The Grammy, Oscar and Tony winner, 39, will play the title role in NBC’s upcoming Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert — and PEOPLE caught up with Legend before he takes the stage on Easter Sunday to talk growing up in church and how he got into character for the beloved rock opera.
“[Composer Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyricist Tim Rice] imagined what a real human being would think going through betrayal and the challenge of joining together with your friends to fight against oppression. My job is to embody that,” Legend, 39, tells PEOPLE of playing the Son of God alongside Sara Bareilles (Mary Magdalene) and Alice Cooper (King Herod).
Adds the performer: “I think Jesus in real life was a bit of a revolutionary — he was somebody who was disrupting the status quo and provided an example for how we could all love each other, how we think about people who have been looked down upon and what it means to sacrifice oneself for something that you believe in.”
Legend grew up in a “very Christian” home in Springfield, Ohio, where his mother was a choir director, his grandmother a church organist and his grandfather a pastor.
“The message I took from growing up in church was the idea of loving your neighbor, giving to others and treating people as you would want to be treated,” says Legend. “You can learn those things in any religion or without religion, but that’s where I did.”
And the star says his childhood in the church changed his life.
“I was in choir rehearsals every week as a kid, and I took over the choir when I was older,” he says. “That was the foundation of my career; I wouldn’t be where I am without playing gospel music in church.”
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Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert airs Easter Sunday, April 1 at 8 p.m. ET on NBC.