Over the past half a century, Alice Cooper has perfected the role of rock's greatest heel. Every night onstage, he mimes fighting and killing his costumed stagehands while singing dark-hued hits like "I'm Eighteen" and "School's Out" until he gets his comeuppance when he's strapped to a life-sized guillotine. So when it comes to extracurricular activities like acting, such as his upcoming portrayal of King Herod in NBC's live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar this weekend, he almost begs to be typecast.
"Wouldn't you know that they would give me the part of the villain?" says the singer, who is mild-mannered and very funny offstage, a hint of amusement in his voice. "When this opportunity came across, they said, 'Hey, why don't you be in Jesus Christ Superstar?' And I said, 'I'm either Judas or Herod, right?' And they said, 'Herod.' I said, 'OK, I knew that was coming.'" He laughs.
It helped, too, that Cooper has tackled the role before. In 1996, he recorded a version of "King Herod's Song" – a playful, almost vaudevillian tune mocking Christ's powers – on a London cast recording of the production, though he didn't act it onstage. The liner notes of a recent compilation of Superstar composer Andrew Lloyd Webber's works called it the "definitive" recording of the song.
"That was a brilliant way of doing it, and it's going to be fun to see him on the NBC show," Lloyd Webber tells Rolling Stone. "The Alice Cooper way, of course, is the old rock way of doing it, which was great. He was terrific."
The new performance will feature John Legend as Jesus and Sara Bareilles as Mary Magdalene when it airs on Easter Sunday, April 1st. Cooper, who's currently on tour and recently announced new summer dates, caught up with Rolling Stone before rehearsals commenced for the new production to discuss just why he wanted to reprise the role.
Have you always been a fan of Jesus Christ Superstar?
When it first came out there was controversy about whether or not it was blasphemous or genuine. It was really, really well written and well done. Godspell had come out around the same time, but I loved the way they took [Jesus Christ Superstar] in a different direction.
Since you're a Christian, is it hard for you to want to play Herod?
No, no, no. In the back of my brain, there are times when I get really mad when I read the Passion Play on how Jesus was treated, and it really angers you. Then at the same time, you go, "Oh, wait a minute, I'm playing the part of one of the guys that does this." I look at it purely as a piece of art, and it's directly out of the Bible. I might have a harder time playing Judas than I would playing Herod. It would be hard to play the guy that stabs him in the back.
When it came out, you were just starting out as a pioneer of joining rock and theater, too, and you perfected it by the mid-Seventies. But it wasn't quite like Superstar.
What we were doing with the Welcome to My Nightmare shows like that were these gigantic, pretty-much Broadway productions. Except it was our version of Broadway, so we tried to make it this scary, vaudeville version.
"Herod's Song" is perfect for you because it is sort of vaudeville.
Yeah, and it's very cynical, and he's very cynical. To prepare for the role, I keep thinking, "Who's the most cynical character that this could be?" And I keep coming back to Alan Rickman. He would have been the perfect Herod. So that's the way I want to do it. Now the director might say, "We want you to do it vaudeville" or, "We want you to do it much darker and scarier," so it really depends on how they want me to do it.
What do you remember about when you recorded it in 1996?
Tim Rice asked me to do it. He is a very good friend of mine, and I was really complimented when he asked. He said, "I want you to do it the way Alice would do it." So it did have a certain nastiness to it. I wanted to keep it rock and make it sound like it would be on one of my albums. You could make it really rock if you added guitar solos rather than the hokey breakdown in the original one. But I don't know if they'd want to do it that way.
How close are you to Tim Rice?
I've known him for years and years. I've been to his house and he's a real record collector – the more rare, the better. So I would bring him things like test pressings from [Cooper's debut] Pretties for You. We became friends on that level right there. He's a very cool guy.
Has he given you any thoughts on how Herod should be portrayed?
The thing in common between him, me and Bernie Taupin, who was my best friend, is that we were all lyricists. Tim listened to my lyrics more than the music, and he always like the way I wrote. And I really admired all the stuff he had done before, especially the fact that everything he touched with Andrew was a mega hit; he was the perfect guy for Andrew.
He'll probably be there for rehearsal, so when I get in there, I can just ask him straight up, "I can take it three or four different ways, but how do you want me to do it?" He's got a great sense of humor. I always like people where 90 percent of the time they're having fun, and he seems to be one of those guys. He doesn't take it so seriously. With some of these guys, if you say the wrong word at the wrong time, it's the end of the day for them.
Have you had any thoughts about changing the words?
There are so many great lines you can use in this thing. At the end of it, when Herod goes, "Get out of my life," I've already thought of at least 10 lines that would be good to go there. Like, "It's good to be the king," like Mel Brooks. "Hey Jesus, you gotta do better than that," like king to king. It's like he's calling him the king but not meeting in it at all. So we'll see what they let me get away with at the end of it.
Are you nervous at all about doing this on live television?
No. One thing that's good for me is the fact that I am more comfortable with a live audience than I would be with just a studio. That's because I'm in front of a live audience 99 percent of the time.
Have you met John Legend yet?
I've passed him at the Grammys and things like that. I think he's the perfect choice for Jesus. He's got that peaceful sort of demeanor. Being Jesus Christ, you have to have a certain peace about you, and I think he has that. I can't see anybody being really aggressive in that role.
You have to have the right chemistry between your roles.
If he's playing Jesus the way it is in the Bible, he's very quiet. And that drives Herod crazy, because Herod wants a reaction from this guy. He does everything he can to get under his skin and make him lose his temper. At the end, he just realizes he's not going to crack this egg. I don't even know who the rest of the cast is at this point. I just know John Legend.
Sara Bareilles will play Mary Magdalene.
Oh, she's gonna be great. I wonder if they're going to fill it with rock stars. Whoever plays Peter has got to be somebody who's kind of brash, sort of outgoing. He's the only one that was the gung-ho guy. All the other disciples went back into the background, where as Peter was like, "I'll stand by you no matter what." And of course he denies him three times.
Who would make a good Peter?
It might be interesting to see somebody like [former Skid Row singer] Sebastian Bach. He would have that big presence. Ted Nugent would be good, too.
Sebastian Bach previously played Jesus in a production of Jesus Christ Superstar!.
Oh, did he? He's perfect for that. If they could get Marilyn Manson to play Judas, that would be good.
Well, that would be ...
Watch John Legend, Alice Cooper and other members of the cast offer a behind-the-scenes look at the upcoming live production of Jesus Christ Superstar.