Emmy episode analysis: Sara Bareilles (‘Jesus Christ Superstar’) lends breezy, soulful vocals to intense rock opera

Sara Bareilles has had no shortage of accomplishments over the course of her career as a singer-songwriter, earning six Grammy Award nominations and two Tony Award bids in recent years. Now, with her turn as Mary Magdalene in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim’s Rice’s musical “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Bareilles has added an impressive accolade to her resume, earning a Best Limited Series/Movie Supporting Actress Emmy nomination, her first as an actress.

In “Jesus Christ Superstar,” Bareilles portrays Mary Magdalene opposite EGOT winner John Legend’s Jesus. The musical follows Jesus’ final days, in which Mary tries to comfort Jesus after the exhaustion and aggravation his overzealous followers often cause him, while grappling with her own affection for him. At this weekend’s Creative Arts Emmys, “JCS” won a whopping five trophies.

Could Sara Bareilles take home her career-first acting trophy for her performance in “Jesus Christ Superstar”? Let’s explore the pros and cons.

SEE Emmys 2018: ‘Jesus Christ Superstar: Live’ could break the awards curse of this landmark musical

PROS

Bareilles’ vocal style could not be better suited for the role of Mary Magdalene. In contrast to the overwhelmingly powerful, rock-operatic songs that characterize Webber’s score, Bareilles’ soothing yet nonetheless heart-felt vocals beautifully stand out as moments of refreshing introspection. While Bareilles deftly handles the up-tempo numbers like “What’s the Buzz,” it’s classic songs like “Everything’s Alright” and “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” where Bareilles truly shines. The latter, in particular, serves as a showcase for Bareilles’ singing and acting talents, with the camera work and her performance creating the requisite intimacy of the number in spite of the immense size and relative barrenness of the staging.

While undoubtedly a supporting role, Mary Magdalene rarely ever leaves Jesus’ side. Bareilles’ close proximity to Legend throughout the musical ensures that viewers never forget her character’s presence, even when she doesn’t partake directly in the action of a given scene. Even though Bareilles’ big songs occur during the first-half of the musical, Mary shares a few key moments with Peter (Jason Tam) after his denials of Jesus, nicely concluding her arc with the reflective and redemptive duet “Could We Start Again, Please?”. The shot of Bareilles’ Mary during Jesus’ crucifixion should prove indelible in the minds of Emmy voters, too.

SEE ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ interviews: John Legend, director Alex Rudzinski and more discuss acclaimed NBC musical [WATCH]

CONS

Live musicals have an unproven track record at the Emmy Awards, particularly in the acting categories. While previous live musicals have garnered numerous Emmy nominations, including NBC’s “The Sound of Music Live!” (2013), “The Wiz Live!” (2015), “Hairspray Live!” (2016) and FOX’s “Grease: Live!” (2016) and “A Christmas Story Live!” (2017), “Jesus Christ Superstar” is the only one thus far to break through in the acting categories. While the musical’s three acting bids for Bareilles, Legend, and Dixon indicate a higher level of support than previous live musicals amongst Emmy nominators, Emmy voters may not demonstrate a similar enthusiasm to the musical genre.

The Mini/Movie Supporting Actress category overwhelming favors veteran actresses. Since 2010, for example, legends such as Maggie Smith (“Downton Abbey”), Jessica Lange (“American Horror Story”), Ellen Burstyn (“Political Animals”) and Kathy Bates (“American Horror Story: Coven”) have all claimed the trophy. This year, the trend could favor an actress such as Judith Light (“Assassination of Gianni Versace”), who has yet to take home a Primetime Emmy despite her 40-year career on the small screen, or Penelope Cruz (“Assassination of Gianni Versace”), an Oscar winner with her career-first Emmy bid who currently leads Gold Derby’s combined odds.

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