS but He's been doing His best to use me as His tool for the last eight years. That's pretty much how I view it at this point in my life. Some time in the future I may gain more spiritual maturity and realize that it wasn't something that God appreciated. For now, though, I'm grateful for the opportunity. It's changed my life and in a strange way it's actually brought me closer to Him. The bottom line is I have to pay the bills." There's another short pause and his thought process pretty much works its way across his face. :"With maturity," he continues, "I might have made some different decisions. I went into the series with naiveté .but it's opened doors for me. Certainly I wouldn't have gotten this show or SPRING AWAKENING had it not been for WEEDS. I guess what I'm saying is that WEEDS may not have been the choice God wanted for me eight years ago but He chose to lead me here, therefore I can't look back."
"I believe that doing GODSPELL at this point in my life has been very good for me and for many other people; some really great people who will remember our show . There are lots of new theatergoers coming to this production, like the group of seven year olds who were really touched by what we did. They came up to the entire cast afterwards and said, 'That was so amazing! Thank you so much!' They were seven years old and this was their first Broadway experience. I remember my first Broadway play and that's why I'm an actor!"
One of the most theatrical moments in this production of GODSPELL is the Crucifixion. People may recall the original version of the show when Stephen Nathan simulated the death of Christ on a chain link fence. It was both appropriate and effective for that particular stage. The current version plays at the Circle In The Square Theater and such a staging wouldn't work in-the-round. Without resorting to "spoilers", director Daniel Goldstein has devised something that not only works dramatically, but adds a spectacular dash to the last ten minutes of the musical. It's also something that requires enormous stamina and concentration on Parrish's part. Jeff Fenholt had problems performing that scene in the original SUPERSTAR, saying, "When you have to die eight times a week and try to reenact the Crucifixion with dignity and without overdramatization, it gets to you after a while. I think it's made me more neurotic." Parrish doesn't quite agree. "It's difficult, that's for sure, but I doubt very much that it's made me neurotic in any way. I could become emotional and there are times when I come close to that, but I just have to focus on what I'm doing and stay in-the-moment." Parrish may be keeping his emotions in check for the Crucifixion sequence but many people in the audience were dabbing their eyes with Kleenex during that pivotal scene at a recent performance.
There is a moment in GODSPELL that has puzzles those who have any familiarity with Scripture. The Gospels clearly state that Judas betrayed Jesus with a kiss, yet in both the original production that played at Off Broadway's Promenade Theater and the current Broadway revival, it is Jesus who kisses Judas on the cheek. Why was such a liberty taken with a show purports to be based on Matthew's Gospel?
Hunter Parrish takes a deep breath and another pause before addressing this particular question. "Wow!" he says. "That's a loaded question! My connection with the story is pretty strong. I obviously have my ideas and beliefs of how things should go down. I also understand that my place as an actor is to do as I'm told. Our director had another vision for that. At first I fought it a lot. I said, 'That's not how it happened and we're going to confuse a lot of people who are sitting in the audience. We might even influence the forward motion of people being affected by this story because they'll be trying to figure out why Jesus is kissing Judas. That's not what happened.' Our director did not agree. That's cool. Actually what he wanted for that moment was less about being true to history and more about showing Jesus' forgiveness and compassion despite Judas' act. There's no scripted line of 'Father forgive them for they know not what they do' in this show and that was Danny Goldstein's moment for that to happen. I believe that's what that particular moment is about."
GODSPELL, as most theatergoers know, has a wonderful score. "Day By Day", "Turn Back, O Man", "On The Willows", "We Beseech Thee" and "All For The Best" are just a few of the songs that the audience comes into the theater humming. This version of the show adds a tune from the movie version, "Beautiful City", which Parrish performs in sensitive and effective rendition. "We dropped it a half step," he mentions. It comes at the end of the show and I've been singing and talking the whole time. I was never going to be able to hit in the simplistic way that it should be performed if I was struggling for the notes. So we dropped it a bit and it was a good choice." It definitely was because "Beautiful City" is one of the loveliest moments in the show. It also serves as a fine segue into the more serious moments to follow.
Hunter Parrish has branched out and has written a few tunes that he's recorded on an EP which is being sold in the theater lobby. It is titled "Guessing Games" and will be marketed more broadly soon. "It's a chance for me to show people that I write my own music and to share other aspects of myself," he said. "GODSPELL has given me plenty of encouragement and I feel now is the time to explore another side of me." The EP is selling well.
Parrish confesses to having a favorite moment in GODSPELL. "We have this segment after Telly [Leung] sings "All Good Gifts". At that point we all hold hands going into the circle quickly and releasing really quickly. It's a great moment for us to gather and check in with each other as a cast. In the second act there's the moment when we all say goodbye to each other, so there's that moment, but after "All Good Gifts," there's that quick moment for the ten people on stage to be with each other. I look forward to that at every performance"
At the end of the conversation with Hunter Parrish, there hadn't been any miracles. No water had been turned into wine, no loaves or fish had been multiplied, nor had any tilapia been grilled over any charcoal fires. What was left was a very positive impression that Hunter Parrish is an actor who has great gifts and cares very much about his craft. Just as the Biblical tradition has a woman named Veronica having an imprint of Christ's face left on the cloth she wiped His visage with, Hunter Parrish leaves an imprint on the minds of audiences with his talents. Over a casual lunch, that imprint includes a strong sense of intelligence and appreciation for those he works with.
To purchase tickets for GODSPELL, go to: http://www.godspell.com/