Mostly, attending live television events that are being taped for broadcast, or even being broadcast live, is not as much fun as you might think. The show isn’t really set up to entertain an audience that is, essentially, there to play an audience; the finished product for air is the thing, and actual guests have to roll with long pauses and behind-the-curtain production stuff that can mess up the momentum.
That was the case for those of us watching The Passion Live, live, in New Orleans at an elegant, glowing-heavenly-white stage by the Mississippi River, in a park next to an aquarium, a casino and two malls. Since most of the big singing numbers were pre-recorded, the TV audience was the only one that got to see the performance as Fox and host/narrator Tyler Perry intended; the rest of us shivered in an unusually frigid wind off the river, watched the pretaped segments on LED screens and puttered around during commercial breaks and unavoidable backstage action. (“Please step away from the cross… we need to clear the area around the cross, please.”)
It was very, very cold there. During commercial breaks, the two choir groups would retreat immediately into group hugs to stay warm. I heard one of the guitarists say that he was only playing half of the notes, because his fingertips were so numb. There was also no bar, which is extremely unusual for public events in New Orleans. (There was a concession stand selling Pepsi, water and Sierra Mist.) The Steamboat Natchez, a paddlewheel riverboat that usually does tourist cruises with a jazz band up and down a short stretch of the Mississippi, was docked next to the stage and served as production offices, VIP viewing stands and apparently later, the after-party. It did have a bar that was open to performers’ guests, and during the commercial breaks, I mostly looked longingly at VIPs drinking hot tea on the boat, tried to guess who was a guest of Seal and waited for text updates from a friend working backstage. (“Seal is on his phone.”)
Still, there were some hilarious, interesting parts to the pre-recorded segments. When Jesus and Peter strolled through the Quarter together onscreen—just two good-looking dudes walking around the French Quarter, hugging each other a lot, which is indeed very common there—Peter paused and looked soulful in front of a French Quarter gallery window displaying a painting of a cat playing a trumpet, captioned “Catchmo.” The location under the bridge where Jesus gets dragged away by the NOPD was also where they filmed part of one of my favorite ‘90s local rap videos, for Code 6 and Ice Mike’s version of the Mardi Gras Indian chant “Let’s Go Get ‘Em.”
Tyler Perry is from New Orleans and I am not, so I hesitate to NOLAsplain to him (although the location was already chosen before he was tapped to host), but the program seemed to inexplicably miss out on a lot of what it could have mined from the city. New Orleans is bound up in ritual and heritage, and Holy Week here is full of spiritual and religious traditions that could have informed The Passion. On St. Joseph’s Day, bars, private homes and black and Italian-American churches put out huge spreads of food and open their doors to people who go altar-to-altar eating and praying. On St. Joseph’s Night, Mardi Gras Indians run in the streets.
Those are just a few of the things that might have put some New Orleans juice into the production, which instead gave us Catchmo, a little bit of Spanish moss and a bunch of ‘90s and early-millennium mostly-bland pop sung mostly blandly, spawning the hashtag #Gleesus. On New Orleans Twitter, we used #KreweOfJesus. The best performances came from Yolanda Adams, of whom we saw way too little; Trisha Yearwood, who was gracious, charming and professional, even though she had to spend more time than anyone outside the poor huddled choir on the freezing stage; and Seal, as a Bond-villainous Pontius Pilate singing Tina Turner in a warm-looking, sharply-tailored topcoat.
But with all The Passion’s shout-outs to New Orleans’ ongoing recovery post-Katrina, it seemed like a major and unfortunate omission not to put more actual New Orleans music in the show. The only musical nod to the host city was the closing “When The Saints Go Marching In,” with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band’s marching ensemble PresHall Brass (featuring drummer Joe Lastie, a member of the same musical family that includes Trombone Shorty and Jessie Hill, who made a killer gospel album a few years ago). And “Saints” is the cheesiest, most ubiquitous New Orleans song. There’s a famous sign behind the stage at Preservation Hall listing prices for requests: “Traditional $5, Other $10, ‘Saints’ $25.” (According to estimated budget numbers available through Louisiana Economic Development’s website, “The Passion Live” spent about 9.4 million dollars here, which I guess buys them “Saints.” )
The live audience that really seemed to have the most fun, and arguably the most New Orleans experience, was the group that accompanied the giant light-up cross on its procession from the Superdome, through the French Quarter and over to the stage. It went up Bourbon Street, past Galatoire’s and strip clubs and a lot of drunk people, plus a guy dressed as the Easter bunny and a street performer wearing devil horns and leather underpants playing “Formation.” Like any other New Orleans parade, it created its own kinetic, organized mayhem.
Many folks, it should be said, seemed to have genuine spiritual experiences. Not counting enlisted persons in the Salvation Army in full uniform (who, incidentally, made me think Guys and Dolls would be great for one of these live-TV theater treatments), lots of the volunteer cross-bearers and other onlookers really were creating their own ritual. The New Orleans Advocate reported that a woman from Biloxi, Mississippi, a breast cancer survivor who made the trek as part of a plan to walk across the country shirtless and displaying her double mastectomy scars, wept at the sight of Tyler Perry’s light-up cross. And she wasn’t the only crier. Wrapped in their quilts and coats, the cold-numbed crowd by the river was full of them when the cross finally turned up. People were waking up their toddlers to make sure they saw it (and, unfortunately, to listen to Tyler Perry’s weirdly visceral description of how one dies from crucifixion). If this sounds fun to you, be of good cheer. The giant cross is reportedly being put into storage, for a possible sequel in another city—maybe yours.
Alison Fensterstock is an arts and culture writer in New Orleans.