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The Passion: Chris Daughtry and EP Adam Anders preview the Fox musical

‘It doesn’t look like the typical picture of the Jesus story that we’ve seen growing up,’ the ‘American Idol’ alum teases

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Michael Becker / FOX

Hot off its hit musical Grease: Live, Fox trades in the T-Birds for the New Testament with The Passion (airing March 20 at 8 p.m.). EP Adam Anders and star Chris Daughtry reveal the divine plan behind the project.

BURNING PASSION

Passion plays are nothing new. But when executive producer Adam Anders (Glee, Rock of Ages) saw a large-scale modern take on Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection staged in the Netherlands two years ago, he knew he had to bring it Stateside. The Passion, written by Peter Barsocchini, will be three productions in one: a musical, a drama, and a procession in which hundreds of people will carry a 20-foot cross through the streets of New Orleans. “It’s really complex and stressful,” Anders tells EW. “I think I’ve lost 10 years of my life!” As for the contemporary twist, Anders believes that gives their show a broad appeal, and Chris Daughtry thinks it offers a fresh take. “It doesn’t look like the typical picture of the Jesus story that we’ve seen growing up,” the American Idol alum says. “It’s not a dude in flip flops and a robe.”

SCOUTING A HOME

Anders and his team considered Boston, Atlanta, and New York for the production, but he felt the Big Easy best embodied the spectacle’s spirit. “No city knows suffering and resurrection more than New Orleans,” Anders says, speaking to Hurricane Katrina. “They’ve come back stronger than ever.” And they’ve embraced the production — from providing police escorts through the French Quarter to mayor Mitch Landrieu volunteering to be part of the choir. “The scenery that it’s providing is stunning and there’s such a vast history to that city, and the culture and diversity,” Daughtry adds. “It’s the perfect location.”

RAIDING THE JUKEBOX

Don’t expect too many harps and pan flutes, though: The pop-heavy soundtrack relies on covers of hits like Celine Dion’s “Love Can Move Mountains” and Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally.” “Some songs are completely changed,” says Anders, who arranged the tunes. “Some it’ll take you the whole song to recognize. There are a lot of musical surprises.” For Daughtry, who was feeling nervous and excited about the production when EW spoke with him by phone last week, a major interest was the way that the narrative redefined the songs, particularly with his versions of Evanescence’s “Bring Me To Life” and Imagine Dragons’ “Demons.” “It’s cool performing [those songs] and knowing the scene and the context and how very different [they] become.” (For the full track list, click here.)

CASTING CHRIST AND HIS COHORTS

Finding the Son of God was no easy task, but Jencarlos Canela (Telenovela) made quite a first impression, via FaceTime no less. “I was struck by how kind his eyes were,” Anders says. “I know that sounds cliché.” Daughtry, meanwhile, came to mind when Anders contemplated who could sing “Demons.” “He’s probably offended that [he’s] the person that pops into my head when I think of Judas,” Anders quips. On the contrary, says Daughtry: “[Playing] the bad guy sounds fun.” Rounding out the intriguing cast: Trisha Yearwood as Mary, Seal as Pontius Pilate, and Prince Royce as Peter, with Tyler Perry hosting and narrating.

HOPING FOR HEAVENLY RETURNS

Expectations are high, seeing as Grease: Live sped away with 12.2 million viewers, beating out The Wiz Live! and Peter Pan Live!. “It’s very important that Jesus gets high ratings,” Anders half-jokes, adding his desire to stage the musical annually with a different city, cast, and songbook, in part as alternative programming to The Ten Commandments on Palm Sunday. “Hopefully we’ll get through it and the weather will be great,” he says. “There are so many variables. That’s what makes live TV awesome.” And worthy of a little prayer or two.

Michael Becker / FOX

A version of this story originally appeared in Entertainment Weekly issue #1407, on newsstands now or available digitally here.