NBC’s ‘Jesus Christ Superstar Live’

Jim Hutchison • May 2018Spotlight on Staging • May 14, 2018

United Staging and Rigging Provides Backbone for 2018 Live Broadcast on Easter Sunday

An estimated 9.4 million television viewers tuned in on Easter Sunday 2018 to see John Legend, Sara Bareilles, Alice Cooper, Brandon Victor Dixon and a large cast of superstar performers give television life to Jesus Christ Superstar Live on NBC. The timeless, iconic songs and a large live studio audience made the performance differ from previous live broadcast musicals NBC has produced: The Sound of Music Live (2013), Peter Pan Live (2014), The Wiz Live (2015) and Hairspray Live (2016), all performed and broadcast live, but without a live audience, from the Grumman Studios in Bethpage, NY. Jesus Christ Superstar Live was not only performed live, it included a live audience. Close to 1,300 saw the show on Easter Sunday as it unfolded before the cameras on an elaborate set constructed within the Marcy Avenue Armory in Brooklyn’s Williamsburg neighborhood.

Providing the beautifully designed mural walls, major amounts of scaffolding elements, lighting and scenic automation was a company that is growing exponentially but still considers itself small enough to be personally invested in every project. That company is United Staging and Rigging.

United Staging and Rigging began in 1986 in Norwalk, CT with a mission to serve the New York City theatrical market as a reliable source of staging, chain motors and other theatrical equipment. After 13 years of successful business operations and relationship-building, the company opened a second office was opened in Boston in 1999, serving the New England market. The company has continued to grow and, in 2004, they added their Retail Sales department to provide expendables along with trade show and theatrical supplies. In that 30-plus-year span, they have taken on projects requiring anything from sales to project management, fabrication and implementation.

“We started in 1986 with Larry Morley. I came aboard in 1999 as a truck driver and throughout that time took on numerous roles throughout the organization where it led me to where I am today,” says United Staging and Rigging president, owner and project manager Jon Sharpe. “In the fall of 2015, I purchased the company from Larry, and before that, I had been running the operations for several years, so it was a logical step for me to take over. We’ve started some new directions, but focusing on what we really do best and building on some services that we hadn’t really taken advantage of.”

The company has a very direct approach to their specialized skillset, and the people who work there take great pride on being masters of safety and production. As the company name suggests, “our skill is staging and rigging,” says Sharpe. “Surprisingly, not everyone knows we do both. I think everyone has equipment and everyone has gear, but what we do really well is execute a level of service for the client and their shows, and we pride ourselves on our dedication — I think we have an incredible team of people, we do a quick turnaround on the front-end side of the work. We have a high level of execution, commitment and follow through that makes us a quality company.”

Sharpe says that the organization’s main asset is the level of quality their people provide for their clients’ productions. “The people within our organization are what make the difference at United Staging and Rigging, not a motor, or a stick of truss. We compete with massive corporations that are tiling themselves together left and right, and I think that our people make a major difference for our clients.”

“We take a stance that every show has to succeed, our clients have to look good, and if we fail at that, they’re not going to call on us again,” says Sharpe. “In this world, you are only as good as your last show, and we have long time clients who have been relying on us for many, many years.”

Jesus Christ Superstar Live: A Production Q&A

Along with United Staging and Rigging owner Jon Sharp, PLSN reached out to others at the company for their take on NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live project. These crew members included Chris Whitacre, the company’s head production rigger on Jesus Christ Superstar Live; Todd McDonald, general manager of the Connecticut office, who also serves as the company’s fall protection and rescue plan administrator; and Tag Mendillo, the company’s business development associate.

Pods of lights backlight the scaffolding. The production at Marcy Ave. Armory in Brooklyn, NY was broadcast live and included a live audience.

PLSN: How did you get involved with this production?

Jon Sharpe: “We worked with NBC on some of their live productions in the past — for Peter Pan Live and The Wiz Live, we were the rigging equipment supplier, so we were very familiar with the members of the team. Right around Christmas of this last year [2017], they reached out to us, and we started seeing renderings — we put together our quotes and started building a budget for the production. Our specialty is knowing what works and what doesn’t, and helping the production realize their vision.”

The crew erects the stage.

One of the main differences between NBC’s previous televised live musicals and this event was the inclusion of a live audience, which created particular challenges for the production team, Sharpe notes.

Jon Sharpe: “When we had worked on these shows in the past, there was no live audience — that particular aspect added a different element for the planning and execution for the production that we knew had to be right.

Tag Mendillo: “The live audience element lent itself to the artistic and creative vision of the show, what the producers wanted for the show, which we felt was pretty intuitive. You had band members onstage, people using the scaffolding elements as part of the story, which brought a whole timeless and futuristic feeling simultaneously. It was a pleasure being a part of this production.”

United Staging and Rigging transformed the Brooklyn Armory’s cavernous interior.

What were some of United Staging and Rigging’s duties?

Jon Sharpe: “Our particular component of the show was the staging decking under the scenery, all of the overhead rigging for lighting and scenery and all of the audience seating. The challenges in the design and in the venue, which were overcome by meticulous planning by our people — like the rigging and automation for the large scenic walls from Scenic Technology and the large upstage lighting walls that required a high level of planning and execution from our team.

“Our work is the structural side of the business. We let other people dress it. The main stage decking alone — you actually saw very little of it with the exception of the very edge. We used two different brands of stage deck on Jesus Christ Superstar — a Steeldeck brand product, and our own in-house brand we call Uni-Dec. The designer did not want to see any portion of the stage decking with the exception of the aluminum extrusion edge of our in-house product. We supplied to Scenic Technology negative extrusions that allowed for a fast, appealing fit for the railings and support components that went around the entire area.”


Did you encounter any issues or challenges during load-in for this major installation?

Chris Whitacre: “The space itself is not the friendliest, but that’s the challenge of working in our industry. The building is very large — approximately 88 feet to the Steel in the center of the room. Natively, there was no fall protection, and we had to make the safety of the workers a priority and install fall protection throughout the ceiling as the very first step. We supplied 54 different lifelines and 30 self-retracting lifelines, and all the riggers were coached on rescue protocols and worked in pairs so everyone had a buddy to mitigate any issues in a rescue situation.”

Jon Sharpe: “We also had three full time personnel on site, fully certified in Rescues from Fall. No one climbed alone.”

Chris Whitacre: “We went in at 8 a.m. on Feb. 28 for pre-rig and the initial mark-out of the venue — a large portion of that day was to provide safety for the crew of [IATSE Brooklyn] Local 4, we strung fall protection through the roof to ensure the safety of the technicians from the Local, to make a safe space to work. From there, we proceeded to do the initial chain hang and pre-rig, and by the end of the day on February 30, we were about 90 percent complete, with the 220 plus chain motors required, and ready to accept the lighting and scenic pieces. From March 4, lighting and scenic came in.”

Jon Sharpe: “We were very lucky to have a venue like The Armory to work in. Initially, we could pull entire semi-trucks in and turn them around, which made for the start of an incredible load-in. Obviously, though, as components got assembled, space filled up quick as the deck came in and was put in place.

“We spend a lot of time getting it right in the design phase with our projects — this one in particular. All of our clients are as important to us as the largest and smallest, and their shows are the same way. We invest our time making the process from modeling to drawings to tooling up — and with the Jesus Christ Superstar Live project, we were putting stage deck 28 feet in the air above some of the scaffolding, so meticulous amounts of planning went into the project to ensure the absolute best possible outcome for the show. But regardless of the size of the show or client, this is the quality of work we put into all of our work, we see no other option but the best, safest and most efficient way.”


Can you share a little about the future direction for United Staging and Rigging?

Jon Sharpe: “Some of the things we’re doing with the company lately have been very exciting. We designed our own stage platform, which is fabricated in house, and we’ve been utilizing it with great success on many of our projects. We’ve also developed a new type of ballast block with a floating attachment plate that Chris [Whitacre] developed that allows us to place a ballast block within a foot of where   implemented an in-house metal shop to fabricate custom devices that make our shows go in and out easier. We are constantly and continually pushing to innovate and improve the methods in the industry not only for the benefit of the company, but the benefit of our clients’ productions.”

Todd McDonald: “Adding the fabrication shop onsite was an immediate success for our internal and external manufacturing operations — when we first put the shop into operation, we had so many projects coming through the fabrication area that we doubled the space to keep with the demand. We make a lot of innovative components to increase the effectiveness of our time onsite and in planning, and our fabrication shop has been an absolutely excellent addition to the daily operations here at USR.”


McDonald also noted the company’s growth.

“One thing we’ve seen in the growth of United Staging and Rigging just since my joining the company in the last five years is going from more of a dry-hire rental shop to a full-service production planning and implementation company. What we have to offer competitively ties directly to our growth, while maintaining the mindset that every show is our clients’ most important show. Our people care about each project like a small shop, and even though we’ve grown exponentially, we still maintain the mindset that our clients need the dedication and attention to their projects that we’ve had since we were still a small company. For us, it’s not just a show or a deck or some rigging, it’s way more pertinent for us because our people sincerely care about our clients’ needs.”

Jon Sharpe: “We focus hard on what we do — we’re not trying to be everything to everybody. We focus on rigging and staging, we focus on what a production rigger is going to need for the bag of tricks and tools they need to perform flawlessly. We don’t do lighting; we don’t do sound. We specialize in rigging and staging, and we speak that language fluently, daily. We analyze problems to come up with creative solutions and keep a wide array of tricks up our sleeves to accomplish these things for our clients and their shows. On the staging side, it’s the same thing — we get down and dirty with the math and the technology to provide the structural integrity that’s required. This is the side of the business where we excel, that’s where our passion lies.


NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live



NBC Staff:

Co-Executive Producer: Javier Winnik

Production Manager: Jeffery Small

Production Manager: Christie Acquazzino

Staging Supervisor: Tony Hauser

Production Carpenter: Roger Desmond

Scenic Designer: Jason Adrizzone-West

Art Director: Mellissa Shakun

Transportation Captain: Scott Roth


United Staging and Rigging Staff:

Project Manager: Jon Sharpe

Production Rigger: Chris Whitacre

Assistant Production Rigger: Dan Bura

Assistant Rigger/Staging Supervisor: Mauricio Moreno

Head Staging Supervisor: Mark Sherwood

Head Scaffolding Supervisor: Josh Hurley

Staging Supervisor: Ben Barnes

Draftsman: Jeff Miller

Fall Protection/Rescue Plan Administrator: Todd McDonald

Rigging Account Manager: Andrew Wilkinson


Local #4 Labor:

IATSE Local 4 Crew Chief: Jobie Gabrielli



From United Staging and Rigging:

18       Semi-Trailers (Total gear)

9          Semi-Trailers (Staging gear)

7          Semi-Trailers (Rigging gear)

2          Semi-Trailers (Scaffolding gear)

750     Stage decks for the main stage

2,600’ Truss

225     Chain motors (CM Lodestar & 1-ton ChainMaster D8’s)


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