Fox live musical ‘The Passion’ takes unique approach to Jesus’ story

Jencarlos Canela stars as Jesus in The Passion, airing live from sights all around New Orleans on Palm Sunday.
Jencarlos Canela stars as Jesus in The Passion, airing live from sights all around New Orleans on Palm Sunday. Fox

Who knew that pop music and power ballads could be so effective as church hymns?

The music of Whitney Houston, Jason Mraz, Tears for Fears, Tina Turner and Katy Perry has been repurposed to tell the story of Jesus’ final days on Earth, from the Last Supper to the Resurrection.

Miraculously, the presentation manages to make perfect sense.

The unconventional mashup — the 2,000-year-old New Testament story combined with a playlist of contemporary music hits — is a major part of what makes The Passion a one-of-a-kind project.

The ambitious special airs live from New Orleans at 7 p.m. Sunday on Fox. (Sunday, to Christians, is Palm Sunday, which begins Holy Week that leads up to Easter on March 27.)

Imagine the conversations that executive producer Adam Anders must have had while trying to get permission to use such songs as Houston’s My Love Is Your Love, Mraz’s I Won’t Give Up, Tears for Fears’ Mad World, Turner’s We Don’t Need Another Hero and Perry’s Unconditionally.

“It’s an unusual request, to say the least,” Anders says. “I would say to the artists, ‘I want Jesus Christ or Judas or Pontius Pilate to sing your song on live television.’ And they were like, ‘Seriously? That’s not a religious song.’

“It took a lot of explaining, but the fact is there are many songs that are pop hits that also have deeply spiritual undertones.”

By using contemporary music, Anders believes, The Passion will breathe new life into the age-old story.

“The idea is to frame the story in such a way that people can relate to it today,” says Anders, a Grammy-nominated music producer whose TV work includes Glee (as the executive music producer).

The Passion originated on Dutch television in 2011. Broadcast live from a different city each year, it has quickly become a national tradition.

“I first saw it in Holland a few years ago,” the producer says. “It was all in Dutch. I didn’t know the songs or what they were saying. But I was blown away by the scope of it and how people embraced it.

“Holland traditionally is not a churchgoing country, but more than half the country watches it and it’s growing every year, which speaks to the power of the story and also how inclusive it is.

“I was like, ‘How can we bring this to the U.S.?’ So I became friends with the creator, Jacco Doornbos, and we set off on a quest to get it on American television.”

Casting the son of God

After coming up with an eclectic lineup of pop songs that U.S. viewers will know (other selections include Train’s Calling All Angels, Creed’s With Arms Wide Open, Imagine Dragons’ Demons, Phillip Phillips’ Home and Celine Dion’s Love Can Move Mountains), the producers put together their dream cast, which includes Chris Daughtry (as Judas), Seal (Pontius Pilate) and Trisha Yearwood (Mary).

I cannot fill Jesus’ shoes. No one can ever fill those shoes. But what I can do is take viewers on a journey.

Jencarlos Canela, who stars as Jesus in ‘The Passion’

The pivotal role of Jesus, meanwhile, is played by actor/singer Jencarlos Canela.

“It’s a huge honor and it’s exciting,” Canela says. “We’re talking about the biggest icon ever to walk on earth. I cannot fill Jesus’ shoes. No one can ever fill those shoes. But what I can do is take viewers on a journey, show the spiritual side of me and show that Jesus is in every single one of us.”

The role came to Canela in a curious way.

“Fox initially reached out to me about doing Grease Live!” he says. “They wanted me for the role of Johnny Casino, but I could not do it because we were busy doing publicity for Telenovela.

“Thankfully, Fox was still interested in working with me. Since I couldn’t commit to that role, they said, ‘Well, how about this?’ It’s quite a jump from Grease to The Passion, from Johnny to Jesus.”

Canela marvels at the ingenuity of the song selection.

“I think Adam Anders did an incredible job choosing songs and remaking them to fit the context of what this is all about,” he says. “My favorite moment is when I sing Calling All Angels. It’s a very vulnerable moment that Jesus has with his father.

“He prays because he’s upset and frustrated, because he feels fear and pain, doubt and anger, and I think it’s a powerful moment because it’s important for people to remember that Jesus was also flesh and bone. His vulnerable moments in The Passion are very moving.

“I also love what we’ve done with Katy Perry’s Unconditionally and with the incredible song by Celine Dion, Love Can Move Mountains. We’ve got an amazing 40-piece choir. When their beautiful, heart-warming, spine-chilling, jaw-dropping voices come together, it adds so much impact to those songs.”

Symbolic setting

The producers chose to bring The Passion to New Orleans a decade after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina because the city is a symbol of suffering and of resurrection.

As the story unfolds live from some of New Orleans’ iconic landmarks, there simultaneously will be a procession of hundreds of people carrying an illuminated 20-foot cross from outside the Superdome to the live stage at Woldenberg Park on the banks of the Mississippi River.

“New Orleans also has such a rich music history and a very spiritual side,” Anders notes. “So we thought it would be very appropriate for the first Passion.”

That’s right. He said the FIRST Passion.

“The idea is to make this a tradition,” Anders says. “If it does well, if the public responds the way we think it will, we could do it again and again and again, with different casts and different songs in different cities across America. The only thing that will never change is Jesus’ story.”

The Passion

  • 7 p.m. Sunday
  • KDFW/Channel 4