Style: The Way I Was: Jesus Christ, crucified by the press: Paul Nicholas tells Nicholas Roe how he discovered what it meant to play the Messiah

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Indy Lifestyle Online
THIS IS from a really crusty album of mine, under the title 'Paul, the day after winning the Jesus Christ role in 1972'. It shows me looking rather uncomfortable and . . . I wouldn't say the word is 'surly', but not thrilled.

What had happened was I had just been fed to this press call announcing the first man to play the title role in the rock musical, Jesus Christ Superstar. A great many people found that a deeply offensive title and I was completely unprepared for the press scrum.

Up until then I'd been doing Hair, which was my first job in the theatre and was just a game to me. It was the greatest laugh ever, just a party every night. I ended up being artistic director at about 24 or 25 which was a doddle, and then I heard about Jesus Christ Superstar and went along to audition.

They made this big play about it: 'Who Will Be Jesus?' - I remember the headlines - and about 3,000 hopefuls turned up, but after about six or seven appearances I got the part.

I was thrilled, obviously, but I didn't really know the game at that point. I just thought 'Why not?' I didn't even think about God.

Then I had to face the press and I finally realised what I'd let myself in for. I went along dressed as I am in the picture, which was not particularly starry, to say the least. The shirt was appalling and I've got tennis shoes on and these awful jeans. I just look a bit of a mess, to be honest.

They took me down to one of the bars at the Palace Theatre and there was this great wodge of pressmen waiting for me. It was like one of those B-movies where you think no one can behave like that in real life. They all grouped round and started firing questions: 'How does it feel to be playing Jesus Christ?'

Well, what do you say? 'It's a great honour'? 'It's very nice'? I think I just told them it was nice, because I was totally flummoxed by the whole situation, because I'd never been exposed to it before. It was a star vehicle and I was bewildered by it.

Then they said, 'Right, now's the time to go to this local church', and they got me posing in the churchyard itself. What one of them did, though, was manoeuvre me so that in the background, over my right shoulder, you could see a real live nun who was obviously having lunch.

Well, there's a caption there somewhere and I think at this point even I with my bewilderment and inexperience had realised what they were trying to do. You can see it in my face. I'm thinking: 'OK, a quick one here and then we move on.'

I think if I'd offered to go and sit next to this nun and give her a big French kiss they would probably have bought that as well. Nowadays I'd know better.

The show was a hit, though, and it was an exciting time for me. In a way it was a kind of watershed, because I didn't have any real career focus until then. I'd been involved with rock'n'roll before Hair, but after this I decided to try to learn a bit more about the theatre, because I liked it. I went and did a show called Grease, in fact took over from Richard Gere, then went off to the Young Vic for a while.

I didn't consider God or religion while I was doing Jesus Christ Superstar. I can't say I'm a believer, you know.

The only experience I had that did affect me was the Crucifixion, in rehearsal, that first time. What happened was that the cross came up through a hole in the stage and went up and up, carrying me with it on a frame so, to all intents and purposes, it looked as if I was hanging there, while they played this piece of music by Andrew Lloyd Webber called 'John 1941'.

I felt, I don't know what, I felt so sad, I felt so naked there, and the moment just took over and I started to weep. It welled up. I guess maybe it was the culmination of the press and getting the part and the hype, but I couldn't stop crying. It was a release of all those things, and it came out at this one moment.

Paul Nicholas is starring in 'Barnum' at the Dominion Theatre, London.

(Photograph omitted)