On the eve of the biggest gig of his life, Tim Minchin has been packed off to a hotel by his wife to dislodge a nagging cold. Not that he is too concerned about a sore throat or a dose of the sniffles: according to the award-winning Australian songwriter, he’s had to deal with minor irritants on a daily basis since it was announced he would be starring in one of the most controversial and talked about shows in recent years.
Last Friday Jesus Christ Superstar kicked off its UK-arena tour, with Minchin playing Judas Iscariot alongside former Spice Girl Melanie Chisholm – as Mary Magdalene – Chris Moyles as King Herod, and Ben Forster in the title role.
If the latter’s appointment through TV show Superstar caught the imagination of the public, it also ensured that the offstage antics surrounding the show have been every bit as dramatic – and entertaining – as anything taking place in rehearsals.
The opening salvo in the war of words was fired at the start of the year by original lyricist Tim Rice who described Andrew Lloyd Webber’s plans to find the new lead for their 1970s musical through the TV show as “tasteless” and “tacky” while there is one phrase bandied about in theatre industry circles in recent months that is guaranteed to annoy Minchin.
I haven’t been gifted this role because I became famous on Big Brother
“I can’t tell you how much the term ‘celebrity casting’ infuriates me,” he says. “As someone who has never been in a gossip magazine I do not deserve the contempt of the term ‘celebrity’. I haven’t been gifted this role because I became famous on Big Brother.”
As someone who has worked their way through the pubs and clubs of Australia and the UK, though, isn’t there a nagging doubt that using a TV talent programme to fill the title role is just too simplistic, that it cheapens the original show? He’s having none of it: “People expect me – as a young, iconoclastic comedian and songwriter – to have a problem with anything popular and broad but not only do I not have a problem, I am completely uninterested,” he says. “The same as people expect me to hate We Will Rock You or Mamma Mia! just because I co-wrote an original musical [Matilda], but I don’t see them as the same art form.
“There is a false dichotomy, drawn by people in the industry, that there are TV casting shows on one side and then, ‘proper’ casting.
“I’m not supporting nor not supporting TV casting shows, there is no doubt they are created for financial reasons – but I don’t have a problem with wanting to sell tickets and if you want to do an arena version of a rock musical you have to sell a lot of tickets to justify the cast.”
Minchin is quick to defend Forster:
“He’s been in the industry for 10 years, sung in three West End shows, four years in Thriller, but he wasn’t being auditioned anymore, he wouldn’t have got an audition for [Jesus Christ Superstar] because the casting people have decided he wasn’t on their list.
“And I have sympathy for that. I was rejected by every agent in Australia when I was starting out, no one would represent me because I didn’t fit into a particular box and I wasn’t a trained musician or performer but history has perhaps proven that perhaps I have something to give.”
He also believes that the narrative of Jesus Christ Superstar offers another important emotional strand to the hype surrounding the casting of his co-star.
“This musical is about how this guy called Jesus starts getting a bit wrapped up in his own popularity. Judas opens the show and says: ‘If we strip away the myth from the man, we’ll see where we all soon will be. Jesus you’ve started to believe the things they say of you’.
“It’s all an examination about what happens to this dude when he gets caught up in his own press, and what is interesting is that Ben, the person, is having to deal with some of the things that Jesus, the person, was having to deal with in this modern telling of the story – people fawning over him on one side and then criticising him on the other.”
It’s probably fair to say that controversy seems to follow Minchin around; in 2008 he performed The Song For Phil Daoust on stage, which lacerated the Guardian ‘journaloust’ who had giving him a one-star review at his Edinburgh Fringe debut in 2005 (sample lyric: ‘find yourself a job that you’d be better at/like killing yourself you f***ing c**t) – “I actually felt terrible about writing that” – while last Christmas a song he wrote for ITV’s Jonathan Ross Show – which referred to Jesus Christ as a ‘zombie’ and a ‘telepathic vampire’ – was cut from transmission, allegedly for fear of upsetting Christians.
One always feels in this industry that you have something to prove. The more people know about you the more you feel that
When they refused to show the song – ‘Woody Allen Jesus’ – on the show, Minchin posted the footage on his website – and all hell broke loose. Several months later he told a Hay Festival audience that he hoped his daughter would die in a car crash – but only to illustrate his point that wishing something does not make it come true. Some found it distasteful.
Does he enjoy courting controversy? “Not in a conscious way, though I am interested in turning anger into comedy,” is the reply.
Since Minchin’s songs helped Matilda win a record-breaking seven Olivier Awards in April this year, he has been hot property in the theatre industry yet there is a nagging doubt within him that certain people within – and without – the business are waiting for the fall.
“When you become successful half the population puts you on a pedestal, and half the population treats you with less respect than you would have got if you were collecting their bins.”
So does he feel he still has something to prove?
“Absolutely,” he shoots back. “One always feels in this industry that you have something to prove. The more people know about you the more you feel that.”
Jesus Christ Superstar is on tour until October 21