" The standout performance comes from Josh Young as a vocally lustrous and charismatic Judas Iscariot, well known for betraying his onetime mentor with a fatal kiss. In Mr. McAnuff's production that kiss is particularly fraught, since the show trains a subtle focus on the tense triangle among its three central characters - jesus, Judas and Mary Magdalene.
" Mr. Young's Judas sings repeatedly of his disappointment at Jesus' betrayal of his ideals. But the hungry looks Judas repeatedly casts suggest that sexual jealousy plays no small role in his decision to turn the object of his agonized affection over to the Roman rulers, to whom this " King of the Jews" is a prickly thorn in the side."
Back in the 20th Century, actors could only dream of waking up to such a rave in the Times. In the 21st Century cyber fantasia we live in, Mr. Young learned of it when a friend excitedly brought Isherwood's rapturous report to him at the post opening night party at the Hilton Hotel. " Thank God", an exhausted Young sighed in relief, who having missed some previews, was still fighting a respiratory virus.
It's a miracle he got through the performance at all and to his great credit, was able to conquer the extraordinary, taxing musical demands the role of Judas imposes on any full-bodied, healthy singer/actor. Andrew Lloyd Webber's unyielding score is not a walk in Central Park !
" I respect Mr. Isherwood very much and am much indebted to him and the few others who caught my performance and spoke well of me," Young said the afternoon after his breakout performance.
Isherwood’s “Hosannas” were reminiscent of the outstanding reviews Brent Carver, Young’s veteran Stratford colleague, received in 1993 for his Tony Award-winning breakout performance as Molina in the Livent production of Kiss of the Spider Woman, the Kander and Ebb musical directed by Harold Prince. Carver appeared as Roman Prefect, Pontius Pilate alongside Young in the world premiere engagement of Jesus Christ Superstar at the Stratford Festival, but chose not to join the company for its subsequent engagements in La Jolla and now on Broadway.
Young’s achievement was all the more stunning because he was sick. On opening night, he was still battling the tail end of a respiratory infection that had totally knocked him out of the last few preview performances, including press nights. So, many reviewers missed him, but saw his understudy, Jeremy Kushnier, instead. Chris Jones of the Chicago Tribune, who had seen Young’s performance last summer at Stratford, called Kushnier’s Judas “formidably intense, rich and complex for the work of an understudy, (but it) does not come with the same Goth intensity as Young's more sensual Judas, pushing the disloyal Apostle more toward personal panic than besotted manipulation.”
Young called upon every ounce of “Dr. Greasepaint” to get through Thursday’s opening night. No question. For him the show absolutely had to go on. Now, his remarkable success is more than a personal vindication. It’s a testament to his grit and fortitude, the same attitude immortalized in 42nd Street (which Stratford just happens to be presenting this season): “Sawyer, you’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” Now, there’s an attitude about as catching as Young’s infection.
Having his family there also helped him make it through, giving him added inspiration and energy: “It means the world to me and even more to them I imagine,” Young told Theatre Books by e-mail. (He preferred communicating electronically because he still was resting his throat.)
“It was a very hard show in that I was under the weather. But having an audience who was so supportive meant the world.
“(Also), I’m so completely humbled by the lovely notices I’ve received on my work as Judas,” he continued. “And (for you to) mention (me) in the same line as Brent is a great joy as I have learned much from watching that man work during his stint as Pilate in Stratford,” he continued.
When asked what he feels about his prospects for winning a Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical as Brent Carver did, he said “I would be delighted to get any positive attention that would help this truly deserving show have the long run and (attract the) international audience it should have.”
Isherwood pointed out a specific aspect of Young’s performance that added a rarely considered motivation for Judas’ betrayal of Christ: “sexual jealousy.” “The hungry looks Judas repeatedly casts (at Jesus) suggest that sexual jealousy plays no small role in his decision to turn the object of his agonized affection over to the Roman rulers, to whom this “King of the Jews” is a prickly thorn in the side,” he opined.
The idea that Christ may have been a homosexual—and, by association, Judas and maybe even all of the apostles-- is a hot potato, to say the least, that authors and playwrights have explored for centuries from Shakespeare’s Elizabethan contemporary Christopher Marlowe (who was persecuted by the church for this “heresy”) to contemporary playwright Terrence McNally who addressed the issue to great controversy in his 1997/1989 play Corpus Christi.
This aspect of Young’s performance, his jealousy of Mary Magdalene (as played by the vastly talented Chilina Kennedy), did not seem readily apparent in his Stratford performance. Was this issue “too darn hot” for Stratford? Young vigorously denies Stratford audiences were too prudish, saying “whatever is seen is something that organically evolved and there was never anything we felt would be “too hot" for Stratford.
“I believe there has always been a sense of jealousy in terms of the mutual affection and attention Mary and Jesus give to each other,” he continued. “We may have delved a bit deeper as our characters have developed over the past few months, but I believe lots of people will see different things. I'm happy about that.
“I love that audience members interpret what they're seeing in their own way. Judas' sexuality is something that was completely left up to me and I think I'm going to keep the audience guessing and making their own opinions based on what they're feeling from their seat.”
After being cast as the greatest ratfink of all time, Young set out to discover and learn everything he could about Judas so he could make his character as complex and real as any human being. There is not much written about Judas’ life before he became an apostle, so Young developed a “back story” about an Israelite activist obsessed about being oppressed by the occupying Roman army.
One source Young readily admits he missed was New York playwright Stephen Adly-Guirgis' outstanding and provocative play The Last Days of Judas Iscariot. In it, the writer imagines the trial of Judas in purgatory. The play causes audiences to re-think Judas’ role in helping Christ fulfill his destiny as the Messiah, mankind’s saviour. Guirgis’ play argues Judas could be considered sympathetic, that he was a patsy, a fall guy unjustly punished for helping Jesus bring God's will to pass.
“Hard to believe, but no, I've not seen the play,” Young confesses. “I would love to have the chance as it sounds just fascinating. But yes, the idea that Judas (acted the way he did) to fulfill a divine covenant is not one that has passed us by."
“ Many other ancient texts suggest the same, and (the lyrics of) one of my songs (`Damned For All Time/ Blood Money’) led me to believe this is the message Lord Lloyd Webber and Sir Tim Rice intended: "…and further more I know that Jesus thinks so too, Jesus wouldn't mind that I was here with you."
“This occurs just prior to Judas telling the priests where they can find Jesus. I've said it before and I'll say it again, I don't think Judas knew by telling them where to find Jesus that he was condemning him to death. I absolutely consider Judas sympathetic in every aspect.”
Young arrived at Stratford in 2010 to play another Lloyd Webber/Tim Rice character, the anti-hero in the high-flying adored production of Evita, opposite his Magdalene, Chilina Kennedy who portrayed the scheming wife of Argentine dictator Juan Peron. (Serendipitously, a new Broadway revival starring Ricky Martin as Che, is now his neighbor, just a few blocks away.) Playing Che, and now Judas, had an unexpected perq. He got to meet his idol, arguably the greatest musical theatre tenor of our time, Colm Wilkinson.
The Irish-born Wilkinson is now a Canadian citizen who makes his home in Toronto’s Rosedale. (I always wondered what you would get if you blended Irish whiskey with maple syrup.) A friend and associate of Stratford music director’s Rick Fox, Colm made his debut as Judas in London’s West End and, as C.T. Wilkinson, created the role of Che on the original white Evita concept album opposite the great Julie Covington who portrayed the title character.
Colm made the drive down Highways 401 and 8 to catch Young’s performances in both Evita andJesus Christ, Superstar. Young was beside himself with excitement and vividly remembers the original Valjean and Phantom of the Opera’s generosity, encouragement and friendship.
“He was the loveliest and most complimentary man I've ever met,” Young recalled. “I told him how much his work has impacted my life and he told me I'm now his role model and how much my work affected him. (It was) tongue in cheek I'm sure, but it still made me feel elated. We had very much the same interaction after the opening of JCS in Stratford.”
When asked whether he would like to star in Wilkinson’s upcoming directorial debut, the Theatre 20 Canadian musical Bloodlines, Young gushed “I would love to work with Colm in any capacity. He is a hero of mine, for sure.”
Yet, Young has no plans to leave Jerusalem Boys soon. He plans to stay with the show “as long as NYC will have us,” he confides, proudly. “Similarly, I would LOVE to return to Stratford in a season not too far away. My affinity for the Stratford Festival is beyond words at this point. What roles are on my bucket list? … Billy Bigelow in Carousel, Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, and (the title character) in (Sondheim’s) Sunday in The Park with George.”
For now, this American-born, newly minted Broadway super nova is rootless, confessing he “doesn’t know here to consider home.” “Obviously, I'm living in NYC right now,” he continued, “but I would like to start a family eventually and I would like that family to be raised in Canada, I believe.
“That said, I would love to continue to work in both countries. I love what people like Brent Carver, Colm Wilkinson, Colm Fiore (and) Christopher Plummer have been able to do as bi-national actors. I'd love to join them in that category.”
Before he had to dash away to put on his makeup and don his costume for Friday night’s show, he described what it’s like for an entire Stratford company to travel en masse to Broadway and…for him and many of his colleagues… to make their debuts on the Great White Way in a hit production: “It's surreal. It's unreal. I'm just trying to take it all in and hope it leads us all into great rewarding careers in the theatre.”
Finally, he sends a message back to Canada, to Stratford and beyond: “Folks back home? Come see my show!! I’m only an hour-and-a-half away! Folks in Stratford? I miss you and want to come back soon.”